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The triumphs and tragedies of battle

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The exoticism of war, which for most people in nineteenth century Britain was something which happened a long way away, made it a natural subject for the new medium of film. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the Boer War (1898-1902) were covered extensively - though the difficulties of getting anything more exciting than troopships disembarking and soldiers doing drill meant that audiences were more likely to be offered reconstructions such as James Williamson's Attack on a China Mission (1900) or Cecil Hepworth's Peace With Honour (1902). Cartoons, animated maps and reconstructed incidents also counted for much of the representation of the First World War, but here huge amounts of newsreel film of the actual conflict were shot too. Censorship meant that only a small proportion of it reached the cinema and, ironically, it was not until the 1960s with the BBC's 26 part series, The Great War (1964), that the extent and the historical importance of this material became apparent.

The high casualty rates among those who fought in the First World War made it difficult to either celebrate or condemn the war. 1920s war films tended to concentrate on war-torn romances like Woman to Woman (1923; 1929) and Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1926), or men coping with the physical or mental scars of war, such as Blighty (1927) and The Guns of Loos (1928). Also popular was British Instructional's convincing reconstruction of The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927). Revulsion at the waste wrought on young men's lives found expression in the stagebound early talkie, Journey's End (1930), and the rather more lifelike Tell England (1931). Towards the end of the decade, as it became clear that the rise of Hitler had made another war inevitable, films began to re-emphasise the German threat with superior espionage dramas like Dark Journey (1937) and The Spy in Black (1939). Their WWI settings were the only thing which distinguished them from similar films made after war was declared in September 1939, such as Contraband (1940) or Night Train to Munich (1940), where the villains are Nazis.

Spies and fifth columnists were the staple diet of films made during the first year of the war. In terms of action there wasn't much to feed on, and when things did start to happen - the collapse of Western Europe and the retreat from Dunkirk - they provided unappetising cinema fare. War comedies outmatched serious films, even about spies, and proved popular among the nervous and uncertain British cinema audience. Some now look distinctly unfunny, but others - such as George Formby's Let George Do It (1940) and the Crazy Gang's Gasbags (1940) - are so outrageously disrespectful of the Nazi menace that they retain a surreal effectiveness.

Realist films about the war stem from the Crown Film Unit's Target for Tonight (1941) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "...One of Our Aircraft is Missing" (1942), both dealing with the air war, which, with fortified Europe impregnable to invasion and the war against German U-boats going badly, was one area where Britain seemed able to hit back. David Lean and Noël Coward's, In Which We Serve (1942), the most successful British film of the war years, was all the more remarkable for dealing with a ship that had been sunk (Mountbatten's destroyer, HMS Kelly) in a lost battle (Crete). But, as Winston Churchill and innumerable propaganda films told the world, the British were at their best when their backs were against the wall. This spirit of underplayed heroism is captured most authentically and movingly in the dramatised documentaries Fires Were Started (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1943) and Western Approaches (d. Pat Jackson, 1944) and in commercial films such as Ealing's San Demetrio London (1943) and Two Cities' The Way to the Stars (1945).

Few war films were made in the immediate aftermath of the war, and when they were - as with Ealing's memorable exploration of undercover operations in Belgium, Against the Wind (1948) - failed to attract an audience. But maladjusted veterans play significant roles in films like Good Time Girl (1948), Man on the Run (1948) and most strikingly, They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). Veterans were still having problems adjusting to peacetime society in '50s films like The Intruder (1953), The Ship that Died of Shame (1955) and Tiger in the Smoke (1956).

Interest in the war was maintained by a string of autobiographical accounts of wartime experiences, and in 1950 two of the best of them were made into highly successful films: Odette and The Wooden Horse. A flood of resistance thrillers, prisoner of war camp dramas, and stories of military, naval and aerial heroism followed in their wake, making the Second World War film the mainstay of the British film industry in the '50s. Despite their unfairly acquired reputation for stiff-upper lip heroism, most of these films are surprisingly subdued and modest. The most conventional and easily caricatured - The Colditz Story (1955), Reach for the Sky (1955), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) - are far from formulaic and don't shirk from showing the pain and loss of war. The best - The Cruel Sea (1953), The Dam Busters (1954), Above Us The Waves (1955), A Town Like Alice (1956), Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and (for many) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - are impressive in their serious treatment of the moral dilemmas, the hard-won heroism, the cruelties of war.

The Second World War continued to fascinate cinema audiences throughout the 1960s and '70s, though there was a tendency to turn away from small-scale black and white dramas to action and spectacle in films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). More recently there have been numerous attempts to look back at the war, often at aspects hitherto little seen. David Leland's Land Girls (1998), Michael Apted's Enigma (2001), Gillian Armstrong's Charlotte Gray (2001), are rather too obsessed with glamorous surface detail, but John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987), Michael Caton-Jones's Memphis Belle (1990) and Jim O'Brien's The Dressmaker (1988), are refreshingly irreverent about the mythology of the war.

The success of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong has stimulated new cinematic interest in the First World War, though Gilles Mackinnon's Regeneration (1997), William Boyd's The Trench (1999) and Michael J. Bassett's Deathwatch (2002) have found it difficult to attract a wide audience. The Falklands and Gulf War have attracted massive television coverage but little in the way of fiction, although For Queen and Country (1988) tackled the bitter experience of a black soldier returning from the Falklands. As the last war with set piece battles and almost universal involvement, the Second World War is likely to continue to dominate the way in which war is represented in the cinema.

Robert Murphy

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 49th Parallel (1941)49th Parallel (1941)

Wartime drama: a Nazi U-boat crew is stranded in Canada

Thumbnail image of Attack on a China Mission (1900)Attack on a China Mission (1900)

Pioneering four-shot action drama set during the Boxer Rebellion

Thumbnail image of Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, The (1927)Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, The (1927)

Visually impressive reconstruction of two First World War naval battles

Thumbnail image of Blighty (1927)Blighty (1927)

Melodrama about the impact of WWI on a wealthy English family

Thumbnail image of Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

The first large-scale David Lean epic, a multi-Oscar-winning World War II saga

Thumbnail image of Canterbury Tale, A (1944)Canterbury Tale, A (1944)

Weird and fascinating tale of modern-day pilgrims in WWII

Thumbnail image of Dam Busters, The (1955)Dam Busters, The (1955)

Much-loved World War II classic about the famous bombing raid

Thumbnail image of Dunkirk (1958)Dunkirk (1958)

Ealing's ambitious, sombre account of Britain's pivotal defeat of WWII

Thumbnail image of Fires Were Started (1943)Fires Were Started (1943)

Classic wartime documentary directed by Humphrey Jennings

Thumbnail image of First of the Few, The (1942)First of the Few, The (1942)

Moving wartime biopic of R.J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire

Thumbnail image of For Queen and Country (1988)For Queen and Country (1988)

A young Falklands veteran faces a hostile world back home

Thumbnail image of Goose Steps Out, The (1942)Goose Steps Out, The (1942)

WWII comedy with Will Hay dropped behind enemy lines

Thumbnail image of Ice Cold in Alex (1958)Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Classic war film charting a perilous journey across North Africa

Thumbnail image of In Which We Serve (1942)In Which We Serve (1942)

David Lean/Noël Coward classic about a bombed WWII destroyer

Thumbnail image of Let George Do It! (1940)Let George Do It! (1940)

George Formby comedy that doubles as anti-Nazi propaganda

Thumbnail image of Lion Has Wings, The (1939)Lion Has Wings, The (1939)

Patriotic drama made as propaganda for British air forces

Thumbnail image of Way Ahead, The (1944)Way Ahead, The (1944)

Inspiring propaganda film following the making of an Army unit

Thumbnail image of Went the Day Well? (1942)Went the Day Well? (1942)

Chilling classic imagining a brutal Nazi invasion of a small English village

Thumbnail image of Wooden Horse, The (1950)Wooden Horse, The (1950)

Three British POWs escape from the notorious Stalag Luft III

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