Narratives of the People’s War in British film, 1940 – 1958

2017-03-01T01:35:41Z (GMT) by Thomson, Damian Michael
The cinematic narrative of a ‘People’s War’ is often seen to represent either a groundswell of liberal sentiment in wartime Britain, or a pure exercise in propaganda employed by the governing classes, offering merely the illusion of radical change. I argue that neither of these interpretations adequately do justice to the multi-faceted nature of the People’s War narrative, which was at the same time organic and cultivated; both liberal and conservative. The People’s War was not a homogenous concept; rather it was the site of debates around the nature of postwar British society. It reflected a broad desire for postwar change, but also conflicting views about the nature of this change. Even where these tensions around the People’s War have been acknowledged, I argue they have been misunderstood as class tensions when in fact they are chiefly ideological. They stemmed more from a clash between liberal and conservative postwar desires than they did from a conflict between classes. Indeed, issues of class tension are far less central to the People’s War than is often assumed. Closer inspection of the wartime films considered by this thesis reveals the People’s War to be in many respects a middle-class narrative that did not disappear altogether after 1945 as is often claimed. Instead, it continued to provide a vehicle for the middle classes to engage in debates around how the wartime experience should influence postwar society into the 1950s. While many histories of British cinema interpret the war films of the 1950s as a middle-class denial of the People’s War and its radical promise, I demonstrate that 1950s war films continued to engage with a number of key themes of the People’s War. Far from being written out by the middle classes during the 1950s, the People’s War narrative evolves to reflect the increasing conservatism of Britain’s middle classes. I demonstrate that it is only in the wake of the Suez Crisis in 1956 that filmmakers begin to shift away from the People’s War narrative, as Britain grapples with both the geopolitical fallout from Suez and the changing demands of a younger generation for whom the Second World War lacks immediacy and relevance.