3. How did the outbreak of World War II affect the content of British film in the early 1940s?
After the Hollywood influenced period in the 1930s (Newi.ac.uk) with films lacking political and social critique and a dominant working-class theme (Jill Nelmes: 314), British cinema changed with the beginning of World War II as the isolated Britain feared invasion (Robert Murphy) and political awareness became a major issue. Following a short closing of cinemas, suspecting raids at the outbreak of the war (British Film Resource: World War II), a new inward-look appeared, using the crisis to abandon old divisions and grudges (Jill Nelmes: 314-315).
Few victories first resulted in rare ideas, but early the need for escapism - with cinema as the biggest entertainment sector (James Chapman: 196) - nurtured absurd comedies and comedy-thrillers of the “phoney-war” period (Robert Murphy). In 1939-40, optimistic films such as Gasbags (Walter Forde and Marcel Varnel, 1940) used humour to make times endurable, offering a way to switch-off (Robert Murphy).
Similarly, Gainsborough melodramas in the later war years gave visual joy through costume and set design and with “narratives of sexual desires, jealousy and revenge” (Jill Nelmes: 316) as in The Wicked Lady (Leslie Arliss, 1945). Films like Proud Valley (Pen Tennyson, 1940) showed social effects of unemployment, poverty and tragedy but focusing on community unity (British Film Resource: World War II).
Like the Germans, the British government began to make cinema an instrument for offensive propaganda and the projection of national ideas, most of all national unity (James Chapman: 226). Thus, they set three themes to get people’s support, consisting of Britain’s goals in war, how this is achieved and the sacrifice needed from individuals. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944) concentrated on moral righteousness, national unity and the triumphing English army (James Chapman: 226), but films minimized social division problems (Jill Nelmes: 315).
Soon the war-themes bored the audience, being already present in daily lives, so a new realism became popular, a fictional feature with documentary techniques where British people could identify with mundane characters who are fighting against for example the Germans (Suite101.com: 1940s British Cinema). This emphasized the evolving theme of a new Britain, centring around various people from different backgrounds and places, uniting against the thread and sacrificing individuals for greater purposes as in A Canterbury Tale (Powell and Pressburger, 1944), which unites land girls and villagers. Public and private lives are stressed to outline their relationship and convince viewers of their responsibility as a member of society. That is why huge state sponsorships furthered the documentary movement (Jill Nelmes: 315).
Milltons Like Us (Launder and Gilliat, 1943) is a “good example of consensus wartime filmmaking” (Jill Nelmes: 315) which merges melodrama and documentary realism, presenting an ordinary female character dealing with the wartime, giving the audience a sensation of familiarity; later, it picks up the unity theme and resolves class tension (Jill Nelmes: 315-316). This also shows another common adaption caused by the war; women were displayed as important roles in society, taking up the work left by fighting men, thus, supporting the battle. These films were supposed to inspire and encourage the audience and simultaneously appealed to them, too, causing the highest cinema attendance (Suite101.com: 1940s British Cinema).
British films in the early 1940s have been influenced on the one hand by the political power, using propaganda to create a new Britain that stands united against the Nazis, whereas the audience, eager to escape the daily worries boosted by the war, chose melodramatic films and comedies to cope with the situation.