Movies and Film: The Lean Years

The Lean Years

In the decades following World War II, the British film industry went through another period of American dominance, which in many ways continues to this day. The results are painfully obvious: Next time you're in England, go to any big multiplex in most any town, and what you'll be able to choose from will only occasionally include a UK-produced film. The government's solutions to this longstanding dilemma have included legislation and the institution of quota systems, as well as a number of if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em collaborations with American filmmakers (check out The African Queen [1951], for example).

Pulling Rank

Short Cuts

In a clear sign of his unparalleled power in the United Kingdom's film industry during and after World War II, England's favorite nickname for J. Arthur Rank was "King Arthur."

Second Take

It wasn't all bad news for the British film industry after World War II. Hammer Film Productions Limited opened in 1949 and dedicated itself to making good but low budget movies—including some of history's greatest horror flicks, many of which the company shot at Bray Studios outside of Windsor.

It didn't have to be this way. The producer J. Arthur Rank came to cinematic prominence in England during World War II. By the end of the war, he was perhaps the most powerful man in the British film industry, the head of a vast empire of production companies, distribution facilities, and theaters controlled by the Rank Organisation.

One of Rank's major goals was to establish a solid market for English films in the United States. In the mid 1940s, he met with American movie moguls and began negotiating deals to sell distribution and exhibition rights to the enormous number of movies he controlled. For a while there, it looked like a pre-Beatles British invasion might very well change the nature of cultural relations between the two English-speaking world powers and put them on a more equal footing.

Suddenly, though, in 1947, the British Parliament passed a bill that imposed a huge tax on the importation of all foreign films. This understandably angered American industry leaders, who struck back by imposing a full-scale embargo on the distribution of Hollywood movies in the United Kingdom. Rank's dreams were shattered, and the brief hope for British economic parity in world cinema was finally put to rest.

Freeing British Cinema

It's amazing how many important innovations in world cinema have come about through the exasperated efforts of various groups of angry young men. Britain's version of this phenomenon was a group of filmmakers who emerged in the mid-'50s to challenge what they perceived as the extreme commercialism of the nation's industry since the war.

What united the Free Cinema artists—Lindsay Anderson, Norman McLaren, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, the Swiss-born Alain Tanner, and others—was the recognition that commercialized cinema was not portraying the lived reality endured by the vast majority of England's population. Instead, they argued, the film industry was giving the public pap: melodrama, comedy, and escapism that bore little relationship to actual human conditions in the war-traumatized nation. In reaction, the Free Cinema artists developed a new form of documentary-style filmmaking that combined inventive camera work and cinematography with an unprecedented realistic approach to the nation's social ills and cultural conflicts.

Director's Cut

The actual program that launched Free Cinema in February 1956 consisted of three films that sought to reinject a social conscience into British film. The films were the following:

  • Momma Don't Allow (1955), directed by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, provides a lively look at a jazz club in the north part of London. This hallmark of Free Cinema is distinguished by the brilliant camera work of Walter Lassally.
  • O Dreamland (1953), directed by Lindsay Anderson, is a gritty but fabulous portrayal of a group of people living in an amusement park in the seaside town of Margate.
  • Together (1955), directed by Lorenza Mazzetti, features two deaf-mutes portrayed by Eduardo Paolozzi and Michael Andrews whose dramatic relationship takes place against the backdrop of London's fabled East End.

There were other important Free Cinema films shown in subsequent programs, but these were the three that started it all.

In one of their several statements of purpose, the Free Cinema artists touted "the significance of the everyday" as the political motto of the movement as a whole, insisting that film could and should be employed as a vehicle of social commentary and reform. In hard-hitting pictures like Reisz's We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Anderson's Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and This Sporting Life (1963), and Norman McLaren's Oscar-winning cartoon Neighbors (1952), these artists irrevocably changed the social fabric of British film.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Free Cinema was the term given to a six-part series of film showings screened at London's National Film Theatre from 1956 to 1959 that launched a socially conscious cinema movement of the same name.

The Atlantic Conduit Continues

As English and American film historians have noted with either nationalistic embarrassment or jingoistic pride, most British filmmaking in the '60s and '70s was in large part the result of American financing and American directing. In fact, during this period it's not an exaggeration to say that the English film industry was actually an Anglo-American film industry. Consider, for example, this quick list of 10 supposedly British films released during the course of these decades that were actually made by American directors living and shooting in England:

  • The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1961).
  • The Victors (Carl Foreman, 1963).
  • A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964).
  • The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964).
  • The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965).
  • Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967).
  • The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet, 1967).
  • Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972).
  • Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974).
  • The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975).

This is not to say that native-born directors weren't contributing to the nation's struggling industry in these years. But the fact remains that England failed to establish and maintain its own national cinematic voice after the decline of the Free Cinema movement.

The Eighties and Nineties: Mixed Success

The Academy Awards in the first two years of the 1980s symbolized a small renaissance in British filmmaking. Hugh Hudson won a best picture Oscar for his moving portrayal of athleticism, grace, and friendship in Chariots of Fire (1981). The next year, Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982) garnered another best picture Oscar for English cinema while making the journeyman actor Ben Kingsley into an international household name for his Oscar-winning performance as the Indian resistance leader.

Though American films continue to dominate the nation's industry, the past 20 years, and especially the past 10, have seen English film develop into a respected and respectable contributor to European cinema in general. Talented directors emerged to carve out an original space for themselves amongst all the pap being churned out by Hollywood: Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers, 1988; The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover, 1989), Mike Leigh (High Hopes, 1988; Secrets and Lies, 1996), and Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply, 1991; The English Patient, 1996) are just a few among the current generation of English filmmakers who have captured the minds and hearts of international audiences, promising many good things to come for the new century.

Director's Cut

The many collaborations between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory symbolize both the marvels and the ironies of the English film revival in the '80s and '90s. Producer Merchant and director Ivory, along with their talented screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, made numerous Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning films, beginning as far back as 1965 with Shakespeare Wallah.

Among the most familiar and successful Merchant-Ivory productions are The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984), A Room with a View (1986), Howard's End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993). Known for their opulent sets, understated scripts, and elegant direction, the many films made by this remarkable trio would seem to epitomize the new spirit of native cinematic ingenuity.

There's only one problem. Neither Merchant nor Ivory nor Jhabvala are actually English. Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005, was an Indian born in Bombay. James Ivory, born in Berkeley, California, is an American. And Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, though raised since the age of 12 in England, was born in Germany.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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