In this blog, Rob James explores how the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution impacted British film production in the mid-twentieth century. Rob tells us that the chance of a film being made depicting those tumultuous events depended on how they were presented. If the film demonstrated any sympathy towards the revolutionaries, then a ban was inevitable. Rob’s research covers society’s leisure activities and how they were shaped and controlled from both within and outside the entertainment industry. His research feeds into a number of optional and specialist modules that he teaches in the second and third year.
In the 1934 film Princess Charming, produced by Michael Balcon, one of Britain’s leading filmmakers at the time, Captain Launa, the upper-class suitor of the eponymous Princess, criticised the Bolshevik revolutionary activity taking place in the fictional Ruritanian country the action is set in, pointedly remarking: ‘There are no revolutions in well-governed countries’. It’s a clear message for cinemagoers, particularly those living in Britain, that revolutions only occur in countries without adequate governing structures. The implication, therefore, was that the British state, with its long-standing history of democratic government, could be trusted to solve any difficulties that the country was currently facing.
And Britain was certainly facing significant difficulties in the decade in which this film was made. Suffering from economic decline, high unemployment and rising poverty, and confronted by a series of national and international crises, Britain was a divided country, with many of its citizens feeling deep social and political discontent. Historians have described the period as a ‘devil’s decade’, a near-apocalyptic era that witnessed a rupture in the normally stable system of government. With many of the country’s inhabitants looking outwards towards Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany for an answer to their problems, this bubbling discontent was brought to the fore, and seemed to be encapsulated in, two events that took place in October 1936: the Jarrow March – when 200 men from that Tyneside town marched to London to protest about rising unemployment in traditional heavy industries; and the Battle of Cable Street – which saw clashes on London’s streets between Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and 100,000 anti-Fascist protesters.
On top of these tumultuous events, in December of that very same year the King, Edward VIII, renounced the throne so that he could marry the American-divorcee Wallace Simpson, creating a constitutional crisis. The fallout from the Abdication crisis was huge. Society’s leaders were concerned that if this important pillar of the British constitution could fall, then so could the others – namely democratic parliament could come crashing down at the whim of political extremism. As a result, any depiction of revolutionary activity in popular cultural media, like film, became a touchy issue. The political censorship of the film medium thus increased dramatically throughout the decade, and any film that attempted to deal with some of the most pressing social issues of the day was likely to be banned by the British Board of Film Censors, the organisation in charge of overseeing the censorship of the film medium. Reading the reports written up by the censors, it becomes clear that whether a film was passed or not was dependent on how it presented the ‘revolutionary’ element. In 1931, for example, The Red Light, a film said by the censor to depict London ‘on the eve of Red Revolution’, was prohibited. The film’s setting was its undoing – it was based too close to home! Another film, Red Square, despite being set in Russia, was prohibited in 1934 because it contained ‘sordid settings’. However, two other films that dealt with the revolutionary topic, Soviet and Knight Without Armour, were allowed to be produced; the former because, the censor noted, it emphasised ‘the forced labour and hard striving of the working class under the five year plan’; the latter because, it made ‘no attempt at political propaganda’.
The censor’s comments about Knight Without Armour‘s political neutrality aren’t quite true, however. The film does contain political propaganda. In its depiction of the Bolsheviks it openly condemns revolutionary activity. Produced by Alexander Korda, another leading filmmaker of the time who was sympathetic to the British constitution, Knight Without Armour is set in the throes of the 1917 Russian Revolution and depicts the Bolsheviks as brutish, self-indulgent, and only interested in personal gain. The country they have taken over is shown to have been thrown into chaos because of their activities. By contrast, the Russian aristocracy, epitomised by Marlene Dietrich’s Countess Alexandra, is portrayed in a sympathetic light. In one stunning sequence during which the revolutionaries storm the Countess’s palace, Dietrich is clothed in white and bathed in light: the embodiment of aristocratic purity and virtue.
The revolutionaries, in sharp contrast, are darkly attired and cast in shadow: a sinister, anonymous mob descending the hill to brutalise the Countess and lay waste to her home. By juxtaposing the protagonists in this way Knight Without Armour makes a powerful statement against Soviet Russia. It both instructs and educates the audience against the folly of trying to overthrow the system. It is film as political propaganda, persuading the audience to think in a particular way about the Revolution. In a time when the very foundations of British society were appearing to crumble, this was a very powerful message indeed. And this was undoubtedly the reason why the film was passed by the censors.
Of course, no film ever reflects reality, but all films will reveal something about the time in which they were made. And the British films that were made in this period that featured any form of revolutionary activity are perfect examples of this.
The messages they presented to cinemagoers who may have been agitating for radical change were clear: any form of violent overthrow of the established order was to be avoided at all costs, and there would be no need for a revolution in this well-governed country!
 Michael Balcon, Princess Charming, 1934.
 Early proponents of this view include Noreen Branson and Margot Heinemann, whose Britain in the Nineteen Thirties (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971) painted a picture of a country on the brink of collapse.
 Juliet Gardiner, The Thirties: An Intimate History (London: Harper Press, 2010), 441-446.
 Frank Mort, “Love in a Cold Climate: Letter, Public Opinion and Monarchy in the 1936 Abdication Crisis,” Twentieth Century British History 25, no. 1 (2020), 30-62: 33.
 Robert James, “‘The People’s Amusement’: Cinemagoing and the BBFC, 1928-48”, in Behind the Scenes at the BBFC: Film Classification from the Silver Screen to the Digital Age ed. Edward Lamberti. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 16-27: 17.
 British Board of Film Censors, ‘Scenario Reports’, British Film Institute, London. 15 December 1931.
 Ibid., 22 February 1934.
 See Ibid., 24 July 1933 and 18 February 1935 respectively. Soviet was initially opposed (Ibid., 11 March 1933) but was allowed to be produced after amendments were made.
 Alexander Korda, Knight Without Armour, 1937.