Th impact of the Second World War on British Cinema

Length: 1033 words

The Second World War was a pivotal event not just for Britain but also for the rest of Europe. In the wake of the end of the war all art forms embraced questions about war in particular and human conflict in general. One of the important British films to emerge in the Second World War milieu was The Battle of the River Plate. Though the film is largely drawn from real historical events surrounding the war, it is a feature film and meant for entertainment. Though the story is broadly consistent with historical record, the dialogues were almost nearly invented. The challenge for the film maker venturing the world war genre is the upkeep of historicity. The British audience has always allowed a fair license for fiction in the genre for the imperatives of the narrative form. Even allowing room for fiction, the ultimate success depends on the degree of authenticity that the filmmaker could bring to his representation of real history. It is for this reason that critics were quick to question director Powell’s choice of shooting existing warships, because,

“neither the Jamaica nor the Sheffield bore any resemblance to the original cruisers and credibility

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is strained when, for example, one sees an aerial shot of one of them in the middle of the battle with its guns secured fore and aft, or when after the action they are shown looking undamaged…Even in a far from totally successful British film Sink the Bismarck!, made in 1960 on another famous naval episode from the war, the sea battles were handled satisfactorily.” (Gilbert, 2009, p. 12)

During and after the Second World War, there was a trans-European focus on questions of existence, human nature, etc. The Existential philosophical movement was a product of this cultural preoccupation. France, which suffered as much loss as Britain during the war, was a nerve centre for post-war art, culture and philosophy. British film industry was open to the abundance of war-related literature that was emanating from France. Indeed, in the fifteen years following the end of the war, as many as nine French novels were adapted into cinema in Britain. And war themes were able to be integrated into various film genres. Some of the famous from the detective story genre include the following: Temptation Harbour (1947); The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1953); The Green Scarf (1954); and Faces In the Dark (1960). Comedies include Too Many Crooks (1959) and Tiger Bay (1959). Notable films from other genres are The Naked Heart (1950), which was set in Quebec, So Little Time (1952) was a romantic tragedy, and Knave of Hearts (1954), was a tragi-comedy of manners about a French philanderer living in London. In addition, “two international film-makers temporarily based in Britain also used novels written by Frenchmen for their large budget productions: Moulin Rouge (1953) and The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)”. (Porter, 2002) These numerous Anglo-French collaborations illustrate the broad geo-political and cultural impact of the Second World War on British consciousness.

It is interesting to note that films on war-themes were made in Britain even as the war was being waged. If Joseph Goebbels masterminded Nazi propaganda efforts, an attempt to match his oeuvre was made by Britain’s Humphrey Jennings. The key difference between the two filmmakers is that, while the former excelled in projection of vitriol and venom through film, the latter’s core focus was artistry and information dissemination. Just as Goebbels understood the new power of the audio/visual medium, Jennings’ great trilogy of war films stand above and apart “from the rest of the propaganda produced by the Ministry of Information’s Crown Film Unit. He was a true war artist in the way that Henry Moore’s drawings in the Underground and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy transcend war and reassert the primacy of the human imagination.” (Porter, 2002) Jennings was also a great East Anglian poet and a key proponent of the 1930s British documentary movement. His trilogy of films was: Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy. These successful films illustrate an intimate and revealing picture of the British national spirit in waging the war.

Finally, though it was the documentary genre that took center-stage during the war, feature films about the ongoing war were also made. When France fell to the Nazi command in June 1940, the Crown Film Unit produced Britain at Bay. The film had contributions from prominent literary figures like J B Priestley. The writer’s most memorable role is in reciting Winston Churchill’s immortal speech “We will fight them on the beaches…” verbatim. Another classic of the genre is Night Mail, whose music was written by Benjamin Britten and whose screenplay was dealt by W H Auden. These two films were relatively grand in conception. But it is smaller films like Ordinary People which had had a powerful impact on the viewing public. The film captured the unraveling of nightmares of the British masses as the Nazi command unleashed the Blitz. As Scottish documentary maker John Grierson noted about such films, they opened up “the screen on the real world… documentary can achieve an intimacy of knowledge and effect impossible to the shim-sham mechanics of the studio, and the lily-fingered interpretations of the metropolitan actor.” (Gilbert, 2009, p. 12)


Coultass, C. (1996, August). The Battle of the River Plate. History Today, 46(8), 23+.
Gilbert, G. (2009, September 3). British Cinema at War. The Independent (London, England), p. 12.
Porter, V. (2002). Strangers on the Shore: The Contributions of French Novelists and Directors to British Cinema, 1946-1960. Framework,43(1), 105+.
CHILLS ‘N’ THRILLS; Spine-Tingling Tension Aplenty in Hammer Films’gothic Horror Tale. (2012, February 10). Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), p. 46.
Classic Face of Horror Returns as Hammer Films Are Brought Back from the Grave. (2007, May 12). Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), p. 19.
Golden Jubilee Special: 1980s Culture: When Greed Was Good but Music Was Mediocre; A Divided Nation, Nostalgia and Bland Pop Music Were the Cultural Trends of the 1980s, Writes Arts Editor Terry Grimley. (2002, June 26). The Birmingham Post (England), p. 16.
Street, S. (1997). British National Cinema. London: Routledge. Retrieved from
Watney, S. (2006). Tunnel Vision: Photographic Education in Britain in the 1980s.Afterimage,33(4), 32+.
Wilson, B. (2007). Notes on a Radical Tradition: Subversive Ideological Applications in the Hammer Horror Films. CineAction,(72), 53+.

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