War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945

War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945

War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945

War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945


In this original and engaging work, author Kent Puckett looks at how British filmmakers imagined, saw, and sought to represent its war during wartime through film. The Second World War posed unique representational challenges to Britain’s filmmakers. Because of its logistical enormity, the unprecedented scope of its destruction, its conceptual status as total, and the way it affected everyday life through aerial bombing, blackouts, rationing, and the demands of total mobilization, World War II created new, critical opportunities for cinematic representation.

Beginning with a close and critical analysis of Britain’s cultural scene, War Pictures examines where the historiography of war, the philosophy of violence, and aesthetics come together. Focusing on three films made in Britain during the second half of the Second World War—Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945)—Puckett treats these movies as objects of considerable historical interest but also as works that exploit the full resources of cinematic technique to engage with the idea, experience, and political complexity of war. By examining how cinema functioned as propaganda, criticism, and a form of self-analysis, War Pictures reveals how British filmmakers, writers, critics, and politicians understood the nature and consequence of total war as it related to ideas about freedom and security, national character, and the daunting persistence of human violence. While Powell and Pressburger, Olivier, and Lean developed deeply self-conscious wartime films, their specific and strategic use of cinematic eccentricity was an aesthetic response to broader contradictions that characterized the homefront in Britain between 1939 and 1945. This stylistic eccentricity shaped British thinking about war, violence, and commitment as well as both an answer to and an expression of a more general violence.

Although War Pictures focuses on a particularly intense moment in time, Puckett uses that particularity to make a larger argument about the pressure that war puts on aesthetic representation, past and present. Through cinema, Britain grappled with the paradoxical notion that, in order to preserve its character, it had not only to fight and to win but also to abandon exactly those old decencies, those “sporting-club rules,” that it sought also to protect.


My father fought a hard war. He fought Hitler, prosecuting the war with
a violence that proved uncontainable. I don’t know how to solve that, but
without men like my father the war would not have been won!

—Derek Jarman, The Last of England (1987)

I began to think about the arguments presented in this book in 2003 when the beginning of war in Iraq made it hard not to see war everywhere. I found that the books I read, the records I listened to, and the films and shows I watched all seemed to be about war even when they had evidently little to do with war. in ways both necessary and helplessly trivial, I felt that I saw war everywhere and that seeing war was maybe what interpretation was for. But why? What made looking for evidence of war where it apparently wasn’t seem like a necessity? Why was it that war seemed to touch objects and ideas so distant from it? Was this creeping significance a matter of my imagination—maybe even my guilt—or was it rather evidence of something larger, a shift in how one thinks during a conflict that was imagined as open-ended and exceptional? How did a war, which was only barely about itself, manage to make everything else about war, too? With these questions in mind, I began with my colleague Alan Tansman to prepare graduate and undergraduate courses on war and representation. We paired texts that addressed particular wars with contemporary novels, poems, or films that seemed to have little or nothing to do with their wars, that is, with texts that held their wars “at a distance.” How did representations work differently as they drifted across the porous border between texts that treated war and its consequences directly and those that addressed them obliquely or not at all? The Iliad is about war and so is All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Although they don’t address their wars directly, there is little doubt that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946) are also about war. But . . .

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