Stiff Upper Lip with a Portion of Propaganda; BOOKS REVIEW

Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), July 19, 1998 | Go to article overview

Stiff Upper Lip with a Portion of Propaganda; BOOKS REVIEW


CALLING Laurence Olivier's Henry V and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve propaganda films sounds ludicrous - but that's exactly what they were.

They were also brilliant movies in their own right and the test is that they still look good today.

Even before war broke out in 1939 the government had recognised the enormous potential of the cinema to boost morale and spread their message.

The films that followed included tributes to the heroes of the Home Front in movies like Fires Were Started and The Bells Go Down, while the armed services were celebrated in The Way Ahead, Millions Like Us and The Way To The Stars.

Among the best was San Demetrio, London, a moving tribute to the Merchant Navy from Ealing Studios, where the great Birmingham film producer Sir Michael Balcon was in charge.

Whether they were realist documentaries, feature films or a combination of the two, the common theme was simple - this was the people's war, cutting across class differences in a united determination to defeat the enemy.

In Which We Serve was a classic of its kind, with Coward 'Mountbattening' it on the bridge with his cut-glass accent while the chirpy lower deck chaps proved they were the salt of the earth.

Images of stoicism, emotional restraint, the stiff upper lip, chirpy defiance and understated courage were the language of these movies.

Plus that good old British sense of humour, with popular comedians like Tommy Trinder coming into their own on the big screen.

But not all of the films were so straightforward and one - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - caused a storm.

Churchill himself wanted it banned and questions were asked in the House of Commons, with some believing it was little short of treason.

With hindsight most people can now see that the Emeric Pressburger-Michael Powell masterpiece, made in 1943, was one of the best films to come out of the war years.

The film lampooned a certain kind of British officer for his traditionalist, old-fashioned attitudes and his failure to understand that times had changed and so must the army.

Blimp - Major General Candy VC played by Roger Livesey - was the kind of chap who saw war as a game of cricket and would rather lose than be accused of ungentlemanly conduct, no matter how badly the other side behaved. …

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