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REVIEW — The Captive Heart (1946)

November 19, 2015

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.

 

4 Comments
  1. November 19, 2015 1:17 pm

    Another film I had not heard of!

    Like

  2. Mark Pontin permalink
    November 20, 2015 12:34 am

    For a very British film that’s definitely an antidote to tosh which “simply (cannot) imagine a world without cricket, empire and an all-encompassing class-syste,” if you haven’t seen it — and I searched your archives — I’d be interested in your take on Powell and Pressburger’s THE SMALL BACK ROOM from 1949 sometime.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Small_Back_Room

    It’s a movie that never gets the attention it deserves; I prefer it to almost any other Archers production in some ways. If you want a sample of what a ‘fully mature, authentic British film industry’ might produce, this particular Archers movie, which stands aside from the better-known Powell-Pressburger spectacles, is that thing.

    The novel by Nigel Balchin is good, too. Here’s Clive James on it–
    ‘The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin’
    http://www.clivejames.com/pieces/hercules/balchin

    Finally, if you’re a science-fiction reader, both the Archers film and the Balchin novel not only operate in the classic ‘good SF’ mode of having characters struggle with serious personal problems while trying to solve a mortally important technical/scientific problem, but treat the SF ‘competent man’ trope in a wholly different, more adult way than 1940s-50s-era Heinleinian/Campbellian SF does. (You may ask: What doesn’t?)

    Balchin, an officer in the department of the Scientific Adviser to the Army Council during WWII, is credited with introducing the word ‘boffin’ to the language in this novel. Balchin’s novel is somewhat darker than the Powell-Pressburger movie as its end makes clear that the hero, Sammy Rice, however brave and competent he may be, will always be his own worst enemy: –

    ‘If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy. But as it was, I didn’t like what I was, and couldn’t be what I liked, and it would always be like that.’

    Sorry to hijack your site with my blathering about this movie and book. But they need more love than they get.

    Like

  3. Mark Pontin permalink
    November 20, 2015 12:39 am

    For a very British film that’s definitely an antidote to tosh which “simply (cannot) imagine a world without cricket, empire and an all-encompassing class-syste,” if you haven’t seen it — and I searched your archives — I’d be interested in your take on Powell and Pressburger’s THE SMALL BACK ROOM from 1949 sometime.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Small_Back_Room

    It’s a movie that never gets the attention it deserves; I prefer it to almost any other Archers production in some ways. If you want a sample of what a ‘fully mature, authentic British film industry’ might produce, this particular Archers movie, which stands aside from the better-known Powell-Pressburger spectacles, is that thing.

    The novel by Nigel Balchin is good, too. Here’s Clive James on it–
    ‘The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin’
    http://www.clivejames.com/pieces/hercules/balchin

    Finally, if you’re a science-fiction reader, both the Archers film and the Balchin novel not only operate in the classic ‘good SF’ mode of having characters struggle with serious personal problems while trying to solve a mortally important technical/scientific problem, but treat the SF ‘competent man’ trope in a wholly different, more adult way than 1940s-50s-era Heinleinian/Campbellian SF does. (You may ask: What doesn’t?)

    Balchin, an officer in the department of the Scientific Adviser to the Army Council during WWII, is credited with introducing the word ‘boffin’ to the language in this novel. Balchin’s novel is somewhat darker than the Powell-Pressburger movie as its end makes clear that the hero, Sammy Rice, however brave and competent he may be, will always be his own worst enemy: –

    ‘If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy. But as it was, I didn’t like what I was, and couldn’t be what I liked, and it would always be like that.’

    Sorry to hijack your site with my blathering about this movie and book. But they need more love than they get.

    Like

  4. November 20, 2015 7:01 am

    Hi Mark :-)

    I definitely haven’t seen The Small Back Room, a result of my having failed to progress beyond the contents of my Archers box set. Will definitely seek it out now though as it sounds fascinating! Thanks for the tip.

    Like

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