British cinema and history

Authored by: James Chapman

The Routledge Companion to British Media History

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415537186
eBook ISBN: 9781315756202
Adobe ISBN: 9781317629474


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Ever since the nineteenth century there has been a distinction between academic history and popular history: while the former concerns itself with meticulously documented scholarship, the latter is essentially about telling stories. The most powerful medium of popular history in the twentieth century was the cinema. Leslie Halliwell, the doyen of popular film historians, remarked in his memoir Seats in All Parts that cinema “gave me an idea of what happened in history, admittedly a hazy one since Disraeli and Voltaire and Richelieu and Rothschild all seemed to look like George Arliss” (Halliwell, 1985: 10). The fact that cinematic history has often had a somewhat loose relationship with recorded history has been a significant obstacle to the acceptance of film by historians. In the 1930s, for example, the Historical Association was “gravely concerned at the effect on children and adults of film purporting to represent historical personages which are being shown in the picture palaces, and considers that steps should be taken to assist teachers and others to estimate the accuracy of such films” (Harper, 1994: 66). As a consequence, the response to historical films by professional historians has generally not looked far beyond the question of their authenticity; complaints that the king wears his spurs on the wrong side of his shoes (The Private Life of Henry VIII) or that the South Wales Borderers were not formed until after the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (Zulu) exemplify the level at which many historians have engaged with historical film. In the absence of more meaningful engagement with the subject from historians, therefore, it is to film and cultural studies that we must turn. It was once said that the genre of British historical film “can safely be ignored as being of little intrinsic interest” (Lovell, 1972: 6). This is no longer the case. Indeed recent scholarly studies have put historical film at the centre of critical and aesthetic discourses around British cinema. Historical film features in discussions over the economic and cultural viability of British national cinema; it has been understood as a vehicle for the projection of national identity and the dissemination of dominant ideologies; it has figured prominently in debates around quality and aesthetics; and it has been the subject of a fierce debate over the politics of so-called ‘heritage cinema’. These critical issues have, to a large extent, displaced the now rather sterile debate over the authenticity of historical film, though this occasionally resurfaces in the critical reception of major films such as Elizabeth (1998).

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