April 05, 2008

British Cinema of the Second World War: Key Films

British Cinema of the Second World War: Key Films

Return to British Cinema Hub Page

British Cinema and Society: Chronology 1939-1951

Go to Key British Films of 1946-1959

Under construction


This page is effectively an introductory one to providing a chronological approach to British national cinema. As you will see above there is a link into Key Films Between 1946-1959. The approach is being redesigned I have chosen to start from the outset of World War Two because as the culmination of the European 30 Years War of the 20th Century it proved to be a turning point in global history and of course Britain was a key player and was to be significantly changed as a result. This will continue up until the end of the Labour government in 1951. The next section will then be created to incorporate the 13 years of Conservative rule. Rather than organising by decade often changes in governments marks turning points in moods so this model will be the new one. 

Without an effective chronology it is impossible to create effective histories. As histories are of course interpretations of the past the term history is placed in the plural. There is a worrying tendency to de-historicise despite the efforts of critics such as Frederic Jameson to insist upon the need for historicisation. One need look no further than the Tate Modern gallery to see how contemporary curation is thematic and non chronological. It needs to be emphasised that chronology isn't in itself telelogical - where causal effects are implied - it does allow people to start to develop historical ideas and to see how different tendencies develop at different speeds and how at times historical progress can be reversed. The rise of Nazism needs to be seen as a reversal of longer term tendencies to improved citizenship in terms of political and social rights and expectations for example. Over long periods of time it may well be possible to identify patterns. The fact is that many contemporary British films  as well as German ones are still representing the Second World War. Indeed some people think that history only starts when the process of remembrance starts to be eclipsed as older generations who have experienced the events die out.

Many critics are querying whether it is even fruitful to study 'national' cinemas. The reality is that cinema is an industrial process and system of representation and it has been continuously subject to state regulation. This is not to deny the interprenetration of cultural form other countries whther artists working within different countires or in the case of cinema what is often considered as 'cultural imperialism' committed by the USA upon pretty much everybody else. This argument is dented to some extent when we consider how much US money poured into European film-making in the 1960s creating a period when some of the best European 'Art' films were created. Things are always complex and untidy, nevertheless there is certainly a point in studying national developments within areas of culture, however, they do need to be considered in a comparative way, and this blog has many entries on non British European cinema for this comparison is a continuous and long-term project.

National cinemas don't simply "reflect" society back at itself they are cultural interventions in ongoing processes of social change. It is the purpose of providing a developing vista of looking historically at social change that is a core objective of this blog. The approach at all times is to be taking a SPECT mixed methodology in which Social, Political, Economic, Cultural and Textual understandings are considered. The study of Film and Media in general is interdisciplinary and all approaches from the international political economy through national cultural and film policy to the reception of films by audiences needs to be taken into account. There are also social, political and cultural upheavals which need to be taken into account.  

The years covered below will hyperlink to specific years as these are developed where a more detailed historical context for each year will be provided as well as some initial analysis of the relevant films. These themselves will be hyperlinked to more in depth analyses of individual films or directors for example. As this process is pretty much infinitely expandable hopefully those interested will revisit the site periodically for it is designed as a dynamic space and is committed to continuous improvement and development and will try as far as it possible to respond to both the availability of films as they become available on DVD as well as responding to new modes of thought about British cinema. Hopefully these explorations will prove enjoyable, challenging and encourage you to think more about cinema and society and of course introduce you to films that you might not otherwise have come across.

Further General Reading

Further reading and viewing. I have found Andrew Marr's 2007 book A History of Modern Britain a useful guide. As a long time analytical journalist and news presenter Marr is able to communicate in a highly accessible but well informed manner giving a useful overview of the whole period. Yes it is a 'popular history' rather than an academic history. It isn't the onl;y history book that should be read but it is a great place to start. There was also a TV series which is propbably available on DVD.  As background reading I thoroughly recommend it because it will prove a good read for those who have been put off history. It is not embedded with dates and thankfully gets away from the text book approach to history so prevalent in education at the moment which I find the kiss of death. It is also available as an Audio Book for iPod fans.

Robert Hewison's  - Culture and Consensus as well as other work of his on the relationship between culture and policy in post-war Britain will also prove very fruitful for a more specialised approach.


The purpose of this page is to provide a series of links to articles about the key British films of the Second World War. An overview of the role of British cinema and some of the interesting social and cultural aspects within the representations of British society will beexplored in a separate article. Unfortunately  a hard drive crash lost some valuable material and the article  which had been prepared will need to be rewritten.  In the meantime the links will hopefully be valuable for visitors.

Of course wars don't happen overnight, there is usually a build up as tensions arise so I have included in this list some films prior to 1939 which were already seeking to criticise Nazi Germany despite the strict censorship laws in the UK at the timewhich forbade the representation of other countries in ways which might be found offensive.  As Algate and Jeffries point out the historical film became a useful vehicle for getting around the censorship laws:

In 1934 when proposed films denouncing anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany were regularly vetoed by the censors as "likely to cause offense to a foreign country", Gaumont British were able to release Jew Süss, a costume film attacking anti-Semitisim in 18th century Württemberg. (Aldgate and Richards (2007, p 138)

In a similar way the outcomes of wars start to become clearer and some films are mentioned which were being thought about at the end of the War even though they were released when at least the War in Europe was over. The important thing is they already reflect sentiments, hopes aspirations of a post-war period of reconstruction.  

Some of Britain's best ever film directors such as Humphrey Jennings and, Powell and Pressburger make this a particularly fruitful period for exploration.  

Key British Films of the Second World War 1939-1945

Prior to the formal outbreak of Worlrd War II: Films with themes reflecting international tensions as Britian and France start to rearm as a response to the shift to a war economy in Germany which became particularly apparent once the 1936 Olympics were out of the way.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) Alfred Hitchcock

Fire Over England (1937) William K Howard  [Alexander Korda Executive Producer]

Sixty Glorious Years (1938) Herbert Wilcox

The Four Feathers (1939 May) Zoltan Korda

Spy in Black (1939 August) Powell and Pressburger

Films made once hostilities were made formal 


According to Murphy 1992 the outbreak of war severely reduced the production of films. This was because the government was in a state of uncertainty. cinemas had been closed to re-open in about 3 weeks time. Furthermore there was debate about whther the UK should rely upon US films and focus energies on wartime production. The Treasury was against as it would mean far more expensive imports. six films that were in an advanced stsage of production were completed and only another 11 were made this year. Murphy is here only talking about feature films. 

The Lion Has Wings (1939) Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, Adrian Brunel [Alexander Korda producer]

The First Days (1939) Watt / Jennings / Jackson  [Documentary]


According to Murphy there were 51 feature films released in 1940. 24 were comedies / comedy-thrillers. Of these 17 dealt with the war directly or indirectly. There were 6 serious war feature films. Four of these dealt with the war at sea and two dealt with the opression of central European countries by the Nazis. Documentary work is also being considred even thought these were usually shorts. They would accompany feature films and also be exhibited in non-theatrical venues.

The Stars Look Down (1939 Released January 1940) Carol Reed

Britain at Bay: (1940) Harry Watt (Often attrubuted to J. B. Priestley) [Documentary]

Night Train to Munich (1940) Carol Reed [Nazi Opression in Central Europe]

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) Ludwig Berger /Michael Powell /Tim Whelan [Alexander Korda producer]

The Proud Valley (1940) Penrose Tennyson [Ealing]

Pastor Hall (1940) Boulting Bros [Nazi oppression in Central Europe]

Freedom Radio (1940) Anthony Asquith [Two Cities]

Let George Do It (1940) Marcel Varnel

Pimpernel Smith (1940) Leslie Howard

Britain at Bay (1940) Harry Watt [GPO Film Unit / sponsor MOI documentary]

Tomorrow is Theirs (1940) James Carr [Ministry of Information documentary]

They Also Serve (1940) Ruby Grierson [Gender & Work documentary]

Westward Ho! (1940) Thorold Dickinson [Documentary]


Target for Tonight (1941) Harry Watt. [documentary]

The 49th Parallel (1941) Powell & Pressburger

Words For Battle (1941) Humphrey Jennings

That Hamilton Woman (1941) Alexander Korda 

The Young Mr. Pitt (1941)  Carol Reed

Ferry Pilot (1941) Pat Jackson [Documentary]

Cottage to Let (1941) Anthony Asquith 

Ships With Wings (1941) Segei Nolbandov [Ealing]

Love on the Dole (1941) John Baxter

Eating Out With Tommy Trinder (1941) Desmond Dickinson

Jane Brown Changes her Job (1941) Harold Cooper  [Gender & Work]

Ordinary People (1941) Jack Lee & J.B. Holmes


Went the Day Well (1942) Alberto Cavalcanti [Ealing]

Listen to Britain (1942) Humphrey Jennings [Documentary]

One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) Powell and Pressburger 

In Which We Serve (1942) David Lean / Noël Coward [Two Cities]

The Foreman Went to France (1942) Charles Frend [Ealing]

The Goose Steps Out (1942) Will Hay, Basil Dearden [Ealing]

Thunder Rock (1942) Boulting Bros

The Next of Kin (1942) Thorold Dickinson [Ealing]

Night Shift (1942) Paul Rotha [Gender & Work, Documentary]

The Countrywomen (1942) John Page [Gender & the War Effort]

Men of Tomorrow (1942)  Alfred Travers


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Powell and Pressburger

The Silver Fleet (1943) Gordon Wellesley and Vernon Sewell [Produced by the Archers - Powell and Pressburger]

Fires Were Started (1943) Humphrey Jennings

The Silent Village (1943) Humphrey Jennings

The Bells Go Down (1943) Basil Dearden [Ealing]

The Demi-Paradise (1943) Anthony Asquith [Two Cities]

Millions Like Us (1943) Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat [Gender & Work]

We Dive at Dawn (1943) Anthony Asquith 

Nine Men (1943) Harry Watt [Ealing]

San Demetrio London (1943) Charles Frend [Ealing]

The Man in Grey (1943) Leslie Arliss [The first "official" Gainsborough costume melodrama]

Journey Together  (1943) John Boulting [ RAF Film Unit in 1943 as a public information film]


A Canterbury Tale (1944) Powell and Pressburger

This Happy Breed (1944) David Lean [Two Cities]

Fanny by Gaslight (1944) Anthony Asquith [Gainsborough melodrama was made to cash in on the success of The  Man in Grey]

Love Story (1944) Leslie Arliss 

Henry V (1944) Laurence Olivier  [Two Cities]

Western Approaches (1944) Pat Jackson [Documentary Feature]

The Way Ahead (1944) Carol Reed [Two Cities]

The Eighty Days (1944) Humphrey Jennings 

Waterloo Road (1944) Sidney Gilliat

Two Thousand Women (1944) Frank Launder

The Halfway House (1944) Basil Dearden [Ealing]

Champagne Charlie (1944) Alberto Cavalcanti [Ealing / Musical]

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944) Arthur Crabtree 


The Way to the Stars (1945) Anthony Asquith [Last Wartime Feature Film: Two Cities]

Immediate Post-War films 

I Know where I'm Going (1945 December) Powell and Pressburger

Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean  

The Wicked Lady (1945) Leslie Arliss [The most commercially successful of the Gainsborough  melodramas.]

They Were Sisters (1945) Arthur Crabtree [Gainsborough melodrama] 

The Seventh Veil  (1945) Compton Bennett

Homes for the People (1945) Kay Mander [Documentary]

Rationing in Britain (1945) Graham Cutts

Dead of Night (1945) Alberto Cavalcanti / Robert Hamer / Charles Crighton / Basil Dearden [Ealing] 'Released in September 1945, just a month after the formal end of the War, it marks a break from the documentary-influenced realism which had dominated wartime films, particularly Ealing's.'


Scope review of Robert Murphy British Cinema and the Second World War

'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Reconsidered': James Chapman   

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