the past in English war ﬁlms
AT THE VERY end of Saving Private Ryan (1998), Steven Spielberg presents us with a screen-ﬁlling view of the Stars and Stripes. The ﬂag is huge, well-travelled, loved and faded, like a Jasper Johns painting. It is held out bravely by the wind, which blows it rollingly across the full screen. It is now unthinkable that a British ﬁlm would end in such a strong, big-hearted and perfectly unironic way. Even British Airways took the ﬂag off their tail ﬁns, though it is to the point of my argument that a surprising number of people noticed the erasure and expostulated.
In addressing myself to the English and their Englishness I intend no offence, these neurotically offendable days, either to Scots, Welsh or Irish still ambivalently gathered under the heading `British' (and still formally recognising the Union Jack as their national ﬂag), still less to the 5 per cent of the population whose parents left the old empire some time between 1950 and 1970 or so for the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as held out in Birmingham, Bradford, Liverpool, East London and elsewhere. In part, indeed, I am addressing that smallish diaspora, since they came to what was thought of, not inaccurately, as the parent-nation in expectation of what parents should give, and that parent in particular: comfort, support, shelter, justice, authority, steadiness, love, trustworthiness. These were qualities which, it was alleged, the British at large and the English as dominant had contrived into the practices of a culture and the formations of a state. Those practices and formations were no doubt spotted and disﬁgured also by the usual bloody cold of the English as well as their mildish racism, but they would nonetheless pass liberal muster in most historical reviews. Englishness had for a season an honourable moral content and a____________________