I think the only reason to make films that are a reflection on history is to talk about the present.
IT is a truth universally acknowledged - amongst historians at least -that a historical feature film will often have as much to say about the present in which it was made as about the past in which it was set. The idea that films 'reflect' the societies and cultures in which they are produced and consumed is far from being a revelation: it has informed theoretical discourses around film ever since Siegfried Kracauer posited the notion that films provided insights into the collective unconscious of their audiences.2 A film does not necessarily have to be set in a contemporary idiom to be understood in this way, as Mark C. Carnes recognises in the introduction to his book Past Imperfect: 'Even some explicitly "historical" films are chiefly important for what they say about the era in which they were made.'3 In totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, propaganda films used historical stories to make explicit parallels with the present: Jew Süss and Alexander Nevsky, for example, were consciously allegorical films whose meanings were apparent to audiences at the time.4 Elsewhere the meanings have often been implicit: it has become commonplace, for example, to relate the ideological themes of the Hollywood western to the social and political concerns of twentieth-century America.5
This book is a study of different ways in which the British historical film has used the past as a means of 'talking about' the present. It comprises a series of case studies of historical feature films produced in Britain between the 1930s and the 1990s. The criteria for inclusion I will explain in a moment. First, however, it is necessary to define the terms of this study, in particular the question of what and what does not constitute a historical film. The genre label 'historical film' is one of several - others include 'costume film', 'period film' and 'heritage film' - used to describe films whose narrative is set wholly or partly in the past. Although the precise meaning of these terms is contested, particularly 'heritage film' which is a critical label rather than one that has wide currency in the film industry itself, there is a broad consensus among most, though not all, scholars that a historical film is one that is based, however loosely, on actual historical events or real historical persons. Thus it is that the historical film is a narrower category than the costume or the period film, both of which are terms that denote narratives set in the past but that are not necessarily in themselves 'historical'.6
This definition presupposes that there is a difference between 'history' and 'the past'. In this book I am taking history to mean 'the recorded past' or 'the past that we know'.7 As not everything about the past is or can be known, then it follows that history is an incomplete record of the past. It also follows that a historical film is one that is based on the recorded past. The historical film thus includes films based on historical events such as The Charge of the Light Brigade, Zulu (the Battle of Rorke's Drift) and A Night to Remember (the sinking of the Titanic).8 It also includes biopics (film industry shorthand for 'biographical pictures') about real historical persons. In British cinema most biopics have tended to be about either monarchs (The Private Life of Henry VIII, Tudor Rose, Victoria the Great, Alfred the Great, Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Jane, Mrs Brown, Elizabeth) or other famous national figures such as statesmen, generals and adventurers (The Life Story of David Lloyd George, Nelson, The Iron Duke, Drake of England, Rhodes of Africa, The Prime Minister, The Young Mr Pitt, Scott of the Antarctic, Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, Cromwell, Young Winston). However, the historical film in this definition does not include films that happen to be set in the past but are predominantly fictional narratives. Thus it excludes the cycle of Gainsborough costume melodramas of the mid-i94os (The Man in Grey, Fanny by Gaslight, Madonna of the Seven Moons, The Wicked
Lady, Jassy) and the acclaimed literary adaptations by film-makers such as David Lean (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Passage to India) and Merchant-Ivory (A Room With A View, Maurice, Howards End, The Remains of the Day).
It should immediately be apparent that the historical film is an imprecise genre whose boundaries are difficult to define. Henry V, for example, could be classed both as a historical film (chronicling Henry's campaign in France culminating in the Battle of Agincourt) and as a Shakespearean adaptation. What about fictional films that include real historical characters (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Shakespeare in Love) or that are set against a background of real historical events (A Tale of Two Cities, Hope and Glory)? The difficulty of assessing the relative balance of fictional and historical elements in a narrative is exemplified by looking at a film such as Fire Over England (dir. William K. Howard, 1937). This was one of a cycle of expensively mounted historical and/or costume films produced by Alexander Korda in the wake of his success with The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933. It was based on a historical novel by A.E.W. Mason set at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The film is a mixture of fact and fiction. The principal protagonist, naval lieutenant Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), is an invented character, and his mission to rescue his father from the Spanish Inquisition is a fictional adventure story rather than one that is based on any recorded events. However, the film also features real historical characters in major roles, especially Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson), the Earl of Leicester (Leslie Banks) and King Philip II of Spain (Raymond Massey), and its climax is the defeat of the Armada. The Historical Association, which took a keen interest in the representation of history on film during the 1930s, commissioned a review of Fire Over England from two historians which was published in the British Film Institute's educational journal Sight and Sound. Professors Hearnshaw and Neale accepted that the main narrative of the film was 'avowedly fiction and must be judged by standards similar to those we apply to historical novels'. While they felt that 'the historical setting in which the fictional adventure story is shown is fairly sound', they objected to the story itself on the grounds that 'history is once more violated for the sake of melodrama'. 'From an educational point of view,' they averred, 'it seems regrettable and even dangerous to link a famous incident in English history with a purely fictitious character.' The one aspect of the film they did admire, however, was Robson's performance as Elizabeth I, which they considered to be historically and psychologically accurate: 'No one will go far wrong who takes his idea of the historical Queen Elizabeth from Flora Robson. Her interpretation, even her words, ring true; and indeed sometimes, as in the supreme moment at Tilbury, her words are the very words spoken by Elizabeth.'9
As the historical film cannot always easily be defined simply in terms of its narrative, therefore, other features of the genre must be taken into account. A common characteristic of the historical film, for instance, is its tendency to assert its own status 'as history' through the use of devices such as voice overs and title captions to establish the historical context of the narrative (date, place, events and so forth). There is also a tendency, in British examples of the genre, to assert the historical authenticity of the film. This is evident at several different levels: in the production and promotional discourses around the films (statements by the film-makers, publicity materials and so forth) and in their mise-en-scene (especially sets, dressings and costumes). The historical film often quotes from historical sources: thus Zulu uses army dispatches and Scott of the Antarctic includes quotations from the journals of Captain Scott. This quotation extends to the visuals, in that individual shots are often composed to resemble visual records of the past: Holbein's portraits of Henry VIII (The Private Life of Henry VIII), Nicholas Hilliard's of Elizabeth I (Elizabeth), G.W. Joy's painting of 'General Gordon's Last Stand' (Khartoum) and photographs of Captain Scott and his party (Scott of the Antarctic). The historical film thus deploys visual style to create a sense of historical verisimilitude. This verisimilitude (meaning 'the appearance of being real') contrasts with non-historical costume films such as the Gainsborough melodramas which made no pretence of historical authenticity and which displayed signifiers of the past in a highly eclectic way.10
Professional historians, of course, are rarely satisfied with the results of film-makers' efforts to represent the past. For a long time, indeed, many historians had little time for the historical feature film and were interested only in actuality and documentary film that had more obvious 'use value' as primary sources. In the 1930s, when the Historical Association sponsored an investigation of the use of films for the teaching of history, it was mainly concerned with educational films for showing in the classroom. It did, however, reserve some barbed asides for 'the historical entertainment film', declaring that 'history is being exploited by the type of historical film shown in the cinemas' and that the result was 'a sin against truth'. It urged that film producers 'should not sacrifice great historical happenings to the imaginary needs of "telling a sequence", nor pervert history for the sake of box office returns. The liberty of the artist to present scenes beautifully and dramatically does not carry with it a licence for falsification.' It recommended, furthermore, 'that a competent historian be called in for consultation before production, in order to give an opinion whether the general impression produced by the film was likely to be reasonably accurate'.11 The charge that historical feature films misrepresent history in the interests of telling a story has persisted ever since. Chariots of Fire (dir. Hugh Hudson, 1981) was criticised for numerous examples of dramatic licence in its account of British athletes competing at the 1924 Olympic Games. 'I understand the needs of movie producers to make a good film', one historian remarked. 'But there were too many historical inaccuracies. The poetic licence was overdone.'12
The points of contention between historians and film-makers often focus on the most pedantic details and the exchanges can be highly amusing. In general, however, it is those feature films that challenge received wisdoms about the past which come in for the most severe criticism. This is particularly so with films about the kings and queens of England, and is exemplified by the controversies that erupted over two films released 65 years apart. The Private Life of Henry VIII (dir. Alexander Korda, 1933) and Elizabeth (dir. Shekhar Kapur, 1998) were both highly publicised films, championed for the cultural and economic prestige they brought to the British film industry. In both cases, however, historians objected to the films' representation of their royal protagonists. In The Private Life of Henry VIII it was the question of the king's table manners that provoked censure. The Earl of Cottenham regretted that 'a great king should be portrayed to the world as a vulgar buffoon... In this film Henry VIII is held up to the world at large as a strutting mountebank, petulant, shallow, discourteous and of revolting habits.' He felt that the popularity of the film and the laughs that greeted the notorious banqueting scene were 'a sad commentary on our time'. Another correspondent thought it 'a pity that English history should be made cheap and tawdry'. Alexander Korda, for his part, claimed that he had 'tried to give the atmosphere of the epoch' and asserted what has become the standard response of film-makers to charges of historical inaccuracy: 'To judge this effort by the standards of history books, or even historical novels, is certainly an unjustifiable point of view.'13 This exchange took place in the letters columns of the Daily Telegraph, which also led the attack on Elizabeth some six and a half decades later. In this case the controversy centred on the film's suggestion that the 'virgin queen' was in fact nothing of the sort. 'To question Elizabeth's virtue 400 years after her death is not just a blackguardly slur upon a good, Christian woman, but an insult to our fathers who fought for her', an enraged editorial declared. 'It should rouse England to chivalrous anger.' The newspaper cited a leading Tudor historian, asserting that '[t]here is no doubt among serious historians that Elizabeth I died virgo intacta'. The director replied that 'her virginity is a matter of interpretation'.14
That the historical film should provoke such controversy suggests that there is more at stake here than just the issue of historical accuracy. The historical film raises questions such as whose history is being represented, by whom and for whom? The theme of identity is central to the genre: class, gender and specifically national identities are among its principal concerns. The historical film is not merely offering a representation of the past; in most instances it is offering a representation of a specifically national past. National histories are fiercely protected and contested. Nothing better illustrates this than the hysterical reaction in the British press to Hollywood films that distort the historical record of 'our finest hour' such as Objective Burma! (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1945) and U-571 (dir. Jonathan Mostow, 2000). The scenario reports of the British Board of Film Censors provide a revealing anecdote of the extent to which the censors saw themselves as guardians of national history. When Columbia Pictures proposed a film based on Comyns Beaumont's notorious book The Private Life of the Virgin Queen in 1947 - a work claiming that Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Essex were Elizabeth's sons from a secret marriage - it received short shrift from the examiner who thought it 'a deplorable book in that it poses as historical truth'. 'It is known that some American films have twisted and adapted OUR history to suit THEIR needs,' the report went on, 'but it would be reprehensible if a British producer followed suit by basing a film on this travesty of history.'15 Yet, as we shall see, British film-makers have proved equally adept at adapting the past to meet their own cultural and ideological concerns.
The subject matter of the historical film involves a special relationship with notions of nationhood and national identity. The
British historical film offers a popular version of the past that promotes dominant myths about the British historical experience for lay audiences who do not comprise large numbers of professional historians. The use of the word 'myths' in this context should not imply that historical films have no basis in fact, but rather that they tend to endorse narratives that accord with popular views of history. Thus British historical films present Britain as leading the resistance to tyranny and oppression (Fire Over England, This England, Henry V), dramatise British pluck and courage in adverse conditions (Scott of the Antarctic, A Night to Remember) and foreground notable British achievements in fields such as exploration (Rhodes of Africa, David Livingstone), aviation (They Flew Alone, The First of the Few), invention (The Magic Box) and sport (Chariots of Fire). The central role of the monarchy in British history is attested to by the preponderance of films dealing with the 'private lives' of rulers such as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria. The favourite periods for producers of historical films, moreover, have tended to be those which give rise to narratives of national greatness: the Tudor period, which saw the emergence of England as a great power; the Victorian period, which saw industrial progress and imperial expansion; and the Second World War, which in the popular imagination remains 'our finest hour'. In contrast, there have been relatively few films about periods of internal conflict such as the Dark Ages (Alfred the Great) or the English Civil War (Cromwell, To Kill A King).
In each of the case studies that comprise the main body of this book I have chosen films in which representations of the national past are both culturally and historically specific. The historical film, in common with all genres, is not a fixed, static entity, but rather one that is subject to a continuous process of change and transformation. It changes in response to a range of determinants: industrial, economic, social, cultural and political. To this end I have chosen a baker's dozen of films produced at different moments that all reward close analysis. As I could easily have chosen an entirely different selection of films, the criteria for selection require explanation. First, the films themselves have to be classified as British according to the industry's own benchmarks (thus allowing the inclusion of MGM's Beau Brummell, but ruling out Mel Gibson's Braveheart) and their narrative focus must be on an aspect of British history. Second, they must be commercial feature films that had a full UK release. This excludes semi-documentary films such as Kevin Brownlow's Winstanley and television films such as Peter Watkins's Culloden, though I have referred to these, and other, examples in passing where I felt comparison with theatrical features was warranted. And third, I have opted for only one film per director or production company, though I have, necessarily, included references to other films by the same hands where appropriate.
For the 1930s and 1940s - the decades when cinema-going was, in A.J.P. Taylor's oft-quoted phrase, 'the essential social habit of the age'16 - I have selected three case studies per decade. For the 1930s I have focused on the three most important producers of historical films: Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Henry VIII), Michael Balcon (The Iron Duke) and Herbert Wilcox (Victoria the Great and Sixty Glorious Years). Alexander Korda was the pre-eminent British producer of the decade and no study of the British historical film could omit The Private Life of Henry VIII which remains 'the archetypal film of the genre'.17 This is the film that is seen as making the breakthrough for British films in the American market, thus attesting to its economic significance for the industry. It also encapsulates many of the debates around the question of a national cinema: a film with a uniquely British subject that was written and produced largely by European émigrés. The Iron Duke is a rather less well known film that has not been given similar prominence in British cinema historiography as Henry VIII. It is a more overtly political film, using the story of Wellington at the Congress of Vienna to draw contemporary parallels with the Treaty of Versailles and the treatment of Germany after the First World War. Its explicitly pro-appeasement narrative largely reflects British public opinion in the mid-i930s. In contrast, Herbert Wilcox's two 'Victoria' biopics - Victoria the Great and Sixty Glorious Years, which are included together because they are, to all intents and purposes, two halves of one larger film - can be seen as calls for national unity in the changing political climate of the later 1930s. Both films respond to contemporary political circumstances: Victoria the Great extols the virtues of constitutional monarchy in the wake of the Abdication Crisis of 1936, while Sixty Glorious Years is an anti-appeasement narrative whose release coincided with the Munich Agreement of 1938.
The 1940s divide into the war and post-war years. For the war I have chosen one now largely forgotten film (This England) and one that is established within the canon of classic British cinema (Henry V). Both are propaganda films, but they use history in different ways. This England is a cheaply made historical pageant that uses an episodic narrative to invoke resistance to domestic tyrants and foreign invaders. It is an essentially defensive narrative that reflects the defiant mood of 1940. Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V, by contrast, is an expensively produced, Technicolor epic that interprets Shakespeare's play for 1944 as Britain is shown taking the offensive. Produced with the full support of the Ministry of Information, Henry V represents the most explicit example of a film that mobilises the past in response to the present. For the post-war period, Ealing Studios' Scott of the Antarctic is a sober tribute to a national hero who represents a particular code of British masculinity. The tragic yet uplifting story of Scott's Antarctic expedition of 1911-12 took on a special resonance in the years of postwar austerity when Britain was perceived as a nation in decline.
The 1950s, often characterised as the 'doldrums era' of British cinema, saw the onset of a long, slow decline in cinema-going. The film industry attempted to lure audiences back into the cinemas with size and spectacle. The two films representing the 1950s, although very different in narrative and visual style, were part of this strategy. Beau Brummell, produced in Britain by MGM, is an example of the 'Hollywood British' films of the decade. Its focus on personal ambition and desire and its colourful, expressive visual style are in stark contrast to the Rank Organisation's A Night to Remember, a sober, black-and-white reconstruction of the sinking of the Titanic, in which personal desire is subordinated to group effort. The two films also reveal significant differences in critical reception: while A Night to Remember was praised as a sincere and unsensational film in the best tradition of British film-making, Beau Brummell was universally denounced by British critics as an overblown travesty of history from an American company.
The 1960s were a turbulent decade of fundamental and far-reaching social change that also witnessed rapid changes in British film culture, from the social realism of the 'new wave' to the colourful fantasy of James Bond. Zulu is a transitional film which looks back to the heyday of the imperial adventure epic whilst also anticipating the anti-war films that were to follow later in the decade. Its representations of empire and race have made it an unfashionable film within the academy, though it remains a popular favourite, not least for its celebration of the courage of Welsh soldiers at the Battle of Rorke's Drift. In contrast, The Charge of the Light Brigade is an explicitly anti-militarist film that uses the historic disaster to make a polemical attack on a range of targets, including the British establishment and class system, and American involvement in the Vietnam War. Unlike Zulu, however, the film was not a popular success - a failing attributed to its fragmentary narrative.
By the 1970s the British film industry was in a state of almost perpetual crisis: levels of production declined, audiences fragmented and American films dominated the box office more than ever before. Thus I have selected only one film per decade for the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the contraction of the production sector and the declining visibility of British films on British screens. The 1970s are represented by Henry VIII and His Six Wives, one of a cycle of historical biopics that exemplified the persistence of traditional filmmaking practices at a time when cinema audiences were dissipating. A film version of an acclaimed television serial, it was a sign of shifting cultural capital in the film and television industries. The success of Chariots of Fire at the 1982 Academy Awards in Hollywood seemed to herald a revival of fortunes for the British film industry. This film of British sporting triumph has been claimed by critics as both a left-wing and a right-wing text that, depending upon one's interpretation, can be seen as either a critique or an endorsement of the social and political values of Thatcherism. Finally, Elizabeth was one of a cycle of films that revived the royal biopic in the 1990s, at a time when the British Royal Family was coming under greater public scrutiny and criticism than ever before. Its portrait of a young queen at the centre of political intrigues has drawn comparisons with Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a car accident as the film went into production. As well as rehearsing familiar motifs of the tension between the public duty and private life of the monarch, Elizabeth is notable for its expressive visual style and its baroque mise-en-scène.
It is my contention that each of these films - some in more direct and explicit ways than others - invoke parallels between past and present. Sometimes, as Ken Loach's remark suggests, this imparting of contemporary meaning into a historical film is entirely conscious on the film-maker's part. In other cases, as we shall see, there may not necessarily have been any such intent but, nevertheless, contemporary meaning has been read into the film by critics or historians. In such cases, of course, there is always an inherent danger that the meanings thus identified demonstrate the textual ingenuity of the critic in reading the film rather than the intent of those who made it. All textual criticism, of course, is interpretative. This is why any attempt to analyse the meaning of a particular film or group of films should be grounded in contextual as well as textual analysis. Essentially, this is what differentiates the approach of the film historian from other commentators whose interest lies solely in the aesthetic or formal analysis of films. My own position, for what it is worth, is that the interpretative analysis of films becomes justified only when the historical circumstances of production and reception have first been established. Only in this way can we be certain whether the meanings we read into the films were intended by the film-makers themselves or were identified by contemporaries. Otherwise the interpretation of films can become an arid intellectual exercise, designed more to demonstrate one's own familiarity with the latest fashionable trend in cultural theory than to shed any light upon the actual texts that ostensibly are the object of the analysis.
The research method underpinning this study is empiricist. In addition to the films themselves, my primary sources include official documents, studio records, private papers, autobiographies, scripts, press books, trade papers and film journals, and reviews from a wide range of newspapers and periodicals. Each case study begins by placing the film concerned within the institutional and economic contexts of the British film industry at the time it was produced. Feature films are products of an industry whose primary motive is commercial and which is only secondarily influenced by cultural and artistic concerns. Each chapter then proceeds to examine the production history: the process through which the film came to the screen. Here we need to consider in particular the question of creative agency: to what extent were the content and style of the film due to the input of certain individuals (directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, set and costume designers, actors) and how far was the film shaped by external influences (such as political or censorial intervention)? For, as Sue Harper rightly reminds us, filmic representations 'are simply the traces left by the struggles for dominance during the production process - by the contest for creative control'.18 In this regard it is significant, contrary to the auteur theory that traditionally assigns creative agency to the director, that the most influential figures in historical film production in British cinema have tended to be producers:
studio records reveal that Scott of the Antarctic was as much Michael Balcon's film as it was Charles Frend's, the prominence accorded to themes of Welshness in Zulu suggests the hand of producer-star Stanley Baker rather than director Cy Endfield, and Chariots of Fire was regarded within trade discourse as David Puttnam's film rather than Hugh Hudson's. It takes a strong director, such as Tony Richardson (The Charge of the Light Brigade) or Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth), to impose their own vision and style on a film. In contrast, directors like Victor Saville (The Iron Duke), David Macdonald (This England) and Roy Baker (A Night to Remember) were contract directors who saw their role as being simply to transfer the script to the screen. Following the histories of production, each chapter proceeds to examine the histories of reception. This is a part of film history where the sources are more fragmentary and are difficult to interpret. Quantitative evidence of reception (in terms of box-office receipts) is not always available. Not until 1969 did distributors declare their receipts from individual films to the trade press; nor do company accounts or Board of Trade records always reveal precise figures. For some films, especially from the earlier periods, we have to rely on the informed estimates of the trade press, though, for the 1930s at least, John Sedgwick's statistical research into popular film preferences does provide more empirically grounded data.19 Qualitative evidence of reception consists chiefly of reviews, which are not necessarily representative of the responses of cinema-goers, though other sources (such as fan magazines and the work of Mass-Observation) offer insights into the popular reception of certain films. The contexts of production and reception having been established, only then do I offer my own analysis of the films. I am interested principally in what I have called their narrative ideologies: that is the attitudes, assumptions and beliefs that inform the filmic narratives.20 It is impossible to be entirely objective about cultural artefacts such as films, and, while I hope that my discussion is based on empirical analysis of the films rather than on my own subjective response, readers will nevertheless identify the films of which I am particularly fond. Perhaps this is no bad thing. Good scholarship should be tempered with passion, and I come to this subject with a passionate belief in the social significance and cultural value of British cinema. If this book demonstrates but one thing, it is that the British historical film rewards close investigation, both for its own sake and for the light it sheds on aspects of the British historical experience over the last 70 years.
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