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War Pictures

Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945

Kent Puckett

Publication Year: 2017

In this original and engaging work, author Kent Puckett looks at how British filmmakers imagined, saw, and sought to represent its war during wartime through film. The Second World War posed unique representational challenges to Britain’s filmmakers. Because of its logistical enormity, the unprecedented scope of its destruction, its conceptual status as total, and the way it affected everyday life through aerial bombing, blackouts, rationing, and the demands of total mobilization, World War II created new, critical opportunities for cinematic representation. Beginning with a close and critical analysis of Britain’s cultural scene, War Pictures examines where the historiography of war, the philosophy of violence, and aesthetics come together. Focusing on three films made in Britain during the second half of the Second World War—Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945)—Puckett treats these movies as objects of considerable historical interest but also as works that exploit the full resources of cinematic technique to engage with the idea, experience, and political complexity of war. By examining how cinema functioned as propaganda, criticism, and a form of self-analysis, War Pictures reveals how British filmmakers, writers, critics, and politicians understood the nature and consequence of total war as it related to ideas about freedom and security, national character, and the daunting persistence of human violence. While Powell and Pressburger, Olivier, and Lean developed deeply self-conscious wartime films, their specific and strategic use of cinematic eccentricity was an aesthetic response to broader contradictions that characterized the homefront in Britain between 1939 and 1945. This stylistic eccentricity shaped British thinking about war, violence, and commitment as well as both an answer to and an expression of a more general violence. Although War Pictures focuses on a particularly intense moment in time, Puckett uses that particularity to make a larger argument about the pressure that war puts on aesthetic representation, past and present. Through cinema, Britain grappled with the paradoxical notion that, in order to preserve its character, it had not only to fight and to win but also to abandon exactly those old decencies, those “sporting-club rules,” that it sought also to protect.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Series: World War II: The Global, Human, and Ethical Dimension

Cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv

Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Preface

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pp. vii-xvi

I began to think about the arguments presented in this book in 2003 when the beginning of war in Iraq made it hard not to see war everywhere. I found that the books I read, the records I listened to, and the films and shows I watched all seemed to be about war even when they had evidently little to do with war. In ways both necessary and helplessly trivial, I felt that I saw war everywhere and that seeing war was maybe what interpretation was for. But why? What made looking for evidence of war where it apparently wasn’t seem like a necessity? Why was it that war seemed...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-31

I first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) years ago when a friend lent me an old, much-played VHS tape of its shortened and badly recut American release.1 Even washed-out, wobbly, and stripped of its all-important flashback structure, the film struck me as odd, willful, beautiful, and—to use a word often associated with the British cinema—eccentric. The story of a bluff and romantic old soldier as he fought, lived, and found and lost love in three wars (the Boer War and World Wars I and II), Colonel Blimp seemed both whimsical and cynical, nostalgic and pragmatic...

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1 “But what is it about?”: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

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pp. 32-81

When The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp appeared in 1943, it looked to many like a good movie that made for bad propaganda; if it was beautiful, moving, often funny, it seemed also too willful, too complicated, too weird, too eccentric to help its audiences know what to think and feel about the war. The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that its “message may be obscure, but its emotional appeal is high.”1 The Tribune claimed that, although the film was “excellent entertainment...no-one decided exactly what they wanted to say with it.”2 The Manchester Guardian said that it “contradicts itself...

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2 Pistol’s Two Bodies: Henry V at War

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pp. 82-135

No one needs to ask what Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) is all about. Whereas The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seemed to have too much to say about its war, Henry V was immediately taken as successful and straightforward wartime entertainment. One of the most celebrated British films of the forties, Henry V satisfied audiences, critics, and even the prime minister because it appeared to suspend elegantly the difference between art and propaganda, between Britain’s long cultural history and its present experience of total war. Whereas Colonel Blimp seemed self-conscious...

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3 Celia Johnson’s Face: Before and After Brief Encounter

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pp. 136-189

Is Brief Encounter a war movie? Maybe, maybe not. Although Lean made his film during the war and released it right after, it is set just before and thus cannot represent the war directly. As Antonia Lant puts it, “Its diegesis is fastened both to that ‘so-called peace and civilization’ of the winter before the outbreak of war, and to the time of the audience’s present, that is, 1945.”1 Brief Encounter is thus not about the military, although a couple of thirsty soldiers show up to offer some much needed comic relief. Its main male characters—the husband, the lover, and the lover’s disapproving...

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Epilogue: Derek Jarman’s War

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pp. 190-204

I have argued that some films made in Britain during World War II offer an opportunity to think differently both about what it means to represent wars from within wars and about what it means for something to be about something else. World War II posed special representational challenges to filmmakers and others: because of its logistical enormity, the unprecedented scope of its destruction, its conceptual status as total, and the way it seemingly remade the very stuff of everyday life through aerial bombing, blackouts, rationing, and the logistical demands of total mobilization,...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 205-206

I had to learn a lot to write this book. As a result, I have a lot of people to thank. First, thanks to Fred Nachbaur and Kurt Piehler for considering the book and then including it on Fordham’s list. The care and intelligence with which they approached the proposal, the readers’ reports, and the manuscript itself meant a great deal to me and helped me to see it through. Thanks, too, to Eric Newman and Will Cerbone, who helped to oversee the editorial and production processes. They make it seem easy. I can’t say...

Notes

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pp. 207-238

Works Cited

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pp. 239-254

Index

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pp. 255-266


E-ISBN-13: 9780823276523
E-ISBN-10: 082327652X

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2017

Series Title: World War II: The Global, Human, and Ethical Dimension
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OCLC Number: 976089217
MUSE Marc Record: Download for War Pictures