The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to make films in the 1890s. In those days the whole of Ireland was in the UK. A film was called a ‘picture’ back then. When a film was filmed it was said to be ‘shot’. People would say ‘I am shooting a film’. The physical material that the images were made on was called ‘film’. This had to be developed in a dark room. The film was then put into reels. A projector would project the image onto a screen. The room needed to be dark to see the film properly.
Actors had to use facial expression to show their emotions. These were silent films. The images were in black and white.
In the First World War propaganda films were made. They depicted the British are valiant and righteous. The UK’s enemies were shown to be cowardly and unrighteous.
Some film cameras were sent to the battlefront. They filmed some live action scenes of British soldiers charging towards enemy trenches. The German soldiers fired back and of course some Britishers were killed. The government ordered this film to be shown in cinemas thinking it would boost public morale. But when the film was shown in cinemas peopled shouted ”they are being killed!”. The public was horrified by the reality of war.
In the 1920s film started to get sound. The actors in film were used to acting in the theatre. They therefore projected their voices. The acting comes across as very shouty.
The British style of acting then seems melodramatic now. They speech appears to be stylised declamation to us.
A 1920s film called Ypres was made. It was about the Battle of Ypres in the First World War. People were fed up of war so the film bombed at the box office.
In the 1930s the UK made some classic films about famous British stories. Mutiny on the Bounty was made. It is a lavish film about a true story of British sailors rebelling against their cruel captain. Some Robin Hood films were made. There was an adventure story. The Sheriff of Nottingham is the anti-hero of the film. Sanders of the River was a film about a British colonial administrator. It presents colonialism as positive.
The Drum is another 1930s British film. The locale is India. A young Indian is fiercely loyal to the Britons. He discovers a plot to rebel against the Britishers. So he warns them and saves them.
The Lives of the Bengal Lancers is another British film of this era. It is about a regiment of the Indian Army. The soldiers are Indian but the officers are British. It is set in the North-West Frontier of India. This is now called Pakistan. The film is fast moving but the characterisation is monodimensional.
In the Second World War there were many propaganda films. One of these was In which we serve which is about the Royal Navy. Jack Hawkins, Stanley Baker and Noel Coward were in it. Coward wondered whether he was suitable to play a naval officer. He had a reputation for living in opulence. He wore a silk dressing gown and smoked cigarettes through a cigarette holder. But Coward performed admirably. The film went down a storm. He played a married man with children though in fact he was gay. In the film a British warship is sunk by a U boat. Another British warship is nearby. The captain is Jack Hawkins. He knows he must destroy the U boat with depths charges or it will sink his ship. But there are British sailors in the water – they are survivors of the sunken ship. Should be launch the depths charges and kill the British sailors while also sinking the U boat. The captain does so. As the depths charges explodes one of his own men shouts at him ”you bastard!”. It was a powerful moment. There was no swearing on British films until that moment.
In 1945 a film called Brief Encounter was released. It starred Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Celia plays a middle class housewife. She has an agreeable but dull life. She meets a doctor played by Trevor at the station. He is also married. The two begin an affair but it only goes so far. Should she leave her boring husband? In the end she decides to stay. The war was still on when the film came out. People were so fed up of the war that the film hardly alludes to it.
In the 1950s lots of Ealing comedies were produced. They were made in Ealing Studios, London. That is why these funny films are called Ealing comedies. They are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. In Passport to Pimlico a small London suburb declares independence. After a few weeks Pimlico becomes part of the UK again.
Another Ealing comedy is The Ladykillers. A few thieves hatch a plot to steal millions of pounds from a train. They rent a room from an old woman. In this room they plan their crime. They tell the woman that they are practising the violin for their string quintet whenever she comes to check on them. The thieves successfully effect the robbery. They get the money back to the house. They die one by one by falling out of the window and things. The elderly woman finds the money. She tells a police officer that she has found millions of pounds in her house. The police officer assumes that the old woman has lost her mind and that no such money exists. He tells her she can keep the money. So she does.
In the 1960s many Carry On films were made. They are known as Carry On because the titles are Carry on Camping, Carry On Teacher, Carry On up the Khyber, Carry On Caesar etc… The expression ”carry on” means ”continue”. These are are lighthearted and farcical. There is some suggestive mirth in them. The characters are all straightforward and mostly sympathetic. The acting is deliberately overstated and there are plenty of double entendre. For example ”khyber” is Cockney rhyming slang for ”bottom” or ”buttocks”. The stars of these films included Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Barbara Windsor. Sid James played lecherous characters. He was type cast because in real life he was the same. Barbara Windsor often played a ingenue.