Sunday, September 02, 2007

Went The Show Well?

For five weeks, British Film Forever has been an absolute hotchpotch of seemingly random clips, inane talking heads, and bizarre non sequiturs. Suddenly, come the penultimate episode concentrating on the long tradition of British war films, the documentary makers got their act together and got it just right.

As it turned out, the ill-judged snatch narration accompanying the clip from Reach for the Sky was really the sole misstep in what was, for the first time in the series, a well-made and perfectly constructed programme.

The comment that, while Hollywood was built on Westerns, the UK film industry had its foundations in war films seemed apt. From such a large back catalogue, Bullets, Bombs and Bridges: The Story of the British War Film picked an amazing array of relevant examples that, for the most part, steered clear of the whiz, bang, “Come on chaps, we’ve got the Hun on the run!” variety of movies that shot their way towards a happy ending.


Instead it began by creating a logical thread that faultlessly connected the bravery and ingenuity of The Dam Busters to United 93 – the latter a movie I hadn’t pegged as British until I remembered it was produced by Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner – and then ran put together an expert narrative that continued to put the films in context. It was good to see the Crown Film Unit given its due with Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started and Pat Jackson’s Western Approaches.

Having spent time in the Imperial War Museum Archives researching the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, it was a pity it too wasn’t mentioned, especially since their final production, Journey Together, was written by Terrance Rattigan and the first feature directed by John Boulting. But then you can’t have everything. With a 90-minute running time there’s only room for so much and it was interesting to see the more offbeat choices like Chicken Run joining the POW movies The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story, and Peter Watkins’ The War Game contrasted with The Bed Sitting Room.


When it came to the talking heads more directors had their say than usual, which was a good thing. Al Murray’s observations may have seemed a little uncomfortable at times, given his xenophobic Pub Landlord persona, but it was inspired to bring in Steve Bell, celebrated political cartoonist for The Guardian, to discuss Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.

After The Red Shoes was pretty much fobbed off some weeks back, this time Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger got the praise they richly deserved. I know I bang on about them every chance I get, but when you see the originality and artistry they employed to put across what were essentially propaganda pieces, the work looks all the more remarkable.

Whether it was the earlier 49th Parallel or ...One of Our Aircraft is Missing, made to show the resilience of the Dutch when it came to helping downed airmen, that begins with an empty bomber returning across the Channel, or the later The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death which both leapt off the screen with their colour and vibrancy, the films the pair made during the wartime years can only be described as an astonishing achievement.

I loved the idea that, if ever it came time to change the National Anthem, Eric Coates’ iconic Dam Busters March would be the perfect substitute. (Oddly enough I’ve heard suggestions that America should take up Bill Conti’s Oscar-winning theme for The Right Stuff).

The only question that remained after all was said and done was, why oh why couldn’t the previous episodes in the series have been made with the same due care and attention?

2 Comments:

At 4:54 pm, Blogger Lucy said...

Didn't watch any of these to be honest, but your reviews have been so full of detail that I feel I have watched them. Cheers GD. Now I can look intellectual in the pub talking about Brit Film when traitor that I am, I was most likely watching CSI.

 
At 11:07 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Here’s a little nugget for you to use:

After James Donald’s Major Clipton delivers the last line of the movie: “Madness! Madness!”, when it cuts from a close up of him to Clipton walking along the sand bank, back towards the shattered remains of the bridge, that actually isn’t James Donald.

Sir David Lean mentioned it at an NFT Guardian a year or so before he passed, and he really wasn’t amused about having to use a stand-in. I think Spiegel had put Donald on a plane home by them.

 

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