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Über dieses Buch

This book discusses British cinema's representation of the Great War during the 1920s. It argues that popular cinematic representations of the war offered surviving audiences a language through which to interpret their recent experience, and traces the ways in which those interpretations changed during the decade.




Peace Days in Pictureland
Towards the start of her popular history The Great Silence 1918–1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War, Juliet Nicholson offers an account of Armistice Day made up of a series of vignettes culled from diaries, letters and memoirs.1 We learn of Harold Nicholson, looking up from his desk in Whitehall to see David Lloyd George excitedly announcing peace from the steps of 10 Downing Street; of Duff Cooper, looking down at the celebrating crowds and feeling ‘overcome with melancholy’; of Vera Brittain, working as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse, whose ‘joylessness grew with the same speed as the elation that surrounded her’; of Cynthia Curzon celebrating in Trafalgar Square, but afterwards admonished by Oswald Mosley for her lack of consideration of ‘the loss of life, the devastation and misery’; and of D.H. Lawrence and his famous outburst at a Bloomsbury party. The war isn’t over’, he is reputed to have said, ‘It makes me sick to see you rejoicing like a butterfly in the last rays of sun before the winter … Whatever happens there can be no peace on earth.’ Nicholson valiantly struggles to introduce the voices of more ordinary individuals into her account, but the famous names of the aristocratic, the literary and the politically powerful mount up: Lucy Duff Gordon, Thomas Hardy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, Serge Diaghilev, David Garnett, Vanessa Bell, Osbert Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, Adolf Hitler and so on.
Lawrence Napper

1. ‘In the Midst of Peace, We Are at War’: The British Film Trade in 1919

Even before the Armistice was signed, anxieties about the challenges faced by the cinema trade in the post-war period were already being expressed. There were concerns not only about the speed with which wartime restrictions might be lifted (an issue close to the hearts of exhibitors), but also questions about the cinematic representation of the war and the reception of such films by audiences with first-hand experience of the conflict (Figure 1.1). This chapter is intended to sketch out some of these debates briefly, particularly as they appeared in one of the leading trade magazines, Kinematograph Weekly. It offers a snapshot of the trade in 1919, detailing some of the difficulties involved in the transition to peace, but also establishing some of the more fundamental themes which would continue to concern the trade throughout the 1920s, not least its relationship with American cinema.
Lawrence Napper

2. Battle Reconstructions and British Instructional Films

The principal company to answer Kinematograph Weekly’s call for a kinema record of the war ‘told and retold with added details’ was BIF (Figure 2.1). BIF’s series of battle reconstruction films, produced between 1921 and 1931, will form the focus of this chapter, which will trace developments in the tone of the series and the ‘details’ that were added as the decade progressed. The company was founded by H. Bruce Woolfe, who had been demobilized from the army in February 1919 — precisely the moment at which the discussions about the authenticity of Hollywood war films outlined in Chapter 1 were dominating the trade papers.’ It was registered in September and within two months, the first batch of short educational entertainments was released.2 This consisted of three travelogues and two nature films which were received by Kineweekly with the comment that the company should drop the word ‘Instructional’ from its title, as it ‘implies a formidable dry-as-dustness that is entirely lacking from the pictures’.3 The name remained, but BIF stayed true to a policy of presenting actuality and educational material in an entertaining manner. The changing relationship between the ‘educational’ and the ‘entertainment’ elements within its war films is a key theme of this chapter. The films were initially released into commercial cinemas, but later they became available for hire in non-theatrical and school settings through an education department, which was set up in 1925.
Lawrence Napper

3. Remembrance and the Ambivalent Gaze

Harry B. Parkinson’s Wonderful London is a series of short travelogue films showing ‘pictorial sidelights on the worlds greatest city’, and intended to form part of the full supporting programme in cinemas during the mid-1920s (Figure 3.1). The episode dealing with Flowers of London (Parkinson, 1924) introduces viewers to various oases of floral beauty which can be found nestling among the ‘drab little streets’ of the capital. Starting in the garden of a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) ‘Fellow’ in London Bridge, the film moves to Gladys Spalding’s flower shop in Lancaster Place, and thence to the gaudy bustle of Covent Garden and the flower girls of Piccadilly Circus. Each of these sections of the film is punctuated with tinted and toned close-ups identifying the varieties of flowers on display, and showing them in detail, filmed in the studio or growing in the gardens from whence they have been imported into the city. The floral journey west is given logic by the final location, which also brings a change of tone. ‘But there’s one monument in London under which we shall always find flowers — always, always, always!’ declares the intertitle, introducing a shot of the Cenotaph in Whitehall. A group of passers by are gathered at its foot, inspecting the floral tributes on the steps of the monument. A close-up shows the wealth of wreaths, pot plants and bouquets, all shown in situ, and a closing intertitle drives home the point, while introducing the implication that the ‘flowers of London’ may also operate as a metaphor for the city’s war dead: ‘Yes … here there will always be flowers … the most potent, the most tender, the most appealing … of all the flowers of London.’1
Lawrence Napper

4. ‘When the Boys Come Home’

J.H. Dowd’s 1917 cartoon for Punch predicts that after the war, men will have been changed by their experience of the trenches.1 The change depicted is both physical and psychological. It is not as visible as a lost limb or as dramatic as ‘shellshock’, nevertheless it has the potential to threaten the social status quo, putting a particular strain on categories of class and of gender. These men are impeccably attired in the uniforms of their class (Figure 4.1). However, following the entrenched habit of the Western Front, they do not stand upright, but instead lounge on the pavement in an uneasy visual echo of the unemployed and disabled ex-servicemen observed by Beverley Nichols begging in the Strand.2 Laura Doan offers a detailed discussion of a similar set of images of martial women who had acquired the ‘war work habit’ in the same issue of Punch. Upper-class ex-ambulance drivers and ex-munitionettes set about domestic tasks with military precision and a mechanical know-how acquired during wartime service, while their chauffeurs and butlers look on in confusion. Doan warns against over-emphasizing the gender connotations of those images, suggesting that for the cartoonist, ‘gender is more the veneer and class is the substance’.3 The Piccadilly setting of Dowd’s cartoon does nevertheless suggest a space fraught with questions about the boundaries of masculine behaviour.
Lawrence Napper


Tell England
Tell England (Anthony Asquith and Geoffrey Barkas, 1931) was initially conceived as a continuation of BIF’s cycle of battle reconstructions discussed in Chapter 2. It was to be directed by Walter Summers, entitled simply The Battle of Gallipoli, and would take its place in the production schedules for 1929 as a suitable sequel to the previous year’s The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands.1 However, three things appear to have happened (Figure C.1). Firstly, quite early in the production process (certainly by September 1927), the decision appears to have been made to combine a reconstruction of the fighting at Gallipoli with an adaptation of Ernest Raymond’s spectacular bestseller of 1922, Tell England. This was in accordance with the shift I’ve traced in the series away from pure reconstructions, relying on diagrams, actuality footage and re-enactments which gestured in a variety of ways towards their ‘authenticity’ (although all of these techniques nevertheless found a place in the final film), and towards more fictional modes, incorporating narrative conventions and shooting structures associated with the war films being produced by Hollywood. Secondly, when filming was already at quite an advanced stage, with much of the reconstruction material and battle scenes already shot in Malta, synchronized sound technology became standard, and the production suffered a protracted hiatus while sound equipment was installed and scenes were re-shot or dubbed.
Lawrence Napper


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