Special Subject: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1935-1955

Module code: V1444
Level 6
30 credits in autumn & spring teaching
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Unseen examination, Coursework

This Special Subject is concerned with representations of British society and culture in feature films made between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s. British cinema was once derided for being both artistically limited and commercially unappealing, lacking the intellectual sophistication of continental European film or the popular appeal of Hollywood. However in the last two decades scholars have sought to revaluate British films, especially those produced in the 1940s, when Britain still possessed a relatively buoyant independent cinema industry. This reappraisal has not merely encompassed the 'quality films' of directors such as Powell and Pressburger, Carol Reed or David Lean, but also more middlebrow cinematic genres such as crime dramas, comedy and the women's costume melodrama.

While this course will test this new critical evaluation of British cinema, it is not primarily intended as a study of the history of film. Rather, it uses film as a mirror of British society in the middle decades of the 20th century, especially in regard to configurations of nation, class, gender, race and empire.

Specific topics include:

  • the composition and preferences of British cinema audiences
  • audience responses: what made the British laugh or cry when they went the movies, and what does it tell us about them?
  • how feature films portrayed the British at war between 1939 and 1945
  • how class relations were represented in film, with particular attention to claims that the working class were marginalized or trivialized in British film culture
  • how femininity, masculinity and sexuality were portrayed
  • how far issues in national politics be detected in films
  • how Britain's imperial role was registered on screen, and how far did representations of non-whites change as Britain began to disengaged from empire after 1945.

Module learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a detailed knowledge of a closely defined topic.
  • Situate, evaluate and analyse primary historical sources.
  • Relate the interpretation of primary sources to secondary interpretations.
  • Construct sophisticated written arguments that demonstrate intellectual maturity and integrity.