French and British cinema in wartime: subtlety against the odds

Despite the constraints of the Second World War, both French and British filmmakers created brilliant films, shaped by contrasting experiences of the conflict.

A still form A Matter of Life and Death, 1946. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.
A still form A Matter of Life and Death, 1946. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

As a French person living in Britain, I have time and again been struck by the Frenchness of French cinema, by the Britishness of British cinema, and by the myriad cultural differences between the two mindsets.

Periods of crisis are particularly revealing. During the Second World War, Britain fought off the threat of invasion while France was occupied by Germany from 1940 to 1944. In a country at war, the film industry is enlisted for a new, more explicitly political function: that of propaganda. What can we learn from some salient examples of British and French films made during the Second World War, with a view to influencing the opinions and behaviour of their populations?

The classic example of British wartime cinema is the patriotic drama In Which We Serve (1942), directed by Noel Coward and, for the action scenes, David Lean. It is ‘the story of a ship’ — British destroyer HMS Torrin, attacked by German bombers during the battle of Crete — told in flashbacks by survivors as they cling to a life raft. It is a memorable story of national unity in the destabilising context of the war, with people of all classes pulling together and demonstrating British resolve and courage, and it proved extremely popular at the box-office.

Another box office success, released in 1943, was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Unlike In Which We Serve, this was not an officially sanctioned film. The clue is in the title, which, drawn from the satirical Evening Standard Colonel Blimp comic strip by David Low, was a byword for bumbling reactionary thinking and military incompetence. James Grigg, the-then Secretary of State for War, expressed concerns that Life and Death would give new lease of life to public belief in ‘the Blimp conception of the Army officer’ at a time when it was vital to enlist national confidence. Winston Churchill, possibly believing the character of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, to be based on his own military career, wanted to halt filming, but was unsuccessful.

In the face of official disapproval Powell and Pressburger carried on shooting in a somewhat buccaneering spirit. In a 1978 interview Powell explained that: ‘everything we had on the screen in the form of khaki uniforms and trucks is stolen. We could have been shot for it, I suppose, but nobody minded about a little thing like that then!’ The film starts in present-day wartime Britain, during a military exercise in which the Home Guard is supposed to be defending London against the regular army. ‘Spud’ Wilson, a young officer on the attacking side, has been instructed to ‘make it like the real thing,’ which he takes to mean ‘like Pearl Harbour’ — that is, without warning. Six hours earlier than agreed, he and his troops storm the Royal Bathers Club, where they capture the elderly officers of the Home Guard in the Turkish bath. Their commander, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), is outraged: ‘But, you damned young idiot, the war starts at midnight!’ There follows a lengthy, sumptuous flashback, which shows Candy rising through the ranks of the army, becoming friends with Prussian officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), falling in love, getting married, and then being widowed. Though a highly experienced soldier towards the end of his career, he has become irrelevant in the context of modern warfare.

Some critics were puzzled: the film’s message was not sufficiently clear. This may have been a consequence of what makes the film an enduring work of art — its beauty, inventiveness and strangeness. The film runs at an epic two-and-three-quarter hours. Deborah Kerr plays three parts: different incarnations of Candy’s female ideal. Life and Death presents a (perhaps more honest) picture of Britain than In Which We Serve. Here, class hierarchy still exists and some of the elite, in thrall to traditional ideals of honourable warfare, do not really understand what is at stake in the war. It falls to Candy’s Prussian friend Theo, a ‘good German,’ to explain to assembled English gentlemen that ‘if you lose there won’t be a return match next year, perhaps not even for a hundred years!’ War isn’t cricket.

Meanwhile across the Channel, the French film industry had undergone profound changes since the beginning of the German occupation in 1940. Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime exerted ideological censorship over all cultural productions. In order to avoid controversy, film directors often took refuge in the past. Marcel Carné’s extraordinary 1942 medieval fantasy Les Visiteurs du Soir [The Evening Guests] has been interpreted as an allegory for the occupation, although its meaning went undetected by Vichy at the time.

But another film, Le Corbeau [The Raven, 1943] by Henri-Georges Clouzot, managed to distil, in its coded response to the occupation, the poisonous atmosphere of the times, and in so doing, drew the ire not only of Nazi Germany and Vichy France, but also of the Resistance. Set in contemporary France, Le Corbeau was inspired by a 1927 epidemic of anonymous letters in the town of Tulle and is about a similar malignant contagion taking over a small town, whose respectable denizens receive a growing number of poison-pen letters, signed ‘Le corbeau,’ revealing shameful secrets: embezzlement, adultery, abortion. The film is not only remarkable for its oppressive, unrelenting suspense; it also evokes the highly topical subject of la délation, the act of sending a letter of denunciation to the Kommandantur or the French police to signal the existence of ‘terrorist activities,’ a practice explicitly encouraged by Pétain, and one which led to the arrest of many Jews, Communists and Gaullists. When the film was released in 1943, the publicity tagline read: ‘De l’encre qui fait couler du sang!’ [‘When ink draws blood!’].

Le Corbeau was a success with film-goers, though it is impossible to quantify how much of its climate of collective guilt was actually interpreted by cinema audiences as an indictment of Vichy France. But the film, with its dark and sensuous immorality, so at odds with the values of Pétain’s Révolution Nationale, made the collaborationist press uneasy and the Kommandantur complained. Indeed, after the liberation in 1944, the Comité de Libération du Cinéma turned its attention to Clouzot’s ‘anti-French’ film and banned it. Clouzot was suspended from making films until 1947. Le corbeau was suppressed until 1969.

Artists yearn for creative freedom. But some genuinely original masterpieces — such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, pushing for subtlety against a demand for positive propaganda, and Le Corbeau, crafting a dark mirror image of the nation under totalitarianism — have arisen from the tight constraints of wartime conditions. Since the war, films set in wartime have expressed changes in the national mood of France and Britain, from elation to more nuanced scepticism. The French initially wanted to forget about the sombre period of the occupation, while the British were keen to celebrate the Blitz spirit and the Battle of Britain. Recent films such as Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour show that the figure of Churchill has lost none of his fascination. But the two nations really came together in Gérard Oury’s picaresque comedy classic La Grande Vadrouille (The Long Wandering, 1966,) in which two Frenchmen and a group of British parachutists led by Terry Thomas travel across France to join the resistance, fending off Nazis along the way — and recasting a traumatic era through a comic lens. In this way, a nation’s sense of its history evolves over time, through retellings and cinema, in its various registers, plays a thrilling and active part in this process.


Muriel Zagha