Nowadays synonymous with dim Guy Ritchie adventures, the uncertain James Bond series and mawkish Richard Curtis romcoms, the British film industry has also been a repository of great art and stilettosharp social commentary. Peter Wix, author of A&M’s regular Continental Film Night blog, offers his personal selection of under-heralded British cinematic gems.
Lists measuring the worth of individual British movies are invariably topped by Lawrence of Arabia and The Third Man, indisputably majestic films whose directors shared the skill of being able to universalise a story. But there is a breed of incisive British-made film that is often tough to watch but immensely rewarding if you find out how to. These works tend to be the most British, having all the charm of yellowed teeth and dog-eared cigarette cards from Woodbine fags, not quite the ingredients for US box office success. Their unique accent and focus emerged from a mirror held up to reflect the surface tension of the everyday in British society, most notably its continual wars and pervading class system. They are the best, purely British cinema product and their intimate, often prying tone is responsible for an evolution preserved today by cinema masters like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.
From the darkest hours of air raids and Fifth Columnists, the eerie Went the Day Well (1942) was a singular piece of unofficial propaganda that helped Ealing Studios serve the cause. Directed not by a Briton but a Brazilian, Alberto Cavalcanti, once on the payroll of the great GPO Film Unit, it must have frightened civilians in its day and is quite a contrast to the genial, post-war Ealing productions full of chirpy, down-to-earth comedy. German soldiers dressed in British Army uniforms take control of a most bucolic English village. The villagers rumble the sinister plot and fight back. There are hardcore moments, not least the self-sacrifice of the village’s upper class heroine as she saves children by picking up a hand grenade and dashing into a room to absorb the explosion. The film is most striking, however, not for its fulfilment of a patriotic mission but for an almost science-fiction atmosphere distilled from a very dry telling of the scenario. Indeed, there is something sinister and alien in itself about seeing all classes pulling together, just as there is about a beautiful English village teeming with soldiers.
One very special film set in wartime but wonderfully far-ranging is Michael Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Of deceptive depth, jaunty on the surface and sad below, like a great waltz, it seems to be a reminder that the old world is being replaced by new attitudes. But it should be understood as a very clever indictment of the idiocy of both. Powell’s sense of history was sharp. He shows the English behaving just as they did throughout wars, i.e. somewhat less reasonably than the worldly-wise and world-weary German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldoff, crafted by Anton Walbrook with charm and intensity into one of the most credible figures of pathos in cinema history. On a train deporting captured German officers at the end of WWI, he says of the British ruling military: “They are children, boys playing cricket. They win the shirts off our backs and now they want to give them back”. The film also avoided being patronising when it came to reflecting the growing influence of women over the men who ran this terrible mess.
The voice of British war films repeated the message “we were right” until the 1960s by which time the war cry changed to “we were downright messy”. In 1968, Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade was attacked for historical inaccuracies, but it remains a gritty, painterly representation
of the British Army under Empire. Charles Wood and John Osborne’s rich dialogue was tucked into with relish by actors of the calibre of Trevor Howard, who gets a gold rosette for all his contributions. The loss of Britain’s prized Crimean cavalry is blamed on the Empire’s shilly-shallying Army leaders at a time when commissions could be purchased. They are condemned with unmerciful sarcasm and exquisite filming which lays bare the contrasting ease and splendour of rich officers and the grime and ignorance of the soldiers recruited for a queen’s shilling. “There is no making without breaking.” Of course, sir.
The subject of silver spoon privileges was poetically thrashed out in another wonderfully scripted demonstration of how much satire inspires British character actors. Harry Andrews, Arthur Lowe and Alastair Sim all shone around Peter O’Toole’s towering evocation of aristocratic madness in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972) “How do you know you are God?” O’Toole’s character is asked. “It’s simple. When I pray to him I find I’m talking to myself.” The image of a House of Lords full of cobwebcovered corpses and skeletons is horrific and memorable. No change, then.
Revealing the hobbling of Britain’s nonprivileged was a life’s cause for Indian-born Lindsay Anderson, who first machine-gunned the public school system in If (1968), then brewed Homer, Kafka, and surrealist humour together in O Lucky Man (1973), both of which starred Malcolm McDowell, a perfect Everyman face to fit the role of Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) by Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who moved to the UK and made some of the best most British movies. Before any of these came Anderson’s brutal This Sporting Life (1963), which is as good as any of the remarkable social realist films of the 1960s, and which features the performance of his life by Richard Harris as a promising Rugby League player who comes unstuck in the scrum of class warfare.
But when it comes to looking back without the anger that seeks to infect and trouble audiences, British cinema has a master of recollection in Liverpudlian Terence Davies. He should be a household name. If he was Spanish or French, his works would be on the school curriculum. More to the point, he would not have struggled to find money for masterpieces like The Long Day Closes (1992). Davies is a realist in the same way as the acclaimed Andrei Tarkovsky. His poetic explorations test how far we can go with reality before we seek the comfort of fantasy and folklore or, as in Tarkovsky’s case, before we are driven to distraction.
Autobiographical and sentimental in the best sense, The Long Day is the tenderest British film ever made. It makes nostalgia for childhood the most elegant thing in the world, using tableau vivant techniques with exquisite technical care for the celluloid itself. Davies’ actors boldly surrender the range of emotion bubbling and boiling beneath the surface of Britain’s toiling souls in the 1950s, a very adult place for a boy to grow up in. One sequence in this film, when a cinema audience becomes a
church congregation, which then transforms into a classroom, is one of the most beautiful visual comments on community inculcation in world cinema. For what he keeps alive, Davies should have monuments erected in his name, but so too Michael Powell, Lindsay Anderson, Arthur Lowe, and all the other stalwarts of an industry whose voice since the 1980s has too often been heard to say “we are American too” and “we do not have the funding”. To have produced more than 200 films from which to choose the best, the British film industry – whatever that might really be – has done pretty well, no? And we haven’t even mentioned television.