British Films

Interruptus

Brief Encounter Film Still

The last time we delved into British cinema, we thought we’d discovered a forgotten gem.  Now, let’s look at the flipside: the film that was highly acclaimed as a masterpiece, but which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The words “realist cinema” should always act as a warning.  It’s supposed to bring a sharper focus, convey events that might actually happen to anyone. The idea was probably to move away from what had come before, to throw out both heroic tragedy and anything that happened to exceptional people out with the bathwater.  Turns out it creates films that are tawdry and more than a bit boring.

The critics, of course, loved them.

The one we’re looking at today is called Brief Encounter.  It tells the story of a bored housewife (protip: anything that tells the story of a bored housewife will be worse, all other variables remaining constant, than anything which doesn’t) who meets a man on a train and begins a platonic relationship with him.

This had the potential to turn into something interesting, except that just when interesting was about to occur, the guy’s best friend walked in on them and they decided to go their separate ways.  In order to kill the possibility of interesting things ensuing later, the man decides to leave for South Africa.  It’s a study in frustration for both the characters and the audience.

Noel coward Brief Encounter

Yes, it deftly echoes the angst and utter meaninglessness of middle class existence (the ones from 1938 in this case)… but does little else.  That’s why critics loved it, but it left me feeling empty (your mileage may vary).

That’s not to say that it’s a bad piece of filmmaking.  It isn’t.  It wasn’t hard to watch, it was well acted and well made.  The atmosphere was extremely well created and the whole “train station in the night” is truly memorable.  The problem is that it was a realist film, which meant that, being well executed just meant that, in the end, it was a bit tawdry and disappointing.  Like life itself, something only a critic can love…

The interesting notes that accompany this one are that it was based on a Noël Coward play whose plot sounds a lot more interesting than the film.

Also, a shout out to actress Margaret Barton, only surviving member of the cast that I could find.  If you’re reading this, take heart; the acting was excellent–the concept let you guys down.

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The Forgotten Gem of British Film

There’s a film out there that you probably haven’t heard of, but that many critics list among their top 100, top 10, etc.  We happened to watch it because it was on the 1001 films you must watch before you die list, but otherwise, it was completely new to us.

I know Where I'm Going Film Poster

The movie is called I Know Where I’m Going, and is a lesser known film from 1945 created by the Michael Powell, whose offbeat storytelling has appeared here before, and will be appearing here again shortly, if we can get our film critic out to turn out more than a couple of posts a year (this one included).

This film tells the story of a young woman who wishes to marry a wealthy man who lives on an island in the Hebrides.  On her way there, she becomes gets stranded on a different island by bad weather… and the rest is a romp of a romantic film with music, dancing, comedy and even some action brilliantly interwoven.  A happy film created in dark times.

Had this film been made in the US, it would be a staple of late-night and Saturday afternoon network TV.  But since it wasn’t, it’s reserved for the cognoscenti, for people who compile “bets movies” lists and, of course for readers of Classically Educated!

This is one of those cases where we really, really don’t want to say too much about the plot, as it’s one that people need to discover for themselves, but suffice to say that we heartily recommend a viewing of the same.

Michael Powell

So let’s talk about Powell for a bit.  He was a man who seemed to spend the entire latter part of the war and the days immediately following creating films that were not only fun but extremely intelligently put together.  It’s amazing to think that while noir was sweeping the US–a natural reflection of the cynicism of the times the world was living–Powell was creating upbeat, fun pictures that still managed not to ignore the fact that the world was at war (more about this topic when we reach our write-up of A Matter of Life and Death, but the Colonel Blimp link above also illustrates whet we’re talking about).

A man who would do that, time and again, is one of the true greats in anyone’s book, and the fact that small-minded prudes and imbeciles essentially ended his career some time later (for creating a film that is now a niche classic) is even more reprehensible.

Finally, our notable note for this flick is that it was one of the first appearances of Petulia Clark, CBE on film.  She was a young girl then, but we’re happy to see that she’s still going strong and would like to give a shout out to her if she’s reading this!

A Very Different View of the War

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Poster

 

If, a few weeks ago, you’d asked me what films about contemporary events produced during WWII were like, I’d have mumbled something about a combination of ra-ra morale building and propaganda.  In many cases, and for many countries, I’d have been absolutely right, but the British have always marched to a different drummer, it seems.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)is not a film that could have been filmed in Nazi Germany, and I seriously doubt that it is something that would have been permitted in the US.  In fact, it was filmed in Britain despite a certain Mr. Churchill attempting to stop production and making it difficult for the producers to film.

And yet, years later, we can watch it in its original glorious technicolor, and enjoy the fact that it was filmed.  Only in England…

Colonel Blimp

Of course, why it was not quite popular among the governors of that island is a much more interesting tale than the production itself.  The first clue is in the title.  Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character from the 1930’s who made proclamations such as “Gad, Sir! Lord Bunk is right. The government is marching over the edge of an abyss, and the nation must march solidly behind them!” from various Turkish bath locales.  The cartoon, clearly well-intended, and quite left-leaning (a google image search should find some more examples) was probably not the most popular of motifs by 1942.

The only real link to the cartoon, though, other than the title is that the main character, in his middle age, looks quite a bit like the Colonel in the cartoons, plus the fact that the action starts in a Turkish bath could possibly make it a bit confusing to the modern viewer, but that never detracts from the entertainment value of a film which, in essence, is a bit of a romp.

The second thing that was objectionable to many is that the film portrays a German (and a WWI officer at that) as a likable character. The fact that this German was not a Nazi, in fact was running from the Nazis, seemed to cause little impression amongst the naysayers.

It’s not actually clear why, Specifically, Churchill was against the film, but it was rumored that he thought it was a satire of him.  After production, he promptly banned it for export.

Deborah Kerr

It does seem, however, that resistance was mainly from a few sectors, and audiences enjoyed it, which is unsurprising, as it follows the career of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey as he falls in love with three different iterations of Deborah Kerr’s character: once as a young firebrand disobeying orders, once as a mature WWI officer looking for a wife, and once as an older man whose feelings are more paternal towards her – and of outrage towards the actions of her boyfriend in whom, eventually, he sees a reflection of his younger self. 

This is essentially a story of coming of age, of the wisdom of age, and the value of friendship, as shown by our German officer who becomes the good Major-General’s best and oldest friend.

And, for a romp and a romance, it’s surprisingly good at showing what growing old means – and a good way of coping with the realizations one has along the way.

Plus, it’s fun.  We here at CE give it four Schlemmons on our newly introduced five-Schlemmon scale (invented this very to give this movie four Schlemmons on it).  We will be rating all movies on the Schlemmon scale from now on, in honor of the guy who told me how Titanic ends (the ship sinks), and thereby saving me a couple of hours of maudlin lowest-common-denominator awfulness.  We may use the Schlemmons for other things, too, depending on whether we feel like it.

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A Break From Wartime

The man in Grey

World War II seems to be in the air here, not only has our perusal of the 1001 Movies you must see before you die been reviewing the war years, as reflected by our last post in the series, but we are also planning a large series on the final days of the Bismarck, mixing our passion for history with our love of literature.  Nevertheless, so much war makes one wonder what it must have been like to actually have to live through WWII itself.

I imagine that one would want to have some kind of distraction from the ever-present war, and if going to the movies, one would probably only be able to stomach a certain amount of propaganda film.  But, at the same time, I also imagine that film audiences were nowhere near as convinced of the general expectation that people should respect and be nice to one another as we have today.  Gainsborough Pictures, a British movie studio, seems to have reached the same conclusion, and filmed the subject of today’s review, The Man in Grey, in 1943 (and again, I invite you to think about that for a second).

It is most emphatically not a war movie, as it is essentially a romance set in regency times, despite the fact that it begins with two servicepeople – a man and a woman, at an auction of the goods of an heirless notable killed at Dunkirk.  After that, however, it moves back in time to two ancestors of the man and woman, played by the same actors who are involved in a reasonably cynical love quadrangle.  Basically it’s the story of a man and women who get married and then fall in love with other people.  SPOILER ALERT IN THE NEXT SENTENCE: Happiness is averted at the last moment, and then the women die.

Unhappy Ending for this couple!

Even if you do read the previous sentence, it doesn’t give much away that you can’t guess from the opening scene, so you can still watch the film.

But of more value, in my opinion, is to wonder why this film with only a partially happy ending (no, I won’t spoil that for you) became the foundation of a successful series of melodramas.  Wouldn’t it have been much more logical, with the Luftwaffe potentially delivering death at night, to go out and watch a screwball comedy?  Or just a cartoon?

Perhaps not.  People of the time do see to have been a little less delicate than we are today.  Entertainment–even escapist entertainment–was not obliged to leave one feeling good or even sad but uplifted.  It was permissible to tell a story of bad people being bad, just because that’s the way life is, and there’s no such thing as karma.  Life isn’t fair, and the attitude of the times reflected that, and, looking around at modern social movements which seem to be trying to change that (next: watch idealists attempt to repeal the law of gravity!), I must say that I find the attitude amazingly refreshing.

juan-manuel-fangio-mega-galeri-25

Movies, of course, weren’t the only place where this kind of thinking abounded.  After the war, auto racing became much more popular, as cars became more ubiquitous.  Trees and houses were considered perfectly acceptable things to have on a roadside…  and crowds stood as close as they could.  There was no real public outcry, because “B-24s are dangerous, MGs are fun” explained away the danger of the activity.  And if someone died, it was their choice – after all, no one on the planet is forced to race cars, and only adults were doing it.  That wouldn’t fly today, where the Nanny State has invaded even these areas which should be between an adult and his conscience (do NOT get me started on helmets on ski slopes, because I am kind of a broken record on that).

I find it fascinating how seemingly unrelated issues such as movies and health and safety aren’t that unrelated after all.  I wonder if the pendulum will swing back to sanity, or if that only comes with the clarity given by a big, unpleasant war?

 

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