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Projecting Britain at War

The National Character in British World War II Films


Jeremy Havardi


Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2014

Paperback. vii+224 p. ISBN 978-0786474837. $40.00


Reviewed by Melanie Williams

University of East Anglia



That most perceptive of film critics, Raymond Durgnat, once pronounced the war film to be the European equivalent of the Western, and placed particular emphasis on Britain’s continual return to war stories as a mean to navigate complex issues of national identity (just as the Western enabled America to make sense of itself). For the filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson the continual return to war as film material was symptomatic of Britain’s sclerotic cinema: ‘snobbish, emotionally inhibited, wilfully blind to the conditions of the present, dedicated to an out-of-date, exhausted national idea’. This richly contentious territory, the British war movie (more specifically the huge number of British films dealing with World War II), is the subject of Jeremy Havardi’s book. Covering British cinema of World War II from the early documentary The First Days (1939) through to more recent invocations of the conflict as seen in films such as Atonement (2007), Havardi notes the changes and developments in how the war has been presented across eight decades. For obvious propagandistic reasons, British films made during wartime had to have morale-boosting appeal or alternatively perform some kind of public service, as with Ealing’s grim illustration of the dictum that ‘loose lips sink ships’, Next of Kin (1942). But propaganda need not be anathema to creativity and as Havardi notes, wartime conditions enabled a remarkable renaissance in British cinema through productions such as In Which We Serve (1942), Went the Day Well? (1942), The Way Ahead (1944), San Demetrio London (1943) and The Way to the Stars (1945). Havardi picks out key tropes in British wartime cinema across a number of chapters: ‘Muddling Through with a Stiff Upper Lip’ on the home front; ‘The Triumph of Duty’ in service films; ‘the Victory of the Amateur’ in the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage and special operations. As the book moves into post-war cinema and its gradual return to war subjects, further chapters trace a shift from ‘obsessive nostalgia’ about the war to a ‘critique of deference’ from the 1960s onwards culminating in what Havardi regards as a post-1980s culture of narcissism which completely repudiates the self-sacrifice and stoical sense of duty which those earlier films had eulogised so beautifully. I am not completely convinced of this and think some of the rhetoric in this chapter shades into ‘going to hell in a handcart’ territory. For example:

The erosion of the traditional family, in part a consequence of welfare policy and changes in divorce law, was undermining the structures of moral authority that once regulated the behaviour of the young. The result of such family breakdown was spiralling crime, educational failure, drug abuse and alienation among the young. [189]

Well, as Wikipedia would say, citation needed. And if the death of Princess Diana really marked a definitive shift from ‘stoicism and emotional restraint’ to ‘a new ethic of hedonism [and] public emoting’ [190) then how to explain the post-millennial meme of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, a hardly-used wartime propaganda poster slogan now repurposed as a mantra for modern life. Its very ubiquity suggests that the stiff upper lip, rather than being utterly rejected as ‘an anachronism’ [202], may well still function as a behavioural ideal even in contemporary British society.

Havardi claims in his introduction that his study brings together ‘for the first time’ [7] analysis of the British war film genre, representations of English identity and the experience of World War II. However, I think this underestimates the extent to which this kind of interdisciplinary work has already been undertaken in excellent scholarship on the British war film from the likes of Jeffrey Richards, Anthony Aldgate, Robert Murphy and James Chapman, all of whom are cited here. Projecting Britain at War offers a useful opening discussion of the significance to British identity – still – of the myth of 1940 with its holy trinity of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, before moving into a more general discussion of English national character which has much to recommend it in its concise and deft summary of a complex field. But note that slippage between British and English. Such a complicated element of the composition of British national identity in a book aiming to anatomise that very thing deserves to be more fully excavated and explored than it is here:

Englishness came to define British character; it was the essence of Britishness. Naturally, any talk of a unified British identity is automatically contested and invites recrimination from non-English Britons who cling proudly to their own rich cultural heritage. But the fact that English traits were projected onto the wider British nation makes the confluence of these terms inevitable. [9]

This dispatches rather too briskly a contradiction of considerable significance to British war films. The inclusion of all those Gordon Jackson ‘Jock’ roles in wartime propaganda was not accidental; rather, it was a deliberate strategy in recognition of the need to include Scottishness within the fold of Britishness and not merely as ersatz Englishness but as its own distinctive iteration of what it means to be British. Further complexities around the supposed specificities of Britishness are revealed in the chapter on ‘Heroic Johnny Foreigner’ which concludes that British films about European resistance demonstrate that

the occupied peoples of Europe will never succumb to tyranny. Their … ingenuity and determination can win the day. In other words, the struggles of the Continent’s oppressed peoples are a powerful reminder that the virtues inspiring the British to victory are shared by their allies. [107]

Or, in other words, those virtues frequently celebrated as intrinsically British elsewhere might simultaneously be mobilised in other texts as transnational and pan-European (up to a point). It is a shame that the implications of this paradox about national character are left hanging and not taken up in more detail, given the illumination they might provide on just how protean national identity can be, even when it appears to be at its most fixed and consolidated, with certain ‘national’ traits moving freely across borders.

Even though Projecting Britain at War does not live up to its stated aim of uniquely synthesising film history with broader social and cultural history and mythology around ‘the war’, it does offer thorough and readable coverage of a genre which has proven absolutely foundational to British cinema.



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