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On Cinema

My war stories

The role of the war film in British cinema

“Before the war the British cinema had no tradition,” wrote the critic Dilys Powell. Other nations, she said, had found their themes in the 1930s. The French had the underclass. The Russians had revolution. Americans their thrilling, growing nation. “It took a war to compel the British to look at themselves and find themselves interesting.”

Writing in 1948, Powell was more right than she could have guessed. Over the next three decades, British cinema would cover many subjects, but it would return, again and again, to one. When people ask why older British generations seem obsessed with a conflict that ended before most of them were born, the answer is that we saw it played out before us again and again on the screen.

For most of us these days, it was probably on the small screen. I turn 50 next year, and looking back at my childhood, it feels like every Sunday afternoon Michael Caine was getting shot at on the TV.

In the days before streaming and video recorders, we would often join these films after they’d started, meaning we would have to work out what on earth was going on as we watched. It wasn’t always straightforward. I can still recall the shock, in The Eagle Has Landed, of realising that Caine was now a Nazi.

For many people, Christmas television means a Morecambe and Wise special. For me, it meant The Great Escape, shown each Boxing Day afternoon, when my family would have taken me out for a walk and I would try to hustle us to get back in time to see Steve McQueen jump the wire. I wasn’t unusual. In the playground we played War every break.

But these films weren’t just action fodder. As Powell noted, they were the key that writers and directors used to unlock what it meant to be British. Two of the greatest examples were released in 1942, while the war was still on.

In Which We Serve and Went The Day Well? both feature Britons with their backs against the wall: under enemy fire on a destroyer in the Mediterranean, and overrun by invaders at home. Both are partly stories of class. The first affirms a social order where men know their place on the ship and women know it at home, and the system works.

In the second, the villagers of Bramley End are badly let down by their social superiors, one of them a secret Nazi. It is only when the working people take matters into their own hands that victory is won.

Both films were made with government approval, but neither is strictly propaganda. Victory, we learn, will come but only after defeats. There will be a high price in blood. Leaders are sometimes weak or wicked. In Which We Serve proved immensely popular around the world, even, for all its political conservatism, in Moscow.

The scenes in which men and women learn the fates of distant loved ones must have been recognisable to audiences everywhere.

The staff at Ealing Studios making Went The Day Well? were aware that mysterious men from some ministry or other were lurking around the set, but hardly needed any encouragement to make a patriotic story. They knew whose side they were on.

These were, of course, stories we told ourselves, rather than the nuanced truth, but such stories still matter. The memory of the war was used by both sides in the Brexit campaign, but only the Leave team had Caine playing for them. We have a lot of vivid stories about standing alone, and not many about securing prosperity through international compromise. This isn’t intended as a dismissive point: a campaign that was partly about national identity was bound to reach for national stories.

My children are a generation further away from the war but they have still inherited its tropes

But perhaps we should have noted that a strong theme in these films was vainglorious disaster. One of the movies I love most is A Bridge Too Far. Written by an American, William Goldman, it remains a very British tale: an ambitious plan, not properly thought through, leading to horrible defeat that is, somehow, inspiring.

The makers thought they were producing the biggest movie of the year. They didn’t know about another film coming out in 1977, Star Wars. The camera was moving on. Most of the great war movies of the 1980s would be about Vietnam, a conflict familiar to Americans but alien in Britain.

My children refuse to watch “boring old war films” with me. The pictures are too grainy, the stunts too tame, the stories unfamiliar. They are a generation further away from the war. But they have still inherited its tropes.

George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, had grown up watching war films and the legacy is everywhere. The trench run at the end of the first film borrows from The Dambusters. The Millennium Falcon sequences in both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back owe a heavy debt to Howard Hawk’s 1943 Air Force. And it is hard to imagine the more recent Rogue One being made without someone else making The Guns of Navarone 50 years earlier.

The British are still making war films from time to time, though few rise to the level of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Perhaps we need a new national subject. I’m not sure I’m ready for it, but maybe in a couple of decades our children will enjoy Meaningful Vote On The River Thames.

Robert Hutton’s war movies podcast, A Pod Too Far, returns for a second season this month

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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