Francois Truffaut famously quipped that “British cinema” was an oxymoron—that, as far as national cinemas go, Britain had never been able to hold its own beside the continental European superpowers. Anglophobia has persisted in haunting film studies until fairly recently, when a flurry of books and articles on British cinema (such as Sarah Street’s British National Cinema) have sought to assert its importance and relevance within cinema history. These accounts have the disadvantage of feeling somewhat forced, and risk overcorrection: whatever else we may say in defense of British cinema, it has admittedly never (not yet?) changed the film game in the ways that Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and American all have done. But such arguments raise valuable questions about what British cinema is and why it has been historically marginalized. What are its strengths and charms? Where has it failed?
I’d like to keep these questions in mind as I look at fifteen or so classics of British cinema from the 1930s to the present, none of which I’ve seen before. I begin with Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), perhaps best known for its Oscar-winning star performance by Charles Laughton. It’s a campy, rollicking turn; he plays the king with the same lusty, hammy brio that Peter O’Toole later brought to The Lion in Winter (1968), a film that bears the influence of this one insofar as it turns the history of the British monarchy into a screwball farce. Laughton’s at his best opposite Elsa Lanchester (his real-life wife) as Anne of Cleves, who has been coerced into marrying him and who tricks him into breaking off the marriage in a hilarious scene of what can only be called “anti-seduction.”
Some clunky use of sound aside, it’s a handsomely mounted, witty, literate film…but already we’ve fallen back on those words that are so often used to describe British cinema: “witty,” “literate,” “handsome.” Henry VIII is already a cliché of a British film, a costume biopic fitted out with good writing and superb acting. Were the film not so swiftly paced, it might even be called stagy—one of the common complaints about British cinema being that it has never really gotten free of the influence of the theatre. Henry VIII is a very good film, but it might be taken as an example of how Britain was still learning how to make good cinema—that is, to experiment with the power of the image instead of relying on the word. Interestingly, one of the cinema’s greatest masters of so-called “pure cinema” (in which images take total primacy over words) was in the process of making his own reputation in the early 1930s: two years after Henry VIII, Robert Donat, who appears here as Thomas Culpeper, would star in Alfred Hitchcock’s first masterpiece The 39 Steps (1935). According to Andrew Higson, Hugh Castle had called Hitchcock “the one man in this country who can think cinema” as early as 1930. Hitchcock would leave England for Hollywood in 1939.