University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Re-using the past: history on film.

In this blog Dr Rob James, senior lecturer in history, reflects on the issue of ‘truth’ in historical feature films, revealing how filmmakers have frequently used past events to comment about contemporary situations. Rob specialises in researching people’s leisure pursuits, and teaches a number of units on film and the cinema, including his second year option unit ‘The Way to the Stars: Film and cinema-going in Britain, c. 1900-c. 2000’ and the final year Special Subject strand ‘Cinema-going in Wartime Britain, 1939-1945’.

Image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org

As James Chapman has noted in his masterly book Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film, ‘a historical feature film will often have as much to say about the present in which it was made as about the past in which it was set’. [1] Watching Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk reminded me again of how ‘British’ history has been used in order to comment upon contemporary events. The film, which features an ensemble cast, including major stars of the big screen such as Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Mark Rylance, along with lesser known actors like Fionn Whitehead and former One Direction singer Harry Styles, re-enacts that now legendary event in British Second World War history when allied troops evacuated northern France in the face of the German force’s onslaught. As Peter Bradshaw pointedly remarked in his review for The Guardian, the film is a perfect metaphor for these Brexit times, focusing as it does on the plucky spirit of this small island against an immense and belligerent continental foe. [2]

Historians and critics have regularly reacted in horror at the way filmmakers or television producers have depicted the past. This commonly revolves around two issues, both relating to historical accuracy, or more to the point, the lack of it. Loud shouts of derision have been made about the appearance of a wristwatch on a charioteer’s arm (in Ben Hur [1959]), or the sound of collared doves cooing in nineteenth-century Britain (the birds weren’t introduced into the country until the 1950s). These are foolish mistakes, of course, but they don’t do any real damage. Film’s distortion of the past for ideological reasons is seen as more troubling, however. Why, the Daily Mail’s Chris Tookey howled in 2012, did director Phyllida Lloyd have to make Margaret Thatcher a feminist icon in The Iron Lady (2011)? [3] Earlier in the century, Hugo Davenport and Stuart Jeffries raised their own concerns about films’ rewriting of the past as way of scoring political points. [4] These are important matters, of course. If, as these critics argue, films and television are the only way the majority of people receive their history education, then distorting the past for political gain can have significant consequences.

Image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org

However, the purpose of ‘history’ as a subject of study is to analyse and debate the past; to interpret evidence rather than regurgitate key ‘facts’ (and whose ‘facts’ are they anyway? One person’s truth can be another person’s distortion). Rather than getting animated about the ways in which feature films and television histories distort the past, why don’t we learn from James Chapman’s observation and start to think about why events are portrayed in the way that they are? What can that tell us about the messages that are being presented to audiences? We need to acknowledge that films don’t offer a window on the past, but a refraction of it, thus allowing us to understand social mores during the times they were made. Indeed, if we look back across the twentieth century we can identify many instances in which contemporary problems were addressed, and resolutions to them offered, in historical feature films. Here are just a few examples…

Image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org

The first big British historical film success at the box-office arrived in 1933 with Alexander Korda’s lavish production The Private Life of Henry VIII. The period was one of economic, industrial, and political strife (the reverberations of 1929’s Wall Street Crash were still strong) resulting in the devaluing of the British pound and, after the collapse of the ruling Labour government, the formation of the National Government in 1931. [5] Korda used the film to highlight the importance of social unity and, through careful editing, compared the lives of the country’s lower orders with the lives of those in the Royal Court to show that people lower down the social scale were far more satisfied with their situation. They may have worked hard, but they were free; they were not shackled by the chains that restricted the King’s lifestyle. Why did Korda do this?  In a time of social turmoil he hoped to reassure contemporary working-class cinema audiences about their social positon while also discouraging them from wanting power. He was thus using the film to endorse the political and social situation in 1930s Britain. [6]

Image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org

The international success of Henry VIII encouraged other British filmmakers to turn to the country’s past in order to comment on the contemporary situation, and later in the 1930s Herbert Wilcox made two hugely popular films covering the reign of Queen Victoria, who at that time had been Britain’s longest-serving monarch (Queen Elizabeth II surpassed that on 9 September 2015). The first film, 1937’s Victoria the Great, was made as a response to the Abdication Crisis of the previous year. The crisis had rocked British society, with many people fearing it would threaten the country’s stability. [7] Into the breach stepped Wilcox with his film aimed at bolstering confidence in the monarchy by celebrating Victoria’s long and (in Wilcox’s depiction) glorious reign. Wilcox’s second ‘Victoria’ film, Sixty Glorious Years, released in 1938, dealt less with domestic issues, focusing instead on overseas difficulties, namely the rise of fascism in Europe. The film was basically a call for national preparedness in the face of the growing menace emanating from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy (it was released just after the Munich Agreement of the same year). Britain’s historical past was thus being utilised to resolve contemporary problems. [8] Korda and Wilcox may have bended the ‘truth’, but their distortions of the past were made as a response to what they perceived to be the needs of society at that time. The films’ popularity suggests that they were tapping the right nerve!

Image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org

Of course, the real test for filmmakers came during the Second World War when the British film industry was utilised to help instil confidence in the country’s victory in the conflict (2016’s Their Finest, starring Gemma Arterton as the fictional propaganda film scriptwriter Catrin Cole, does a sterling job at portraying the government’s efforts to encourage filmmakers to use the medium in the national cause). As a result, Britain’s past was once again deployed to respond to contemporary issues. Films such as Thorold Dickinson’s The Prime Minister (1941), Carol Reed’s The Young Mr Pitt (1942), and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) drew on the activities of various British leaders – Benjamin Disraeli, William Pitt the Younger, and Henry V respectively – in order to boost the morale of cinema audiences. Gainsborough Studios, meanwhile, deployed British history to respond to the changing social mores of the period, and their films featured an array of female characters who participated in a whole manner of thrilling, often highly immoral, acts. 1945’s The Wicked Lady, for example, starred Margaret Lockwood as a seventeenth-century aristocrat who swaps her domestic drudgery for a life of excitement as a highway robber. Her impassioned refrain “I’ve got brains, and looks, and personality. I want to use them, instead of rotting here in this dull hole” would have spoken volumes to the millions of wartime women who had swapped their domestic chores for the experience of working in factories and fields as part of the war effort.

It is fitting, then, that Dunkirk draws on this period in Britain’s history. Almost as soon as the Second World War ended filmmakers began looking to the conflict as a source of inspiration (Ealing’s The Captive Heart, set in a German POW camp, appeared as early as spring 1946). Many filmmakers wanted to portray Britain in its ‘finest hour’ in order to instil confidence in the present. Dunkirk, then, is just one in a long line of historical feature films whose use of Britain’s past can be seen to draw parallels with contemporary events. As Rafael Behr wryly noted in an Opinion piece for The Guardian, the Dunkirk spirit has become ‘an emblem of national character – a metaphor for plucky survival against insuperable odds, and a benchmark of resilience’. [9] While not using the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ in the way that the likes of Nigel Farage and other right-wing commentators would perhaps like, by drawing on this event in Britain’s Second World War history, and by presenting a reassuring image of British courage in the face of seemingly impossible odds, Dunkirk’s portrayal of the past is a perfect antidote to these troubled Brexit times. [10]



[1] James Chapman, Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film (London. I.B. Tauris, 2005), p. 1.

[2] Peter Bradshaw, “Dunkirk review – Christopher Nolan’s apocalyptic war epic is his best film so far”, The Guardian, 17 July 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/17/dunkirk-review-christopher-nolans-apocalyptic-war-epic-is-his-best-film-so-far

[3] Chris Tookey, “What a crying shame. Meryl Streep’s brilliance as Mrs T can’t save an ill-conceived film that distorts history”, Daily Mail, 6 January 2012 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2082431/The-Iron-Lady-film-review-Meryl-Streeps-Oscar-quality-brilliance-save-ill-conceived-movie.html

[4] Hugo Davenport, “Imagining the Past”, BBC History Magazine, 6.1 (January 2005), pp. 36-37; Stuart Jeffries, “Hollywood does history”, The Guardian, 13 July 2005.

[5] Juliet Gardiner, The Thirties: An Intimate History. (London. Harper Press, 2010), pp. 114-117.

[6] Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present (London. I.B. Tauris, 2009).

[7] Martin Pugh, We Danced all Night: A Social History of Britain between the Wars (), London: Vintage, 2009), pp. 383-385.

[8] Chapman, Past and Present, pp. 64-90.

[9] Rafael Behr, “Dunkirk has revealed the spirit that has driven Brexit: humiliation”, The Guardian, 26 July 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/26/dunkirk-brexit-retreat-europe-britain-eec.

[10] Zoe Williams, “Dunkirk offers a lesson – but it isn’t what Farage thinks”, The Guardian, 31 July 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/30/dunkirk-lesson-nigel-farage-brexiters-war-stories-british


All film poster images taken from https://en.wikipedia.org

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