Earlier this week, I wondered what a fully mature and authentic British film industry might actually look like. For inspiration, I looked to the British cinema of the 1940s and found both good and evil.
One side of the dyad is represented by Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, an immensely thought-provoking film about how children see the world and how that vision is subject to distortion by more-or-less well-intentioned adults.However, while the mature and authentic British film industry of the 1940s was capable of producing complex and challenging films like The Fallen Idol, it was also capable of producing films so wedded to the political establishment that hindsight reveals them to be almost indistinguishable from propaganda.
However, while it may be comforting to believe that a mature British film industry would happily churn out films of similar quality to The Fallen Idol, an authentic British film industry would almost certainly give voice to conservative and reactionary feelings that are just as much a part of the British cultural landscape as the desire to ask awkward questions and consider the perspectives of the powerless. While The Fallen Idol may embody everything I’d like to see from a mature British cinema, the opposite side of the dyad would be represented by Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart, an elegantly-structured and intelligently scripted film that just so happens to feel like the clarion call of a new British imperialism.
The film opens with footage of injured British soldiers marching through the French and German countrysides. These are the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and they are destined to spend the rest of the War in a German POW camp. The film introduces us to a variety of different characters, provides them with back stories and then allows us to watch as the men come to terms with both their new situation and the demands placed upon them by their connections back home. As I say in my review, the effect is very reminiscent of the so-called Cosy Catastrophes that dominated British science-fiction in the aftermath of World War II:
Back in 1973, the British author and critic Brian Aldiss argued that British writers like John Wyndham had a nasty habit of depicting the end of the world as a cosy catastrophe in which survival demanded little in the way of hardship, sacrifice or philosophical re-orientation. The classic example of this style of science fiction story is Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in that, after escaping a London full of man-eating plants, the protagonists settle into a Sussex mansion where tea is drunk, cake is made, and the class system endures. Though somewhat unfair to Wyndham, it is easy to see how the generation that survived World War II might have come to imagine the end of the world in terms of rose gardens turned into veg patches rather than rape, cannibalism and disease. To this day, popular British representations of World War II are far more likely to dwell on ration books and period kitchens than the experiences of men who spent their formative years dodging bullets and climbing over corpses.
The idea that ‘Englishness’ will endure the collapse of civilisation is absolutely central to The Captive Heart. Aside from the fact that all of the various sub-plots involve British people doing British things in a POW camp until they can get back to Britain and continue being British, the film’s primary plot-line involves a man falling in love with Englishness as he falls in love with an English woman:
(Michael) Redgrave’s Czech officer is something of an interstitial figure as his growing love for Mitchell’s widow is skilfully interwoven with a growing love for the English born of their many kindnesses. There’s even a montage of people playing cricket as a voice-over talks about fruit trees coming into bloom in the back garden. The reason The Captive Heart was released so soon after the end of World War II is that Ealing Studios began making it before the war had even ended. This means not only that the film was made without being touched by the realities of war but also that it was made with very little idea as to how England (or indeed Britain) might fit into a post-War Europe. Unsurprisingly, the film resonates with a distinctly imperial mind-set in that English values are shown to be not only eternal and immutable but also exportable to Eastern Europe where tales of English decency and sacrifice would doubtless fill the squares with people desperate to try their hand at cricket. Seen in this light, Michael Redgrave isn’t so much seduced into English as colonised by it.
If I am blurring the line between Englishness and Britishness then it is because the film makes exactly this mistake. Much like Laurence Olivier’s wartime Henry V, Englishness is parlayed into Britishness through the use of loyal Welsh and Scottish subalterns who hint at a broader conception of Britishness only to doff their caps to the English upper-classes.
The Captive Heart is a deeply conservative film and that conservatism is manifest in its abject failure to imagine a future that was not identical to the twenty-years between World War I and World War II. The Captive Heart cannot imagine a world in which Britain isn’t a global player or where Englishness is neither admired nor emulated. Nowadays, people often use the acronym “TINA” to refer to our failure to imagine a world other than that provided by neoliberalism but I think works like The Captive Heart and Day of the Triffids are examples of an older version of TINA whereby people simply could not imagine a world without cricket, empire and an all-encompassing class-system.