Re-imagining the war in British film, 1945-1955

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Boyce, Michael William
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In the immediate post-war years, the war is curiously, although not totally, absent in British film, which seem to be occupied with “getting on” with life and offering distraction from the realities of post-war life. It is the time of the celebrated Ealing comedies, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), Dickens adaptations, and the Archers’ most ambitious projects. Critics tend to ignore these films that suppress the presence of the war when drawing connections to the post-war situation. However, the impact of the war is very much present in these films through the types of characters portrayed and common themes of displacement and isolation. In looking at representation of middle-class women and men in British film of the post-war period, I examine the screen personae of Celia Johnson and Deborah Kerr, and Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness. I look at how, through their various film incarnations, these four actors create screen personae of solid, dependable middle-class men and women, with their accompanying ideals of duty, community responsibility and obligation. I contextualize these identities in hardships of post-war life, using Angus Calder’s The People’s War. Focussing on Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1951), I re-examine British film noir, suggesting these films reveal British vulnerability and anxieties about their own displacement by America during the so-called “American Occupation” of Britain. In these films, maladjusted, childlike American protagonists disrupt and upset the social stability of the ancient cities – London and Vienna – where they find themselves. The structural damage of these cities creates liminal space that allows outsiders like Holly Martins, Harry Lime, and Harry Fabian the room to operate and to disturb. The final chapter speculates on the possible reason for re-casting and adapting the iconic British narrative of Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1946), Nicholas Nickleby (1947), Oliver Twist (1948) and Scrooge (1951). Drawing connections between the post-war study The Neglected Child and His Family and D.W. Winnicott’s theories on childhood development, I suggest that these narratives consider the problem of neglected children in post-war Britain through the safety of historical and literary distancing.
British Film