Watching history in the filming

The Movies as History
December 1, 2000

This is a book for people who take films seriously. It is based on a series of essays originally published in History Today , dealing with the realities of movie making since the early days of cinema. It is not the stuff of which gossip columns are made, nor is it a handbook for aspiring producers and directors, but it is entertaining and informative and does give an unusually penetrating picture of the film industry in action. Mercifully, it is also comparatively free of the sort of stale studio anecdotes that tend to recur in publications of this kind and add weight rather than enlightenment to the bookshelves of the world.

Not surprisingly, given its provenance, the book is likely to have a particular appeal to film buffs with a taste for history and historians who like watching movies; but the scope of its coverage is wide enough to offer something for cinema goers of most tastes and ages. A score of writers took part in the project, many of them academics specialising in film and media studies at British and overseas universities.

Each film in the collection is open to a range of historical interpretations. And as David W. Ellwood points out in his introduction:

"Some films make history, some try to rewrite it, some invent it from scratch." This book, he makes clear, is about a group of films made by history: "Products of different societies at special moments of their recent evolution."

Each writer contributes a single essay, focused on a film of their choice. They worked independently of each other, with the result that individual viewpoints are registered more forcefully and unambiguously than might otherwise have been the case. There is no detailed index, but the 21 essays are listed thematically and chronologically under separate headings: "War stories", "Propaganda cinema", "Social commentary on screen" and "Films of romance and fantasy" - which cover, in one way or another, most aspects of human affairs and behaviour.

Inevitably, there is a certain amount of overlap between categories, and some curious juxtapositions of creative talents emerge as a result. For example, On the Waterfront , I'm All Right Jack, Citizen Kane and Alfie are all clustered together under "Social commentary". A case can be made for this grouping, since all four films made their mark as sharply observed chronicles of our own times, but the nature of the stories and the manner of their telling - ranging from broad trade-union leg-pulling and comedy to waterfront thuggery and drama - are distinctive enough to make the differences between them more apparent than the similarities. Actors of the calibre of Marlon Brando, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles and Michael Caine are, in any case, such dominant screen personalities that no one would be likely to begrudge them a category on their own.

The thematic approach of the book works better with some types of production than others. There seems to be a natural cohesion, for example, among the films featured in "War stories", perhaps because they have in common the sheer horror and degradation of human conflict as manifested in trench warfare, whether seen from the Allied or the German side. Thus, All Quiet on the Western Front seems at home in company with The Green Berets and Fires Were Started (a tribute to domestic bravery), although the first of these was made a generation ahead of the others. Even Star Wars does not look too out of place in their company.

Not all the films chosen for the book fit as neatly into their allotted slots or are instantly recognisable as great works of cinematic art. The inclusion - admittedly under "Romance and fantasy" - of Madonna of the Seven Moons , for example, must have raised a few eyebrows besides my own. I vaguely remember seeing it as an adolescent film goer in wartime Britain and finding Phyllis Calvert's swirling gypsy skirts a pleasant enough spectacle, but I do not think I left the cinema thinking that I had been exposed to anything more than an average piece of hokum. Interestingly, the essayist who tackles this film springs vigorously to its defence and even rebukes the critics, 50 years after the event, for failing to recognise its intrinsic merits at the time of the original release. Dilys Powell was apparently particularly scathing.

The book throws some interesting light on censorship in earlier years. The story of Alfie proved troublesome because it involved the termination of a pregnancy, but it was let through because the film was thought to deliver a clear message against back-street abortions. The censors also had to overcome doubts about a scene in which Alfie takes a pair of women's panties from his pocket and tosses them back with the line "...'ere, mind you don't catch cold". Occasionally, the censors got so involved in a film's development that they tendered helpful advice that had nothing to do with censorship. "I am doubtful," wrote one, "whether you can get a train from Waterloo Station to Forest Hill Station. I would have thought that Victoria was more likely."

Don Harker was formerly director of public affairs, Granada Television.

The Movies as History: Visions of the Twentieth Century

Author - David W. Ellwood
ISBN - 0 7509 233 18
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £14.99
Pages - 214

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