John Mills and British Cinema: Masculinity, Identity and Nation

By Gill Plain | Go to book overview

6
The Spectre of Impotence:
Fathers, lovers and defeated authority

More than any other postwar decade the 1960s was a period of random-
ness and cultural volatility in which planning and measured prediction
became largely untenable, with seismic shifts in generational relation-
ships, aesthetic sensibilities and the loci of creative energy. (Chibnall
2000: 329)

[T]ensions between men are rarely free of sexual undercurrents. (Medhurst
1993: 99)

'Ridicule's always the finish. Yo u know that?' (Kennaway 1988: 58)

At what point does the ageing war hero become an impotent figure of defeated authority? Quite possibly at the point when the prescriptive pressure of performing hegemonic masculinity becomes too demanding, and the hard shell of self-control, restraint and toughness finally cracks to reveal the vulnerable body beneath. For traditional British masculinities at the end of the 1950s, such a rupture had been on the cards for a while. Concluding their monumental survey of the period, Sue Harper and Vincent Porter suggest that the 1950s produced 'an anxious cinema, which worried away at the new social and sexual boundaries'. This was a cinema that was 'uneven, questioning, full of speaking absences, and shot through with new insights about the body and its discontents' (2003: 272–3). The gradual emergence of 'the body and its discontents' from behind a set of long-held and powerful cultural imperatives focused around coolness, calmness, repression and restraint had been all too painfully evident in the raw vulnerability of Mills's performance in Ice Cold in Alex, and the impossibility of continuing to live up to the expectations of phallic

-173-

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John Mills and British Cinema: Masculinity, Identity and Nation
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • 1: Introduction: Acting English 1
  • Part I 25
  • 2: A British Cagney? Cinema and Self-Definition in the 1930s 27
  • 3: Mills at War, 1940–45: the Nation Incarnate? 57
  • Part II 95
  • 4: A Cautionary Note: Great Expeditions and the Postwar World 97
  • Part III 135
  • 5: Dead Men, Angry Men and Drunks: Post-Traumatic Stress and the 1950s 137
  • 6: The Spectre of Impotence: Fathers, Lovers and Defeated Authority 173
  • 7: Playing the Fool: Comedy and the End of Everyman 207
  • Filmography 238
  • Bibliography 241
  • Index 249
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