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January 11, 2006

Film and History: Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film - James Chapman

Posted by Jeremy Black

Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film
by James Chapman
Pp. xvi+400. London: I. B. Tauris, 2005
Hardback, 39.50; Paperback, 14.99

The role of film in the moulding of public assumptions is well established and, in this first-rate study, James Chapman, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester, uses this as a way to consider the role of historical film in the representation of British national identity. He does so by means of a study of a number of films that are held to be key: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Iron Duke (1935), Victoria the Great (1937), Sixty Glorious Years (1938), This England (1941), Henry V (1944), Scott of the Antarctic (1948), Beau Brummell (1954), A Night to Remember (1958), Zulu (1964), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972), Chariots of Fire (1981) and Elizabeth (1998).

I have to confess that I have not seen all of these films, but, in the case of those I have seen, I am most impressed by Chapman's ability to use the films in order to make searching comments about the historical consciousness and filmic culture of the period. I will return to some of these points, but I would like first to say that, while Chapman's textual approach offers valuable multi-layered readings of key works, it inevitably means that there is not always room for much consideration of less significant films. This is a pity because it is inevitably the case that the latter also had a considerable impact. Hopefully, Chapman will go on to offer a discussion of the second-rank and indeed the mediocre, because they are important. For example, Carry on Henry is briefly mentioned, but there is no discussion of the entire Carry on historical corpus, nor of the overlap with television counterparts, particularly the Morecambe and Wise historical plays. This comic counterpointing of the mainstream - Zulu seen through Carry on up the Khyber for example - is but one instance of the value gained from searching for wider echoes.

Yet, in the space available, Chapman provides a wonderful job, ably refracting not simply domestic issues, for example presenting This England in terms of a conservative tradition of defining the essence of national identity in terms of the rural and the pastoral, but also foreign policy. Thus, Sixty Glorious Years is discussed in terms of its assertion of the need to protect Britain's national security, and that is related to governmental and public commitment to rearmament. Each film is discussed in terms of a cluster, and this is used to make perceptive comparisons. Thus, Zulu is discussed alongside Culloden and Zulu Dawn, and the criticisms made of empire thereby contextualised.

Zulu is followed by The Charge of the Light Brigade, an iconoclastically non-heroic representation, and Chapman brings out themes such as the debilitating impact of class. The clustering for this film includes Oh! What a Lovely War and, in contrast, films such as Where Eagles Dare.

Scott of the Antarctic leads to mention of San Demetrio, London (1943), The Cruel Sea (1953) and Dunkirk (1958), in part because it is presented as "a disguised war film", not least because the film expressed the same spirit of backs-against-the-wall determination that had been much in evidence during the war years and had come to be known as "the Dunkirk spirit". Chapman argues that the war film was informed strongly by narrative ideologies of nationhood, class and masculinity similar to those apparent in the historical film, and that Ealing's Britain was essentially middle class and conservative in its representation of social change and, especially, gender.

Chariots of Fire provides an opportunity to discuss the problems faced by independent producers, and, throughout, Chapman is searching about the commercial context. This is discussed very much in terms of a particularity that reflects Chapman's strong knowledge of his subject. The commercial context includes not only production but also reception, ranging from box office to critical response. Thus, the right-wing press repeatedly took offence at films that undermine the popular image of national icons, while its left-wing counterpart disliked those that ignored the wider social context. A comparison between Elizabeth and several near-contemporary historical films - including Land and Freedom (1995) and To Kill A King (2003) - is used to demonstrate that history must be both popular and accessible if it is to be turned successfully into a mainstream feature film. In this respect, as he pointed out, little had changed as Korda had learned this lesson in the 1930s when Rembrandt failed where The Private Life of Henry VIII had succeeded. Chapman's book is an important study that merits wide attention.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The Politics of James Bond (Greenwood Press, 2001, & University of Nebraska Press, 2005) and of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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