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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 193-197
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Teaching Radical History
Teaching British Cinema History as Cultural History
Laura E. Nym Mayhall
Over the past several years, I have taught an undergraduate course utilizing British films as primary documents. The course's most recent manifestation comes as a history of British cinema, from its origins in fin de siècle workshops of craftsmen in Sheffield and Brighton to Anglo-Indian and Anglo-American productions of the 1990s. The course has several goals. We examine the British film industry's development, highlighting production, distribution, and exhibition of British films throughout the twentieth century. We view and discuss specific films important to a history of cinema both as an art form and as a medium of mass communication. We explore questions of genre and the role individual directors and studios play in the creation of a film aesthetic. The course traces certain themes traced throughout the course, in particular the development of a British national cinema and the projection of British national identity, and the relationship between a film and its historical context. We proceed chronologically and thematically, so that, for example, attention to British national identity in the context of the documentary film movement of the 1920s and 1930s segues easily into the study of similar questions pertaining to feature films produced during the Second World War.
The format of the course combines lecture, discussion, and film viewing. The class meets twice weekly, for one seventy-five-minute session, in which I present material and we discuss assigned readings, and one session of two hours and twenty minutes, in which we view and discuss a film. Prior to screenings, I prepare and distribute [End Page 193] handouts with pertinent information regarding the upcoming film, including a cast of characters and questions for discussion. Over the years, I have experimented with how best to evaluate students' performance, and I have been most satisfied with a combination of in-class examinations, short papers on specific films, and participation. Readings include Sarah Street's invaluable British National Cinema (Routledge, 1997), Timothy Corrigan's excellent Short Guide to Writing about Film (HarperCollins, rev. ed., 2001), and a course reader containing both primary and secondary readings. In future, I plan to incorporate Sarah Street's recent British Cinema in Documents (Routledge, 2000), which would add a significant dimension to the course by broadening the types of primary sources used.
My students in this course at the Catholic University of America are more likely to be English or media studies than history majors; this is a trend I expect will continue. My students are 86 percent Roman Catholic, 70 percent from the South and Middle Atlantic states, but there are a number from all over the United States and other countries as well. They conform to the university's demographics: they are traditional students, between eighteen and twenty-one years of age; roughly 45 percent male and 55 percent female; 80 percent white, 9 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic, 3.5 percent Asian American, and 11 percent from foreign countries. I have placed a cap on course enrollment at thirty, and I typically have to turn away several students. The course attracts both hardcore film enthusiasts and those deluded souls who think a course on cinema will bolster their grade point averages with little effort on their parts.
I show approximately thirteen films during the semester, some chosen as representative of genre or movement, some chosen because they are essential to the study of film history, and some because they accomplish both. Some films, I have found to my disappointment, simply do not work within the course as conceptualized. The first time I offered the course, I showed John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987) as a way to illuminate the legacy of the Second World War for 1980s Britain. Boorman's nostalgic treatment of the war—the film is told through the eyes of a child—provides an excellent opportunity for examining the lasting emotional effect the war had for a generation of children coming of age...