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Classic British War Films: Do they still hold up?

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With the looming prospect of Brexit overshadowing daily life at the minute, us at Seren along with the majority of informative news outlets up and down with the country are naturally spending a vast majority of time discussing this big issue that will affect us all. In fact, this issue is going to be heavily influenced by the whole political climate as we hurtle towards a no deal Brexit, and unlike another unstoppable cataclysm in the form of the asteroid from Armageddon, we unfortunately do not have the luxury of sending in Bruce Willis to save the day. Although the film section has little to do with politics and current affairs, I thought that for this issue I would try and fly the flag a little by talking in depth about some great British films and contributions to cinema. There are lots of ways this could be done as Britain has brought an incredible array of talent both in front and behind the camera to the industry ever since the inception of the medium all those decades ago. However, there is one specific sub-genre which has always championed the plucky British underdog spirit in face of adversity, and this is the dying breed of classic war movies. This type of film is very near and dear to my heart as it was growing up watching classic pictures such as the Battle of Britain, The Great Escape and Zulu that really installed my love of film and helped inspire me to want to write about it. So, in this section I’ll be looking at and discussing a select few of my favourites. 

So, without further ado lets jump straight in with the afore mentioned Zulu, a 1964 action packed epic retelling the 19th century Battle of Rorke’s Drift where 150 British soldiers held off an onslaught from 4000 Zulu Warriors. Blacklisted director Cy Enfield along with star and producer Stanley Baker brought us a masterclass in intense action and an impending sense of doom that was facing the real life characters the film was portraying. This along with John Barry’s iconic score really helped cement the films lasting status amongst one of the best war films ever made, and is still shown repeatedly on television over 50 years later. Unlike many of its contemporaries I believe Zulu still resonates with us today due to the fact that it has great characters and handles its subject matter with incredible respect when you take into account that it was released in the 60’s, only 3 years apart from Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of an Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Michael Caine and Stanley Baker are incredible in the lead roles as they explore the different types of leaders and men John Chard and Gonville Bromhead were, and how they came together in the face of adversity. 

One aspect often seen in these types of films is the ingenuity and intelligence of the plucky Brit to turn the odds in their favour. Perhaps best identified by Bartlett and his X organisation in the Great Escape, or the sneaky stealth missions in the likes of the Guns of Navarone and Bridge on the River Kwai. However, the film that best shows this aspect of the genre is the film that follows the struggles of Barnes Wallis as he toiled away with the invention of the bouncing bomb in 1955’s beautiful black and white tale of the Dam Busters. An incredibly accurate (perhaps too accurate in the case of Gibson’s dog) portrayal of the real-life events that brought about the attempted destruction of Germanys great dams, the in-flight photography and special effects in the action scenes had a huge inspiration on Star Wars, and latterly massive event films such as Independence Day. However, it’s the build up of trial and error and simple engineering genius that enabled the mission that this film is best remembered for, and Sir Michael Redgrave’s portrayal of the quiet thoughtful genius Wallace, and his subdued moral quandary about the cost of life his invention may have caused. If you can get over the fact that you’re watching a black and white, slow paced story I highly recommend checking out this underrated incredible war movie. 

Finally, we will look at what is perhaps the most famous movie regarding the British underdog spirit in the face of great adversity is of course the Guy Hamilton epic ensemble portraying the events of the Battle of Britain, in the imaginatively named Battle of Britain (1969). From Laurence Olivier, to Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Ian McShane, and the earlier mentioned Michael Redgrave, this film contains what is perhaps the best ensemble cast of the most talented acting talent Britain and Ireland has produced in the 20th century. Not only that but Hamilton’s immense skill at honing impressive action set pieces is demonstrated in the ground breaking dogfight scenes that still look better than anything produced by modern CGI. Once again, an incredible score cements the epic feel of the picture as it captures the true Rocky esque story of a nation down on their knees rising up to fight off the might of the German war machine. As is the case with all these films despite us all knowing the outcome, the excellent talent of the director and his crew create a sense of dread and tension throughout that greatens the impact of the eventual triumph.  

 

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Michael Shiels

Film Editor | 19-20

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