The Rise of British Film


© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Given that Great Britain was on the cutting edge of modernity throughout the nineteenth century, it should come as no surprise that the British were, at least initially, very much at the forefront of the rise of a new, very modern, technology-dependent cultural medium that emerged in the last years of the nineteenth century. That medium, of course, was film. While most film histories place French and American innovators at the center of the early development of technologies for making and displaying films, it should be remembered that the first ever moving picture was shot in Leeds, England, in 1888, though it was shot by a French artist, Louis Le Prince. Indeed, the British film industry was quickly eclipsed by the French. By 1898 the leading British studio, Gaumont British Picture Corp, was actually a subsidiary of the French Gaumont Film Company. On the other hand, the first color film was also shot in England, in 1902. That same year saw the founding of Ealing Studios, which is still in existence today, making it the world’s oldest film studio. Then, partly due to the damaging effects of World War I in Britain and France, and partly due to the especially dynamic nature of the emergent consumer capitalism of early-twentieth-century America, both the French and the British film industries were eclipsed by Hollywood in the 1920s. Meanwhile, in that same decade, German and Soviet filmmakers took the lead in developing the art of filmmaking, though American filmmakers such as Buster Keaton (1895–1966) and Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) took the lead in developing the art of entertainment in filmmaking.

Of course, Chaplin was English by birth, and his career indicates the way in which the film industry was highly international from its very beginnings. Based on his birthplace, one could argue that Chaplin was the greatest British filmmaker of all time, though Chaplin is known primarily for the silent films he made in America, where he began and spent most of his career—as well as for American sound films such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Similarly, the first great director actually to make films in England, Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), would also ultimately move to America and become more famous for the films he made there. Still, Hitchcock produced a formidable body of work before leaving England, including a number of silent films. His silent film The Lodger (1927), in fact, is widely considered to be among the greatest British silent films. Meanwhile, Hitchcock was a genuine pioneer of British sound film. His 1929 film Blackmail can be considered the first British sound film, and many of his films of the 1930s were similarly groundbreaking. His thrillers The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) are among the most highly-respected British films of the 1930s and already show many of the elements of the Hitchcockian style that he would later perfect in America. Of course, Hitchcock’s British films of the 1930s were already influenced by American culture, in both style and content. For example, in Hitchcock’s 1936 Sabotage (an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent), characters watch the comic murderous violence of Disney’s cartoon short Who Killed Cock Robin? as a commentary on the content of the Hitchcock film and the Conrad novel.

Despite Hitchcock’s departure—and despite the tremendously damaging impact of World War II on British society, the British film industry truly blossomed in the 1940s, as the trio of directors widely regarded as Britain’s finest—David Lean, Michael Powell, and Carol Reed—all hit their strides at about the same time. Lean, for example, tops all directors with seven films appearing on the British Film Institute’s 1999 list of the greatest British films of the twentieth century. Of these, four—Brief Encounter (1945, No. 2 on the list), Great Expectations (1946, No. 5), Oliver Twist (1948, No. 46), and In Which We Serve (1942, No. 92, co-directed with Noel Coward)—were made in the 1940s. Other Lean films on the list include epic war films that both won Lean Academy Awards for Best Director: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, No. 11, set in World War II ) the lavish World War I epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962, No.3, set amid the Arab Revolt of World war I). Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), an epic adaptation of a Russian novel, also placed on the BFI list (at No. 27), furthering Lean’s reputation for making large-scale epic films in the latter part of his career. Lean was still making important films as late as 1984, when his adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India won numerous awards, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.[1]

Carol Reed (1906–1976) directed only two films on the BFI list of top British films, but his 1949 postwar noir drama The Third Man (discussed as an exemplary text at the end of this chapter) has the distinction of placing first on the list. Drawing heavily in the American film noir (and featuring a performance by Orson Welles, a leading American noir actor and director), The Third Man also adds its own distinctive touches while conducting a subtle examination of international intervention in postwar Europe. Reed’s 1968 musical Oliver! (an adaptation of the classic novel by Charles Dickens) placed at No. 77 on the BFI list and won Oscar for Best Director, as well as winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Other notable films by Reed include Odd Man Out (1947), winner of the first BAFTA[2] Award for Best Film and a film that addresses the intersectarian violence that has long troubled Northern Ireland, and The Fallen Idol (1948), which gained Reed an Oscar nomination for Best Director.[3]

Michael Powell (1905–1990) was perhaps the most visually innovative of the great British film directors of the 1940s, known especially for his groundbreaking use of color and for his inventive special effects. Among the most inventive of these was the 1940 Orientalist fantasy The Thief of Bagdad, which Powell made in conjunction with several others under conditions made difficult by World War II. This film featured a number of technical innovations, including the first major use of the blue-screen process. It is discussed as an exemplary text at the end of this chapter. Among Powell’s films included on the BFI Top 100 list are four from the 1940s, including The Red Shoes (1948, No. 9), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, No. 20), Black Narcissus (1947, No. 44), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, No. 45). All of these were co-directed with Powell’s frequent collaborator, the Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger (1902–1988). Working together as “The Archers,” Powell and Pressburger directed a total of 19 films together.[4] Powell also directed the 1960s thriller Peeping Tom, which has much in common with Hitchcock’s contemporaneous film Psycho. However, whereas Psycho was a major success, Peeping Tim met with a near-disastrous reception that seriously damaged Powell’s career. Critics have come around in the past half century or so, however, and Peeping Tom is now a highly regarded film. It came in at No. 78 on the BFI list of the top 100 British films. Also notable among Powell’s film’s is The Tales of Hoffmann (1951, co-directed with Pressburger). Derived from Jacques Offenbach’s 1881 opera of the same title (which was itself adapted from the fiction of T.A. Hoffmann, who is himself the protagonist in both adaptations). An elaborate musical spectacle, The Tales of Hoffmann remains, even today, one of the most mesmerizing visual and aural displays ever put on film.

In the 1950s, the British film industry continue to produce strong output, even though it was increasingly outstripped by Hollywood, with its far greater financial resources. Indeed, it was largely because of these resources that so many of Britain’s greatest talents (among both actors and directors) worked mostly in America during this decade—the one, after all. In which Hitchcock produced the bulk of his greatest work. In one interesting reversal, the American director Alexander MacKendrick worked mostly at Ealing Studios during the 1950s, directing such important films as Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955), all of which appear on the BFI Top 100 list. MacKendrick did, however, return to America to direct Sweet Smell of Success (1957), possibly his best-remembered film. Meanwhile, because of the repressive political climate in the U.S. in the 1950s, numerous left-leaning figures who were blacklisted from the Hollywood film industry moved to Britain to continue their careers there in the 1950s. Among the most prominent of these was Carl Foreman, writer of the Western classic High Noon (1951), who became an especially prominent figure in the British film industry. Meanwhile, the important noir director Joseph Losey, moved to England and lived and worked in England until his death in 1984, in the meantime making two films that are included on the BFI Top 100 list: The Servant (1963, No. 22) and The Go-Between (1970, No. 57). Others blacklisted in America who came to Britain to work in the film industry included writer Donald Ogden Stewart, who had won an Oscar for the screenplay for The Philadelphia Story (1941); Adrian Scott, who had produced the noir classics Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947); and former Orson Welles protegé Cy Endfield, who moved to Britain in 1953 and lived there until his death in 1995. And, of course, Chaplin and Welles, perhaps the two greatest geniuses in the history of American film, both spent most of the 1950s in Europe. Effectively exiled from the U.S. for his political beliefs in 1952, Chaplin took up residence in Switzerland for the remainder of his life, though he made one film during this period—A King in New York (1957)—in his native Britain, the only film he would make there. After appearing as an actor in The Third Man in 1949, Welles spent most of the next decade in Europe, working largely in Britain, including a starring role in a British radio drama based on his character from The Third Man, The Adventures of Harry Lime (1951–1952). He also directed two BBC television series in the 1950s, as well as working on several film projects in various European locations.

The 1960s were a time of resurgence for British popular culture. Led by popular bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, British music for a time stole the limelight from American music, becoming the most important trendsetters in rock ‘n’ roll, that most American of art forms. The mod revolution brought British fashion to the forefront as well, and British television also saw a particularly rich period, especially in the production of Cold War–related series such as The Avengers (1961–1969) and The Prisoner (1967–1968), which became popular as well. Of course, the best-known product of British Cold War culture was the wildly popular James Bond (who first appeared on film in Dr. No in 1962, with Scottish actor Sean Connery in the lead role) helping to fuel a resurgence in the popularity of British film as well. Indeed, with twenty-six entries on the list, the 1960s are represented by more films on the BFI Top 100 list than any other. These films include Dr. No but also include several important films that pointed in new aesthetic directions. Many had a decidedly political edge, and the early-1960s films of the “British New Wave” were heavily influenced both by the French New Wave in film and by “kitchen sink realism” of the “Angry Young Men” of 1950s British literature (see Chapter 7). The work of Tony Richardson (1928–1991) emerged particularly directly from that of the “angry young men.” His Look Back in Anger (1959) is an adaptation of the 1956 play of the same title by John Osborne, a leading member of the “Angry Young Men.” A Taste of Honey (1961, No. 56 on the BFI list) was also an example of the gritty depiction of working-class life that was typical of kitchen sink realism, while Richardson’s film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962, No. 61) was based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe, who also scripted the film. But Richardson was a versatile director who made many sorts of films. His highly regarded Tom Jones (1963, No. 51), scripted by Osborne based on Henry Fielding’s classic eighteenth-century novel, captures much of the exuberance of that original text, while enriching its class-oriented satire. His later film The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), based on a novel by the American writer John Irving, was a joint U.K.-U.S.-Canadian production that has become something of a cult classic over the years.

Director Lindsay Anderson made several important political films during this period, including This Sporting Life (1963, No. 52), scripted by David Storey based on his own 1960 working-class novel; if … (1968, No. 12), a satire of Britain’s private boarding school culture; and O Lucky Man! (1973), an anti-capitalist allegory. The most important British political filmmaker to emerge from the 1960s, however, was undoubtedly Ken Loach (1936– ), whose early film Kes (1969), based on a working-class novel by Barry Hines, was ranked at No. 7 on the BFI list. Loach would go on to become the most important British political filmmaker of all time, producing an impressive string of films over the next half century. Other than Kes, however, his most important and successful films did not appear until the 1990s. His work from Hidden Agenda (1990) onward will be discussed in Chapter 8.

Perhaps the most interesting British film director to emerge in the 1970s was Nicholas Roeg (1928– ), a former cinematographer whose eccentric and visual style can be taken as a marker of the coming of postmodernism to British film. Roeg began his directorial career with Performance (1970), which he co-directed with Donald Cammell. Performance is a gangster film that features Mick Jagger in a key role as a reclusive rock star; it was both controversial and unpopular upon its initial release, though it has become something of a cult favorite. It was ranked No. 48 in the BFI Top 100 poll and No. 7 in a 2018 poll by Time Out magazine. Roeg’s second film, Walkabout (1971), was a British-Australian co-production, set in the Australian Outback. Another box-office failure, Walkabout was greeted enthusiastically by critics and is still considered a masterpiece. Though it did not appear on the BFI Top 100 list (no doubt partly because it is often considered an Australian film), it was listed at No. 61 in the Time Out poll. The horror thriller Don’t Look Now (1973) was an even bigger success. Marked by highly inventive visuals and a fragmented narrative structure, this film was controversial (particularly for one notorious sex scene) on its first release but is now highly respected. It is listed as the eighth greatest British film in the BFI Top 100 poll and is, in fact, ranked in the Time Out poll as the greatest British film of all time. Roeg continued his innovative exploration of genre film with the highly unusual, surreal science fiction tale The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring rock icon David Bowie as a visitor from another planet who crash lands on earth. Another cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth maintains a core following of devoted fans, despite its strong early 1970s feel.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked The Man Who Fell to Earth the second best science fiction film of the 1970s, behind only Alien (1979), a U.S.-U.K. co-production helmed by British director Ridley Scott. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of British film from this point forward was an increasingly tendency toward globalization, with British writers, directors, and actors working extensively in films made both in Britain and abroad, especially in America and often in British-American co-productions. Other forms of internationalization were at work as well, as when the increasingly multicultural nature of contemporary Britain became more and more visible in British film. For example, one of the leading films of the 1980s was Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), scripted by Hanif Kureishi (the son of a Pakistani father and a British mother), focuses on relationships between Pakistani immigrants and white English citizens of London. The phenomena of globalization and multiculturalization and their impact of recent British literature, will be discussed in Chapter 7. The same phenomenon with regard to film, along with other recent developments in British film, will be discussed in Chapter 8.


[1] For a survey of Lean’s films, see Phillips.

[2] BAFTA—the British Academy of Film and Television Arts—is roughly the British equivalent of America’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars. It was founded in 1947 (as the British Film Academy) by a number of leading figures in the British film industry, including Lean, Reed, Powell, Alexander Korda, and Laurence Olivier.

[3] For a survey of the films of Reed, see Evans.

[4] For a survey of the films of Powell and Pressburger, see Christie.