America Through a British Lens
Cinematic Portrayals, 1930-2010
James D. Stone
Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2017
Paperback. 216 pages. ISBN 978-0786498147. $39.95
Reviewed by Andrea Gazzaniga
Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights
In his critical monograph, America Through a British Lens : Cinematic Portrayals 1930-2010, James D. Stone (Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of New Mexico), succinctly states the book’s governing inquiry in its Preface: “This book asks why British films have consistently portrayed Americans as a decidedly different breed, and chronicles the distinct phases of Britain’s fascination with its transatlantic ally” . Stone’s extensive research, as evinced in his prodigious bibliography, substantiates his claim that this book-length study of British cinema’s representations of America is a first in the field.
The book’s introduction lays out the terms by which certain British films demonstrate a “tension between acceptance and rejection” of Americanism  and uses the otherwise unremarkable musical As Long as They’re Happy (dir. J. Lee Thompson, 1955) as its grounding case study. Stone begins with the plausible premise that when the United States began usurping Britain’s role as economic world power, British cinema became a “forum within which Britain could allegorically present and explore its mixed feelings regarding the United States” . Stone argues that in a post-war society financially indebted to its ally from across the pond, British filmmakers became the gatekeepers for what and how much American cultural influence should be allowed to infiltrate the public consciousness. Moreover, Hollywood as a “conduit through which mediocre, excessive, and eccentric American culture flowed to Britain”  compelled the British film press to denounce and criticize whatever Tinsel Town churned out. Stone smartly comments that such attitudes against Hollywood were largely “born of snobbery…and jealousy, since it was patently obvious that American films were preferred by the British public, shown more often on British screens, and made more money than relatively small-scale British productions” . Once the book establishes its thesis, it then becomes quite easy to understand how such tensions surrounding British national identity play out in a variety of films. For cinema scholars, the book offers a good resource for contextualizing a particular aspect of British film history through primary press sources and for understanding the fraught relationship between British national identity and its cinema.
The book’s seven chapters move chronologically through British film history, beginning with the 1930s and ending with the years following 9/11. While each chapter focuses on films made within a particular time period, there is much thematic overlap that sometimes threatens to become unnecessarily repetitive. For instance, the British class system is a recurring topic, though this is perhaps understandable given how class issues represent the most obvious dividing line between British and American identities. Once we arrive at Chapter Seven (“You’re his little English bitch and you don’t even know it” : Gendering Anglo-American Relations in Post 9/11 British Cinema), we are grateful to read a new argumentative thread that substantively deals with gender for the first time. Indeed, this final chapter, which discusses films from diverse genres, such as Love Actually (dir. Richard Curtis, 2003) and 28 Weeks Later (dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), offers the book’s most original and broadly useful contribution to the subject of British and American masculinity.
Stone’s main argument demands a scholarly approach able to distinguish between general public sentiment about American culture and what the arbiters of film content (and those who fund them) wished to convey about it. His strongest claims emerge when he explicitly addresses that distinction. For example, Chapter Three (“Johnny in the Clouds : Middle-Class Fantasies of the American G.I.”) examines how the increase in reformist middle-class staffers within the British film industry during World War II resulted in “slightly more subversive films” that registered a “dissatisfaction with society as it stood” . Stone suggests that these filmmakers who wished to challenge Britain’s class system used the American as a “fantasy figure” who was “endowed with the best qualities of each social class and unencumbered by their faults” . Yet, Stone rightly acknowledges that such portrayals may have been motivated by propaganda “carefully designed to send a message, primarily to British audiences, that Anglo-American relations are healthy” . In other words, films made during World War II that dealt with the British class system were meant to soften a “potential source of friction between the British and Americans” while films that portrayed sympathetic American servicemen were responding to pressure from British authorities who “required that the film industry provide positive images of an ally" . Although he concedes that such propagandistic motivations existed, Stone believes filmmakers still managed to treat “subversive themes” in their movies despite being closely monitored by the Ministry of Information . His argument aligns nicely with the history of American film noir and the way Hollywood filmmakers managed to tell sordid stories despite being beholden to the censorious Breen Office.
The book is written from a British point of view, which makes sense since it is looking at America “through a British lens.” Yet, Stone’s analysis would carry more critical weight if he consistently took a step back to locate and highlight the many hypocrisies and ironies in how the British define themselves. It seems as though some British self-assessments are taken at face value (while others are not) without fully interrogating just how flawed and willfully deceptive they are. For example, Stone cites various magazine articles and film reviews from the 1930s through the 1950s in which sanctimonious British critics blast American pop cultural products that reflect a pervasive thirst for violence and sexual tawdriness. Such critics valorize British “self-restraint” and high moral values while lambasting American culture’s banality and excess. Of course (and what Stone does not mention), such characterizations merely carry on the tradition of a Victorian repressiveness that would blush to acknowledge the fact that horror as entertainment and stories of sensationalism, sexual exploitation, and the thrilling excesses of perverted desires originate within British literary culture. Indeed, analyzing the intersection between Britain’s literary history—one that includes penny dreadfuls and the gothic—and its film industry, which Stone rightly notes was oppressively monitored, might have yielded some illuminating contradictions about how a nation consciously attempts to define itself through cinematic media.
While a book focused exclusively on cinema would understandably not devote much space to British and American television, widening the scope of Stone’s thesis to include the small screen might present fruitful discoveries and contradictions for future scholars. One imagines how the proliferation of British period productions that have saturated American audiences in the past twenty years complicates the notion of British national identity in contradistinction to American identity. For example, an appointment television event such as Downton Abbey clearly markets nostalgia for the class-conscious, stiff upper-lip Britishness that the American ideal roundly rejects. Yet, if a show like Downton Abbey peddles nostalgia for an imperial Britain, where the divisions between upstairs and downstairs were a matter of national pride, then why do American audiences obsessively indulge in a wistful portrayal for something that contradicts the most fundamental tenets of their own national identity? Clearly, the British entertainment industry knows the answer and has capitalized on it again and again. Suddenly, Stone’s claim that British resiliency asserts itself in its rejection of Americanization (“Perhaps the most compelling evidence of Britain’s resiliency is its success in resisting Americanization” ) becomes amusingly ironic when we consider that the greed and crude covetousness that supposedly characterizes “Americanization” is precisely what compels British production companies to make the very dramas that perpetuate myths about the British “being above” concerns of material wealth. Of course, such an irony is also glaringly apparent in the British film industry that Stone examines, though that irony is never fully stated or addressed. The brazen hypocrisy of a moneymaking British film industry that attempts to distinguish “the American’s love for cash with the Briton’s relative indifference to it”  is both amusing and oddly glossed over.
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