Two Peoples, Separated by a Common Language

Although a phrase coined by the ever-observant Mark Twain to describe why the Americans and British were forever misunderstanding each other, despite both, in theory, sharing the same English, the phrase jumped to mind as I watched Simon Heffer’s New Year’s Day documentary on BBC1 Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory.

Born in the late forties in the shadow of WW2, In the fifties, I was in awe of a dad who had managed to drive various inferior tank designs against all that the Afrika Korps could throw at him. Living in sleepy North Berwick, where no-one much remarked on a seven-year-old, I spent my pocket money catching many of the three-films-a-week programme at the Playhouse cinema 100 yards down the road.

I was game for most anything and Mrs Scott who sold the tickets none too picky whether someone barely able to see over the counter should be watching Kiss Me Kate, let alone the Hound of the Baskervilles. But, though I didn’t realise it at the time, I was witness to many films from a classic phase of British cinema—the black-and-white semi-documentary war film.

All I knew was they were my favourites. When the Dam Busters finally reached our corner of the world, I saw all five showings, most of which were a sellout. I much preferred the British war films to American. Whereas Audie Murphy seemed all posture in To Hell and Back, the underplayed anguish on Jack Hawkins’ face in Cruel Sea when he depth-charged a U-boat in the middle of swimming sailors had me horrified that such choices were made.

This was before TV stole the cinema audience and closed most small-town cinemas like the Playhouse and many of the films appeared as filler on TV channels in the sixties and seventies, which rather debased their value. The film experience was lost on a 19″ screen with tinny sound and an ad break every 15 minutes.

But, in the fifties, in a ‘proper’ cinema, these films were epic, draining experiences: We Dive at Dawn; Cockleshell Heroes; Sink the Bismarck; A Hill in Korea; Bridge on the River Kwai; Battle of the River Plate. While other films impressed me, few haunted me like these, scenes staying in my memory so firmly that I still have trouble watching the DVD half a century later.

It troubled me for some time that later war films seldom had the same appeal for me. Even Cross of Iron or Das Boot, although streets ahead in budget, realism and sophistication, did not hold the some attraction for me, did not offer the pitiless tension of, say, Ice Cold in Alex. It’s only recently that all this has more to do with identity and psychology than entertainment or even adrenalin rushes.

Because the element of all those films that I schizophrenically both admired and simultaneously thought foreign were all the heroic leads were officers speaking Oxbridge English. I only ever heard such an accent on the BBC and when people brought their pranged cars in to my dad to have the dings hammered out. They represented a culture embedded in a class war—at once familiar and yet not mine.

While John Mills could make a decent fist of playing a regular Joe (e.g. Dunkirk), the rest of the Ealing stable could only do the stiff-upper-lip English officer. When they strayed outside of that (e.g. David Niven hopelessly miscast as dynamite specialist Miller in Guns of Navarone), it was painful to behold. I even disliked Michael Caine when I first saw him in Zulu because he made a very convincing fist of an Eton-then-Sandhurst accent.

And so, although I did not realise it at the time, my political awakenings lay in that very genre of films that taught me culture and history, even as it entertained me. Even as I admired the manly heroics with which these films are replete, I was put off by the type that always seemed to play them.

In his programme, Simon Heffer states  these films “are part of my DNA, displaying what it meant to be British and values such as courage, heroism, patriotism and decency.” While I understand just what he means, there is a quibble that has been with me for the last half-century: the films displayed the culture of the upper class in England. Other than token appearances by John Laurie, the first Scot I saw with any equivalent derring-do was when Shir Shean played Urquhart in Bridge Too Far. But that was two decades later.

Now, given the dominance of England in our little union, plus Ealing Studios being located in, well, Ealing, plus the fact that received pronunciation was the lingua franca of radio and then-nascent TV, the lead’s accent was likely to sound that way. But it was the conflation in the films (and repeated by Simon Heffer) of ‘English’ with ‘British’ that stoked my awareness then and has been with me since.

Because the stoic repression of feelings, the use of stock phrases, the deference to authority, the references to cricket or Piccadilly or pints of bitter that lace all of these films make them far more English than British. For a contemporary film with Scots culture juxtaposed with the English for comparison (and with a bit of American thrown in for good measure), try The Maggie. Or for a film that embodies Scots cultural thinking in a myriad of ways, try Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy.

I take nothing away from the excellent, articulate and historically accurate genre that is the 1950’s era British-made war film: Simon Heffer is quite right to highlight it as part of our heritage. In the 1950’s the shared horrors and relief that it was over released emotions all across Britain in these shared experiences. But this far on, they belong more to the English than to us Scots because it is English cultural icons, behaviours and social mores that inform and populate scripts, directing and acting.

English people having difficulty following this might consider how they feel about American productions. Forget U-556, which was a straight rip-off of one of the Royal Navy’s most audacious operations. But consider Last of the Mohicans—a lyrical, pretty accurate, beautifully shot 1759 slice of the war with the French. The setting is technically ‘British’ (the colonies still had two decades to go before revolution) but neither the English Major Heyward nor the Scots Colonel Munro, though brave, come out of it well because the sensibility of the film is very much American.

One of these days we may have black-and-white films made of Lord Lovat non-standard training of the first commandos up in Glen Roy or of the hazards overcome by the volunteers who manned the Shetland Bus. Either would need to display a Scottish cultural sensibility to be decent portrayals. But, until then, it is no great hardship to get by with the English-dominated (but really none the worse for that) portfolio of 1950s war films that articulated the mood of Scots and English unused after two world wars and a depression to allowing themselves self-expression.

Thankfully, the Scots seem to have made progress overcoming any such inhibitions since. Punk music and reality TV notwithstanding, it must be time for the English to get there too.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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