- Popular Film, Public Opinion, and the Enduring Crisis of Colonialism
In a YouGov poll, conducted in Britain in 2016, 43 percent of respondents felt that the British Empire was a “good thing,” and only 19 percent labeled it a “bad thing.” In addition, 44 percent saw Britain’s history of colonialism as something to be “proud of,” while far fewer (21 percent) saw it as a source of regret.1 I was reminded of these figures as I read Jon Cowans’s timely study Empire Films and the Crisis of Colonialism, 1946–1959, which seeks to evaluate public opinion in postwar Britain, France, and the United States through a study of popular fiction films, examining “how and when colonialism became discredited in the West” (1). While the 2016 poll, and indeed recent US foreign policy and the rise of populist nationalism in Britain and France, might challenge Cowans’s use of the past tense and suggest that this process is ongoing, the book productively explores a period when attitudes toward empire and colonialism were reconfigured.
Cowans’s book is characterized by his thematic analysis of an impressive range of films, moving well beyond those widely recognized as “Empire films” to include chapters on American westerns and on more than a hundred films depicting miscegenation. In so doing, Cowans articulates postwar moves toward what he repeatedly identifies as a “liberal-colonialist view” (331) on film. The analysis [End Page 425] frustratingly eschews almost any consideration of film form, and there is little attempt to consider how these responses on film compare with popular fiction, radio, or other forms of media. Instead Cowans seeks to evaluate “public opinion about colonialism” (2) by systematically examining film reviews from the United States, Britain, and France, outlining the percentage of reviews that “praised,” “panned,” or were mixed on each film. While Cowans does note some patterns within the reviews—“the New York critics” were harshest on the imperial nostalgia of The Inn of Sixth Happiness (1958) (50); the three “left-wing” publications saw the Mau Mau drama Simba (1955) as “deeply political and colonialist” (161)—this “qualitative analysis of reception” (17) will sit less comfortably with film scholars. Cowans’s own writing hints at some of the problems here. He notes that André Bazin reviewed Sayonara (1957) in three separate publications (286) and that Time’s review of Duel in the Sun (1946) was uncharacteristically lenient, possibly the result of a letter that the producer David O. Selznick wrote to his friend the publisher Henry Luce, lobbying for positive coverage (257). Furthermore, describing miscegenation as an issue “where the opinions of critics and many audience members likely diverged somewhat” (332) reveals the limitations of presenting critics as the arbiters of public opinion.
However, in collating and comparing a plethora of reviews for each film from three countries, Cowans performs valuable historical work and draws out some fascinating insights. As one example, he notes that not one of the thirty-eight British reviews for the India-set Black Narcissus (1947), which was released in the year of Indian independence, “mentioned the Raj, colonialism or Britain’s departure from India” (44). The example reminds us that these films—and reviews—are often most interesting for what they do not say. British reviews of the Malaya-set drama The Planter’s Wife (1952) failed to mention communism, but French critics did relate the film to their own situation in Indochina (146), just as US critics saw Something of Value (1957), set in Kenya, in relation to “ongoing racial conflicts” in their own country (167). Cowans shows how the majority of reviewers did not even know where Windom’s Way (1957) was set (spoiler: it is Malaya). These films are appropriated and related to different imperial contexts.
Cowans is adept at succinctly explaining the political contexts of the films and has an impressive command of the historical period. The individual case studies are accessible and will undoubtedly be of value to those of us teaching on this period, although the [End Page 426...