Best of British

Whisky Galore! and The Maggie - A Night to Remember - The Dam Busters - The 39 Steps
March 21, 2003

Here is a reliable, post-prandial pursuit: provoke a group of friends into compiling a list of their top five British films. It is not enough to name films that were simply made in Britain; the films should also be quintessentially British. It is a fair bet that at least one of the five will be among the films considered in this first wave of new British Film Guides.

Films such as these may be part of our youth or, failing that, of idly remembered afternoons in front of the television. Our memories will be nostalgic, either for our early remembrances of the films themselves, or alternately for the imagined pasts that they seem to recall.

The British Film Guides may certainly benefit from such nostalgia, but that is not their intent. Under the general editorship of Jeffrey Richards, they seek to re-evaluate some key examples of an industry whose products have been variously lauded or ignored - and whose demise and revival are repeatedly announced with equal certainty. Each short guide seeks to place its film in context, to provide a detailed reading of the film, and finally to account for its popular and critical reception then and now.

John Ramsden clearly relishes his sabbatical from "the drier zones of political history", and his admiration for The Dam Busters (1955) is plain to see. His regard for the events on which the film is based, however, is less deep. Most of the "German" deaths in the raids on the Mohne and Eder dams were in fact slave workers from Holland and the Ukraine, and the total was more than twice the number killed in the infamous Luftwaffe raid on Coventry in 1941.

Much of Ramsden's eloquent account of the film concerns its comparison with history, pointing out that for many, the "memory of the raid has increasingly become a memory of the film". While much of Ramsden's account is descriptive rather than analytical, he is aware of the film's "social messages", which include the leadership of the elite, the "insignificance" of women, and the priority of individual "character". It remains a film he finds "involving, moving and exhilarating".

For Jeffrey Richards, A Night to Remember (1958) is not only "the definitive 'Titanic' film", it is also one with "an overwhelmingly British feel". Like The Dam Busters , it seeks, and mostly achieves, a high degree of historical accuracy, and while Richards argues that the film's form and content combine to create a "neo-realist classic", he also considers its underlying social concerns: class, nation, gender, religion and ethnicity.

These, Richards (wisely) considers in the context not of 1912, the year in which the Titanic sank, but of British national identity in the years following the second world war. In this way, A Night to Remember "consciously or unconsciously" works as an allegory for a class-structured world that had been punctured not just in 1912, but also in 1939.

While Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) was not based on history, it was derived from John Buchan's novel of the same name. Here, explains Mark Glancy, significant departures were made. The film, for example, introduced a "love interest" and a romantic ending that were alien to both Buchan and the original. However, it did have an (arguably) unintentional historical voice as an "early and chilling warning" of 1939, while at the same time presenting Britain as a country "threatened as much by its own disunity and lethargy" as by any foreign power. So, while Buchan's novel was a "product of the nineteenth century", Hitchcock's movie belongs "entirely to the twentieth century and specifically to its most volatile decade".

Colin McArthur's account of Whisky Galore! (1949) and The Maggie (1953) deals with two films instead of one, and his expository style and approach are rooted much more in cultural studies than in history. Fundamental to this is his concern with what he calls the "Scottish Discursive Unconscious" - a concept that considers both the representation of Scots in cultural texts and the gulf between this and "historical reality". Although this magical and enchanting version of Scotland is essentially imposed by London and Hollywood, such is its hegemony that "the Scots themselves live within it!" So, although films such as Whisky Galore! and The Maggie appear to be about the bamboozlement of outsiders, they unwittingly contribute to the Scots' deception of themselves.

Each of these British Film Guides is illustrated with stills from their respective films and includes full cast and crew details, although, sadly, none of the books is indexed. It would, of course, be less than British to find nothing to complain about.

Richard Howells is lecturer in communication arts, University of Leeds.

Whisky Galore! and The Maggie

Author - Colin McArthur
ISBN - 186064 633 6
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £12.95
Pages - 104

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