A brief look at British cinema during WWII

Pilots in One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

Discuss WWII in our Forum

Dr Charles Drazin is the author of the book The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s  (2007)

Despite the hardships of war, the 1940s are usually considered a golden age of British cinema. TV was not yet introduced into the homes, and during the worst fighting the audience flocked in their millions to see the Noel Coward films of David Lean, the collaborative work of Powell & Pressburger or Gainsborough melodramas (1943-49). After the war there were of course Ealing comedies (1947-57) to cheer you up. How did the British manage to maintain such an output of quality productions during a period when sacrifices were so great? We had a brief chat with movie historian Charles Drazin.

Historyradio.org:  How were films financed during the war?

Charles Drazin: Dominating production at this time was the Rank Organisation, which provided the lion’s share of financing for most of the prestige films that are still remembered today. (The Rank Organization was the media empire founded by J. Arthur Rank, and owned everything from studios to the cinemas where the movies played.)

Historyradio.org: Was there much censorship?

Charles Drazin: Mainstream movies had to respect the British Board of Film Censorship and, if they wanted to get into the profitable US market, the Hollywood Production Code, and also of course any wartime regulations relating to national security, but I think what was more notable was the freedom that film-makers had to express themselves. A good example is Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Churchill wasn’t able to prevent the film from being released although he disapproved fiercely of its content.

Historyradio.org: Were movie people exempt from military service in any way?

Charles Drazin: They could be if they were in a “reserved occupation” deemed to be necessary for the furtherance of the war effort.

Historyradio.org: How do British wartime movies compare with the similar productions in Germany?

Charles Drazin: Filmmakers were “free” in the sense that no higher government authority was telling them what to say. Obviously film-makers were encouraged to make films that support the war effort, but there was a diversity and authenticity of spirit that comes from free expression. The British film industry was of course engaged in a kind of propaganda but it was soft propaganda as opposed to the hard propaganda of the Nazis. I like the comment someone made about the great British documentary film-maker Humphrey Jennings that he was making “propaganda for the human race”.

Historyradio.org: Were the movies distributed among the troops?

Charles Drazin: Most certainly.

Sailors watching a movie in 1943

Historyradio.org: What about availability of raw film? Certainly that would have to be rationed during the war?

Charles Drazin: Yes, very significantly. Like so many other things at this time raw film was rationed.

Historyradio.org: How did the moviegoers during WWII react to the realism of some films, such as One of our Aircraft is Missing?

Charles Drazin: The critics thought such realism was the crowning glory of a British film renaissance – what made it stand out from the phoniness of Hollywood – but of course over time audiences grew tired of it. In the second half of the war the most successful movies were the escapist Gainsborough romantic melodramas. These melodramas were very much aimed at women. (The men were mostly off to war, or perhaps home on leave.)

Historyradio.org: Did the army have any role in the production of the film like In Which we serve (1942) or One of Our Aicraft is Missing (1942)?

Charles Drazin: The armed forces would provide support in the form of men and equipment to films that the Ministry of Information considered to be in support of the war effort.

Historyradio.org: What would you say were the major forms of innovation in British cinema during the war years?

Charles Drazin: The major achievement in my view was breaking away from formulaic, genre cinema to say something important to a mass popular audience. There were all sorts of style innovations, but it was the coming to age of the cinema as a serious medium in Britain that made such innovations possible.

One of Our Aicraft is Missing (1942)

About the movie

When Nazi anti-aircraft fire damages a British bomber, its crew bails out. Five of the six airmen find each other; one goes missing. The first Dutch citizens they encounter, led by English-speaking school teacher Else Meertens, are suspicious at first as no aircraft is reported to have crashed in the Netherlands. After much debate and some questioning, the Dutch agree to help, despite their fear of German reprisals.
(source:wiki)
Peter Ustinov in his first role in a feature film
The six British crewmen were played by Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden, and Emrys Jones. While the stars of the film have been forgotten today, we find several noted actors in supporting roles, among them Peter Ustinov. In his autobiography Ustinov states that the films boasted "some of the most distinguished of [contemporary] British actors, such as Godfrey Tearle and Eric Portman. I was selected, probably because of my un-English look, to play a Dutch priest."
Michael Powell (1905–1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902–1988), known as "The Archers"

Michael Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury and then at Dulwich College. He started work at the National Provincial Bank in 1922 but quickly realised he was not cut out to be a banker. Powell entered the film industry in 1925. He first started out as a general studio hand, but soon he progressed to other work such as stills photography, writing titles (for the silent films) and many other jobs including a few acting roles.
Returning to England in 1928, Powell worked at a diverse series of jobs for various filmmakers including as a stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's silent film Champagne (1928). He also signed on in a similar role on Hitchcock's first "talkie", Blackmail (1929). Powell was married three times and had two children from his second marriage.

Emeric Pressburger was born in Miskolc, in Hungary, of Jewish heritage.  He attended a boarding-school in Temesvár and then studied mathematics and engineering at the Universities of Prague and Stuttgart before his father's death forced him to abandon his studies.
Pressburger began a career as a journalist, but turned to screenwriting in the late 1920s, working for UFA in Berlin. The rise of the Nazis forced him to flee to Paris, where he again worked as screenwriter, and then to London. In England he found a small community of Hungarian film-makers who had fled the Nazis, including the influential Alexander Korda.
Pressburger was married and divorced twice. In his second marriage, he fathered a daughter, Angela, and another child who died as a baby in 1948. In the 1970s he moved to Suffolk. He died in 1988.

The Archers collaboration:  24 films between 1939 and 1972 were mainly derived from original stories by Pressburger with the script written by both Pressburger & Powell. Powell did most of the directing while Pressburger did most of the work of the producer and also assisted with the editing, especially the way the music was used. Unusually, the pair shared a writer-director-producer credit for most of their films. One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942) was their fourth collaboration.

(source:wiki)
Variety, 31 December 1941: "A lot of Dutch people are recruited as natives of Holland, all of them excellent, not to mention Hay Petrie as the burgomaster. With the exception of Pamela Brown, all arrive solidly. Script, production, direction and photography are splendid."

Stars and Stripes, November 4, 1942: «New York Likes British Film: The British film, One of our Aircraft is Missing, was enthusiastically recieved at its opening here this week»

The Laredo Times, Sunday March 21, 1943: "One of Our Aircraft is Missing, is Daring, Adventure-Packed film with All Star Cast: The Motion picture screen has been prophetic in the past. But never has the gift of prophecy on the screen caught up with events so quickly and dramatically as in the new United Artists release, One of Our Aircraft is Missing"