Published: 31st July 2020

WW2 films - Part 1: War is hell ... but how much can you show?

In part one of our special case study on classification and censorship during WW2 we look at the political conflicts between the Government and the BBFC over what should and could be shown.


Over the course of the 20th century two great upheavals occurred that marked out the century in very different but equally far-reaching ways. 

The first was a return to warfare after almost a century of relative peace.  The second was the arrival of what would become known as the art form of the 20th Century – moving pictures.  The two world wars brought about the greatest social, political and geographical changes in human history while cinema, from the earliest flickering images of Edison’s Kinetoscope and the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographe through to today’s digitally created films, has always had the power to arouse, shock and entertain audiences. 

The depiction of war during this period has provided filmmakers with a wealth of material that has proven both popular with audiences and, occasionally, unpopular with governments.  At no time has this difficult relationship been more pronounced than during the Second World War when the independence of the BBFC was tested to the limit in the face of a Government determined to ensure that ‘inappropriate’ scenes were kept from the public.

The Power of the Moving Image

At the outbreak of war in 1939, the power of the feature film, as a means of communication and persuasion rather than just a vehicle for entertainment, was already well established.  One of the earliest programmes of study into the effects of the moving image upon the mind had been carried out by the Payne Fund between 1929 and 1932.  The experiments that it carried out concentrated on such issues as the extent to which children learnt from film and how well they retained what they learnt; the possibility that exposure to film affected attitudes; and how moral standards might be affected by what was viewed.  The findings of these studies showed that the human mind could be shaped and moulded by persons in positions of influence; and, in this context, the film maker was in an almost unique position of influence.

Censorship and Control

These findings were well known to the Government at the time and steps were taken to ensure the kinds of messages being put across in feature film during this era were consistent with the official line. 

The Government controlled the film stock supply at this time and all film scripts for films to be made in the UK had to be submitted to the Ministry of Information.  If a film was not approved then no film stock would be supplied. 

This was a form of state censorship which operated outside the role of the BBFC.  In 1939 the BBFC still operated under the broad guiding principles of former President TP O’Connor’s list of ‘grounds for deletion’ which were first published in 1916.  These essentially barred: 

* References to controversial politics
* Relations of capital and labour
* Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
* Realistic horrors of warfare
* Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
* Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
* Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
* The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war  

The aim of all these constraints was to try and ensure that the kinds of films that came out during this period dealt with war in ways that were unlikely to be particularly upsetting or challenging for audiences.  Even those films produced outside the UK still had to pass muster with the BBFC before finding their way to the cinema. 

In part two of our special case study on classification and censorship during WW2 we explore some of the most influential films of the time and how they were treated at the Censors' Office.