Glancing back: Teaching British cinema from an imperial perspective

Session Abstract : Within Film Studies, British cinema is often taught in a way that emphasises representations of life in Britain, and its own relationship with, and response to, the historic dominance of Hollywood. Although such courses may consider representations of race, ethnicity and “British” communities in individual texts, they rarely offer sustained engagement with the realities of Britain’s imperial past. In 2015, noting this tendency in our own ‘British National Cinema’ module at King’s College London, we redesigned the syllabus to address these imperial histories and legacies.

In so doing, we have sought to re-frame British cinema history by examining colonial and post-colonial settings, and accounting for the peoples participating in these spaces. Moving beyond the texts themselves, we have considered the complicity between cinema and imperial practices, for example by identifying the Empire as an important market for British films and other products. In the process, this imperial focus has placed British film history in productive dialogue with a range of contemporary issues about “British” national and global identities (particularly in the wake of Brexit and renewed right-wing nationalism), as well as academic debates about “inclusive” histories and curricula.

This session provides a brief overview of the module itself, highlighting the motivations, challenges and implications of engaging with British colonial history in a Film Studies setting. We will each offer personal reflections on teaching the module, as well as its impact on our own research practices. Individual papers will provide examples and analyses of British cinema informed by an imperial focus: Lawrence Napper examines the struggle for power over the voice of the colonised subject in films such as West of Zanzibar (Harry Watt, 1954), Stephen Morgan explores the settler colonial conundrum central to The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946), and Kulraj Phullar tackles the ‘social problem’ of honour killings in recent films Honour (Shan Khan, 2014) and Catch Me Daddy (Daniel Wolfe, 2014). The session will conclude with a Q&A and opportunities for audience members to discuss their own practice in similar fields and/or across disciplines.

Session Chair: Hannah Hamad, University of East Anglia

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘It is easy for a conqueror to be magnanimous’: British colonial films and the anti-colonial speech
Lawrence Napper, King’s College London

This paper will note the tendency of a variety of colonial-themed British fiction films, to include a scene where a colonised subject, or an anti-colonialist activist, confronts the main protagonist with an articulate attack on the colonialist project, and challenges him to acknowledge his own racism. Scenes like this occur in films such as The Drum (Zoltan Korda, 1938), The Planter’s Wife (Ken Annakin, 1952), West of Zanzibar (Harry Watt, 1954) and Simba (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1955). Written by white scriptwriters, sometimes spoken by white actors wearing blackface, placed in the mouths of characters who will turn out to be the villains of their respective stories, these speeches are always utterly compromised as statements of anti-colonial politics. The issues they raise are immediately closed down by the filmic text. Nevertheless, their repeated presence in such films is remarkable and striking.

Focussing on the example in West of Zanzibar, I will attempt to account for the presence of such scenes, considering their effect on the overall ideological construction of the films they appear in. Tracing the reception of such films both in the UK and in the colonies they represent, I will offer some speculations as to how such scenes may have been taken up and interpreted by different audiences.

Paper 2 Abstract : ‘It’s a national job, Corky’: Settler coloniality and the end of empire in The Overlanders
Stephen Morgan, King’s College London

Conceived as an attempt to help illustrate Australia’s contribution to the war effort, but produced at the precise moment that the Second World War was winding down, The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946) embodies the stoic uncertainty of the post-war moment. Made by Scottish documentarian turned feature filmmaker Harry Watt for London-based Ealing Studios, the film’s Anglo-Australian nature has been shaped by a whole range of imperial-national negotiations.

From a British perspective, the film’s presentation of collective endeavour speaks to both the ‘Blitz spirit’ already depicted by documentarian Watt in films like London Can Take It! (1940), to the emerging post-war consensus, and to a latent desire to preserve Britain’s ‘imperial spirit’. In Australia, however, the film spoke directly to the complexities of the settler colonial conundrum, a perpetually emergent nation borne of Britain, but not entirely ‘British’. As a result, this film has traditionally been read as part of Australia’s national self-image, whilst simultaneously being excluded from almost all accounts of British cinema.

Reflecting on Peter Limbrick’s useful, if somewhat axiomatic, designation of Ealing’s first three Australian features as ‘settler colonial cinema par excellence’ (2007), my paper ponders what The Overlanders might have meant for British audiences in the immediate post-war moment, and considers the challenges it poses for existing notions of British national cinema. In doing so, I demonstrate how its depiction of a rising settler colonial ethos amongst Britain’s ‘loyal white Dominions’ both eroded and reinforced a sense of imperial pride in the post-war instant, as the realities of the coming decolonisation were offset by persistent visions of a ‘British world’ hastily reconstituted via the Commonwealth project.

Paper 3 Abstract : ‘To me, skin colour nothing. No important.’: Examining Honour and Catch Me Daddy as social problem thrillers
Kulraj Phullar, King’s College London

“Perhaps genres can even teach us about nations.” – Rick Altman (1999)

Social problem films have frequently deployed narrative strategies, scenarios and iconography from crime genres. Investigative plots facilitate the films’ epistemological quest to probe and understand the “problem” and affected parties. Meanwhile acts of violence (especially murder) reveal sites of conflict, particularly around personal and community identities, and contentious moral, legal and political positions. Social problem thrillers include the canonical collaborations between director Basil Dearden and producer Michael Relph – notably Sapphire (1959; selected for our British National Cinema module) and Victim (1961) – as well as more contemporary films like Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2002). The often-irreconcilable perspectives and lack of easy resolutions presented in these films are paralleled – and exacerbated – by tensions between “liberal” social messages and the conventions and expectations associated with crime, mystery and thriller genres.

In light of these issues, this paper mobilises the social problem film as a conceptual frame for examining two “honour killing” thrillers released in 2014, Honour (Shan Khan) and Catch Me Daddy (Daniel Wolfe). Both films pit their potential-victims – young British-Muslim women romantically involved with non-Muslim men – against murderous Muslim families and morally-ambiguous white men hired by the latter to locate the women.

I will consider representations of these parties and their functions within the narrative, highlighting the problematic intersection of ethnic identities and genre within a post-colonial, post-9/11 context. These tensions invite us to interrogate whether the films are “about” honour killing or British-Muslims-as-Other, and the implications of asking such questions in the contemporary cultural and political climate.