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Women in Wartime by Michael Brooke
Introduction WWI WWII: Propaganda WWII: Newsreels WWII: Food Features: 1939-42
Features: 1943 Features: 1944-45 Gainsborough Women Filmmakers    
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Still from A Canterbury Tale

Eric Portman and Sheila Sim in
A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Following Millions Like Us the previous year, Launder and Gilliat continued to explore women's lives during wartime in both their 1944 releases. Two Thousand Women, as its title suggests, is the most fruitful in this context, being a melodrama about the inhabitants of a women's internment camp in northern France. An outstanding cast featuring the cream of British female acting talent of the time (Phyllis Calvert, Anne Crawford, Renée Houston, Jean Kent, Flora Robson, Patricia Roc and even a young Thora Hird) take undisguised delight in running rings round both their Nazi captors and the somewhat hapless British airmen who parachute within the camp's grounds, and the film's status as a populist rabble-rouser is summed up by the conclusion where the women, although still captive, defiantly sing "There'll Always Be An England". Though the mostly male critics of the time were dismissive, it was a big box-office hit and has gone on to find a healthy afterlife in feminist film studies.

Although Waterloo Road was primarily about the effect of the war on the life of army deserter Jim Colter (John Mills), it was also a portrait of a marriage suffering through the couple being separated almost as soon as the wedding vows were delivered. It is easy to see why Jim's wife Tillie is so taken with handsome spiv Ted Purvis (Stewart Granger), as he does at least offer the prospect of some excitement in what is otherwise a bleak and depressing existence. Mention should also be made of Launder and Gilliat's 1946 film I See A Dark Stranger, which revolves around a passionate Irish patriot (Deborah Kerr) siding with the Germans because she considers them the lesser of two evils when set against the Cromwell-worshipping Britons. In one telling scene, she attempts to make contact with a spy on a train, who turns out to be Katie Johnson, the lovable old lady from The Ladykillers (1955) and the very last person that one would expect to be a Nazi sympathiser.

But the outstanding release of 1944, albeit not appreciated as such at the time, was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's strikingly original A Canterbury Tale. Here land girl Alison (Sheila Sim) has glue poured in her hair by a mysterious assailant, subsequently revealed to be the local magistrate Colpeper (Eric Portman), motivated by a desire to prevent women from publicly consorting with soldiers – his somewhat implausible theory being that when denied this outlet, the soldiers will spend their spare time attending his lectures on local history. Typically for Powell and Pressburger, the film is much more complex than this brief summary suggests, especially when an encounter between Alison and Colpeper reveals that they have more in common (at least in their love of the English countryside) than they might have imagined.

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