Published: 31st July 2020

WW2 Films - Part 2 - Let's talk about the war ...

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.

The Films

In 1943 a survey of British cinema-going habits (the Mass-Observation survey) asked respondents to list their favourite six films of the past year.  The two films which topped the list were In Which We Serve and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  Significantly, both were British films, both dealing with the war effort. 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Of the two, Colonel Blimp was possibly the most significant and important film of the war years.  At a time when the film industry throughout the world was producing either escapist entertainment or rousing propaganda Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced a film that raised awkward questions about the calibre of Britain’s military leadership and about its readiness for ‘total war.’ 

The film’s production history was fraught with difficulty as the Government attempted to prevent it being made, not least Winston Churchill who regarded the film’s subject matter as potentially harmful to the army’s morale.

Ironically, it was its very subject matter that marked it out as such an important film and which contributed to its popularity in the Mass Observation survey where a number of respondents felt it to be very true to life.  The Ministry of Information argued that Powell and Pressburger had “rather wantonly played with ideas…in order to…inject sensational elements for Box Office purposes.” 

So far as the censors of the day were concerned, they clearly didn’t share the Prime Minister’s worries about the army’s morale – not even considering it to be “holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule” and what the film certainly didn’t do was to demonstrate explicitly what the military consequences might be for eschewing ’total war.’  Accordingly there are no battle scenes and very little bloodshed.  The film’s punches were reserved more for its political statements and this is what saved it from being classified any higher than U.

In Which We Serve

Where The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had advocated setting aside the traditional English ‘virtues’ of loyalty and good manners in order to defeat the enemy, Noel Coward’s tribute to the Royal Navy, In Which We Serve, appealed on a more basic level to the emotions and reinforced Coward’s own belief in the English class system. 

Far from setting aside the noble virtues in order to defeat Germany, Coward set out to show that these were the very strengths that would help England to win.  The principal message that came out of the film was that all classes had to pull together to fight the common enemy and that love for one’s country (here in the guise of the ship HMS Torrin) had to come before loyalty to one’s class or family. 

The film spelt out very clearly what Britain was fighting for – the preservation of the values that had made her great.  But it also pulled no punches in showing how Britain was fighting. 

After the sinking of HMS Torrin in the Battle of Crete the survivors are shown clinging to a life raft where they are repeatedly strafed by German aircraft. A number are either killed or mortally wounded but emotions never run out of control – the actions of the pilots speak for themselves and it has been suggested that it was exactly this sort of stoicism that contributed to the film’s popularity. 

And, it would seem, this example of the ‘stiff upper lip’ may have played a part in the decision to place the film in the 'U' category.  While a film made today would undoubtedly show more blood and gore in the strafing incident, would the very act of merciless slaughter be considered suitable for all audiences?  Possibly not, but in 1942 – a year that had seen defeat after defeat in North Africa and the humiliation of the fall of Singapore – a film that so unashamedly celebrated the virtues of plucky endurance and stoical self-sacrifice probably needed to be seen by the widest possible audience.

Went the Day Well?

Two lesser-known films from the war years amply demonstrate that some issues struck a little too close to home for comfort.  Went the Day Well? and Next Of Kin both dealt with the threat of invasion and the danger of enemy agents.  In the early years of World War 2 the fear of invasion was very great and so it is, perhaps, surprising that few films during this period dealt directly and seriously with this threat. 

The 1942 Ealing production Went the Day Well? was directed by a documentary filmmaker, Alberto Cavalcanti, and showed British civilians coming to grips on home ground with the German army.  The film depicts, in a quite unglamorous and unsentimental fashion, the possible consequences of such an invasion (even a covert one as depicted in this film.)  A local vicar is brutally shot in the back when trying to sound a warning and a number of Home Guard soldiers are mercilessly mown down when they fail to respond to the warning bell.

Despite the eventual assuring outcome, the film still had the effect of unsettling audiences and so it is probably unsurprising that such scenes earned the film an A rating in 1942 and a PG when submitted for a video classification in 1989. 

Next Of Kin

The business of unsettling audiences was one of the principal aims of Next Of Kin.  Produced at Ealing the same year as Went the Day Well?, the film was based around the well known slogan “careless talk costs lives” and showed, to quite devastating effect, the threat of spies and fifth columnists. 

The climax to the film depicts a British raid on German coastal defences in France which was compromised as a result of such activities and showed the attacking forces suffering very heavy casualties. 

The battle scenes were considered at the time to be remarkably realistic, prompting one distraught viewer who had two sons serving overseas to launch a bitter verbal attack on a cinema manager (and subsequently on the screen-writer, Thorold Dickinson, when he attended the scene) for showing actual scenes of battle. 

She would not be persuaded that it was a work of fiction. The film’s editor described it as “simply too grim, too effective, too frightening.”  (It is interesting to compare the reaction to this film to the reaction to Saving Private Ryan, a generation later.  A subsequent article will deal with this in more detail.) 

Political intervention

The War Office considered Next Of Kin to be a most effective piece of propaganda and arrangements were made for it to be shown to troops.  An unfortunate post-script was that the film went on release, with an A rating from the BBFC in recognition of the disturbing sequences at the end of the film, only a few weeks before the real life raid on the French port of St Nazaire in March 1942. The Prime Minister asked that the film be taken off general release because of the potentially damaging effects on the morale of the troops. 

The St Nazaire raid was considered a success but there were heavy casualties with 150 men out of the 611 who took part losing their lives and more than half being captured.  It also prefigured the disastrous raid on Dieppe in August of 1942 when more than 1,000 mostly Canadian troops were killed in a botched operation. 

 Of all the films released in this era, Next Of Kin probably did more than any other to unsettle audiences and this undoubtedly contributed to its success.  The popularity of cinema during this period (it has been estimated that roughly half the population went to the cinema at least once a week) gave filmmakers an extremely powerful voice in shaping public opinion and it was an opportunity that few serious filmmakers ignored. 

During pre-production for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell wrote to the actress Wendy Hiller – “No artist believes in escapism.  And we secretly believe that no audience does.  We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.”  If any period in the history of the BBFC relied upon the independence of the Board from Governmental control and interference it was the war era, when even the Prime Minister was unable to prevent films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Next Of Kin from enjoying success.