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Essentially British?: From the Four Corners (1940)
In the Classroom


As a Ministry of Information production, this film is a useful example of wartime propaganda (also see Island People (1940) and Christmas Under Fire (1941)). Do students know Leslie Howard? Why might he have chosen return to Britain from the US and appear in this film? Who do students think the film was aimed at and why? Is the timing of the film in any way significant? What about the contents - can students explain why much of the film focuses on British history? Why do they think the filmmakers chose to reference, among other things, the Magna Carta and the Spanish Armada? Above all, what does the film suggest it means to be 'British'?

From the Four Corners (1941) has some surprising moments - particularly the soldiers' dismissive reaction to a British woman who congratulates them for fighting for the 'motherland'? Why might a government-sponsored film seek to challenge the idea of Empire, instead highlighting Canada, New Zealand and Australia's independence from Britain? What do students know about the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations? Why did these countries achieve 'equal status' before other territories under Imperial rule reached independence?

The film suggests that Britain and her allies are fighting to defend values and ideals. How do the filmmakers imply this, directly and indirectly? Do students agree with this line of reasoning? What values does the film appear to elevate above others and can students make a case for these as essentially British ideals?

Useful films for comparison

  • Island People (1940): a celebration of the 'British character' in this propaganda film for a civilian audience that makes no mention of the war.
  • Christmas Under Fire (1941): a propaganda film aimed at an American audience.


From the Four Corners might offer a way into exploring students ideas about fighting for one's country. Do students believe citizens have a duty to protect the country they come from or live in? How might people's motives for joining the army changed since the film was made? Are students aware of countries where national service is mandatory and what are their opinions on this? What about conscription? Ask students to compare the film to modern examples of army recruitment. How is the army advertised on TV or in the press? Do students think a film like From the Four Corners, which suggests that we fight to protect universal values and ideals, would be effective today?

Alternatively, ask students to think about the values and ideals that the film allies with Britain? Do they understand these as 'British' principles? Is Gordon Brown right in arguing that "responsibility, liberty and fairness" are core British values? Perhaps they have different ideas about what Britain stands for - can they argue their case with other members of the class?

Useful films for comparison

  • Island People (1940): a propaganda film with some more ideas about what it means to be British.
  • Return to Life (1960): a film highlighting Britain's history as a haven for refugees .