The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

British Cinema: The Search for Identity


The history of British cinema has always been at best an uneven one, marked by cycles of confidence and expansion followed by decline and stagnation. The period from 1960 saw similar fluctuations but with one crucial difference: by the early 1990s it was possible to argue that the British cinema, as an entity rooted in a particular industrial infrastructure producing a certain critical mass of audio-visual fictions for exhibition in cinemas, no longer existed. Films continued to be made but most were primarily for a television audience, with perhaps a brief theatrical 'window' as a kind of showcase, and the films that were most selfconsciously 'English' were predominantly made with American money and for the American market. This period, then, marks a process of fundamental transition or terminal decline, depending on your view of what cinema is or ought to be. It begins in the middle of a boom, but one which already marked a shift on the part of certain British producers to establish a degree of independence from the dominant structures of the industry. Such 'independence' would achieve even greater significance in the 1980s, but by then the industry itself had changed irrevocably.


The dawning of the 1960s coincided with a period of invigoration in the British cinema after what many had regarded as the inert complacency of the previous decade. The British 'New Wave', with its focus on contemporary working-class experience, grew out of 'Free Cinema', a movement of oppositional film-makers and critics like Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson, committed to shaking up moribund British film culture. These film-makers had produced influential documentaries in the late 1950s, such as Momma Don't Allow ( Richardson, 1956), Every Day except Christmas ( Anderson, 1957), and We Are the Lambeth Boys ( Reisz, 1959), on subjects such as the emerging youth culture and more traditional aspects of working-class life. Their ambitions to graduate into features required both appropriate subjects and sources of finance.

As so often in British cinema history, the inspiration for these film-makers was provided by literature and the theatre. This came in the shape of the works of the 'Angry Young Men': frank and uncompromising slices of 'real life' served up by young writers John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne, and others. Their collective disenchantment with the smugness and false promises of post-war British society struck an ideological chord with the proponents of Free Cinema. In 1959 Tony Richardson and John Osborne came together to form Woodfall Films with American impresario Harry Saltzman, which led to screen versions of Osborne's plays; Look back in Anger ( 1959), with Richard Burton , and The Entertainer ( 1960), with Laurence Olivier, both of which Richardson had previously directed at the Royal Court.

Woodfall was supported by another independent, Bryanston Films, chaired by industry stalwart Michael Balcon, which enabled them to release their films through British Lion. The bridgehead established, Richardson's Free Cinema colleagues followed him into features, often with the collaboration of the authors and playwrights whose works inspired them. Karel Reisz made his highly successful adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ( 1960), perhaps the most accomplished of the northern working-class 'young man on the make' scenarios due largely to the central performance of Albert Finney. Lindsay Anderson contributed the raw and brutal This Sporting Life ( 1963), adapted by David Storey from his own novel. However, Richardson continued to be the most prolific of the group, collaborating with Shelagh Delaney (the only woman in the 'Angry' coterie) on A Taste of Honey ( 1961) and with Sillitoe on The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner ( 1962).

Allied Film Makers, a new independent company formed by Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough, also emerged under the British Lion umbrella. The company produced several films including Whistle down the Wind ( Forbes, 1961) and The L-Shaped Room ( Forbes, 1964), a rare example in the genre of a contemporary subject featuring a young woman's experiences in London's bedsit land. Outside the aegis of Woodfall and British Lion other notable contributors to the British 'New Wave' included John Schlesinger, another former documentarist, who directed A Kind of Loving ( 1962) and Billy Liar ( 1963). The latter shared the working-class, urban milieu of the genre, but deflected its characteristic anger and desperation into comedy, centred around an undertaker's clerk who lives in a world of fantasy.

Collectively these films constituted the latest manifestation of a progressive realist aesthetic in British cinema, dating back to Grierson's 'documentary ideal' which involved a gradual extension of the cinematic franchise to include realistic representations of the lower orders in society. And while many can be criticized for their overt sexism and machismo, the New Wave films did mark a certain aesthetic evolution in British cinema, from the initial largely studio-based productions of Room at the Top and Look back in Anger, to the freer cinéma-vérité style of


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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