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Public Memory or Public Amnesia? British Women of the Second World War in Popular Films of the 1950s and 1960s

  • Penny Summerfield
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1 Figures based on Kinematograph Weekly's annual surveys of box office takings published in December each year. In spite of their shortcomings (they do not give actual viewing figures, and they compare takings over the twelve months to 30 November regardless of release date), film historians rely heavily on these listings. See, e.g., Harper, Sue and Porter, Vincent, British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference (Oxford, 2003); Ramsden, John, “Refocusing ‘The People's War’: British War Films of the 1950s,” Journal of Contemporary History 33, no. 1 (January 1998): 3563; and Harper, Sue, “Popular Film, Popular Memory: The Case of the Second World War,” in War and Memory in the Twentieth Century, ed. Evans, Martin and Lunn, Ken (Oxford, 1997), 163–76.

2 “New Films in London,” Manchester Guardian, 2 April 1955.

3 Ramsden, John, The Dam Busters (London, 2003), 121.

4 Aspinall, Sue, “Women, Realism and Reality in British Films, 1943–53,” in British Cinema History, ed. James Curran and Vincent Porter (London, 1983), 285, 287; Geraghty, Christine, British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the “New Look” (London, 2000), 159, 174, 160.

5 Harper, Sue, “The Years of Total War: Propaganda and Entertainment,” in Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and British Cinema in the Second World War, ed. Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson (Manchester, 1996), 193. This does not apply to the Hollywood film Mrs. Miniver, although, as part of a U.S. drive to promote the Anglo-American alliance, this film expressed sentiments in tune with the Ministry of Information's version of the British war effort.

6 Aldgate, Anthony and Richards, Jeffrey, Britain Can Take It: The British Cinema in the Second World War (Edinburgh, 1994), 4–15; see also Caroline Levine, “Propaganda for Democracy: The Curious Case of Love on the Dole,” Journal of British Studies 45, no. 4 (October 2006): 851–65, for a discussion of the contradictions within these ideological imperatives.

7 Lant, Antonia, Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema (Princeton, NJ, 1991). Also see Harper, “The Years of Total War,” 193–212; Christine Gledhill, “‘An Abundance of Understatement’: Documentary, Melodrama and Romance,” 213–29; Janet Thumim, “The Female Audience: Mobile Women and Married Ladies,” 230–37; and Christine Geraghty, “Disguises and Betrayals: Negotiating Nationality and Femininity in Three Wartime Films,” 238–256; all in Gledhill and Swanson, Nationalising Femininity.

8 Ramsden, “Refocusing ‘The People's War,’” 59.

9 Rattigan, Neil, “The Last Gasp of the Middle Class: British War Films of the 1950s,” in Re-viewing British Cinema, 1900–1992, ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon (New York, 1994), 143–53.

10 Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties, 195; Medhurst, Andy, “1950s War Films,” in National Fictions: World War Two in British Films and Television, ed. Hurd, Geoff (London, 1984), 3538.

11 Odette, British Lion Film Corporation, Imperadio Pictures, Great Britain, produced and directed by Herbert Wilcox, released 1950; A Town Like Alice, Rank Organisation Film Productions, Vic Films (London), British and Dominions Film Corporation, Great Britain, produced by Joseph Janni and directed by Jack Lee, released 1956; Carve Her Name with Pride, Keyboard Productions, Rank Organisation Film Productions, British and Dominions Film Corporation, Great Britain, produced by Daniel M. Angel and directed by Lewis Gilbert, released 1958; Conspiracy of Hearts, Rank Organisation Film Productions, Great Britain, produced by Betty E. Box and directed by Ralph Thomas, released 1960.

12 Geoff Eley, “Finding the People's War: Film, British Collective Memory, and World War II,” American Historical Review 106, no. 3 (June 2001): 819. Eley focuses not on the war films of the 1950s and 1960s but on the contribution of those of the 1980s and 1990s to the redefinition of British national identity in the Thatcher era.

13 Winter, Jay, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (London, 2006), chap. 8; Penny Summerfield, “War, Film, Memory: Some Reflections on War Films and the Social Configuration of Memory in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s,” Journal of War and Culture Studies 1, no. 1 (2008): 15–23.

14 Rousso, Henry, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Cambridge, MA, 1991).

15 Sebastian Conrad argues, in a study of post-1945 Japan and Germany, that “national memory” is not only an aspect of national culture but is also produced transnationally (“Entangled Memories: Versions of the Past in Germany and Japan, 1945–2001,” Journal of Contemporary History 38, no. 1 [January 2003]: 85–99).

16 See Street, Sarah, British National Cinema (London, 1997), chaps. 2 and 5.

17 See Kaplan, E. Ann, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London, 1983), 12–13: “Realism (an apparent imitation of the social word we live in) hides the fact that a film is constructed, and perpetuates the illusion that spectators are being shown what is ‘natural.'”

18 Worpole, Ken, Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading–Popular Writing (London, 1983), 6061.

19 Jack Lee (director, A Town Like Alice) directed The Wooden Horse (1950), and Lewis Gilbert and Daniel Angel (director and producer, Carve Her Name with Pride) worked together on Albert RN (1951) and Reach for the Sky (1956). These war films were all top-fifty box office successes.

20 Kuhn, Annette, ed., Queen of the B's: Ida Lupino behind the Camera (Trowbridge, Wiltshire, 1995), 4.

21 McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema, as Told by the Actors and Filmmakers Who Made It (London, 1997), 555. Ralph Thomas directed Above Us the Waves (1955) with producer William McQuitty.

22 Falk, Quentin, “Don’t Knock the Distributors Say Thomas and Medwin,” Cinema TV Today, no. 10067, 26 January 1974, 11; Betty Box, Lifting the Lid: The Autobiography of Film Producer Betty Box, OBE (Lewes, Sussex, 2000), 211.

23 Sue Harper and Vincent Porter, “Cinema Audience Tastes in 1950s Britain,” in “Audiences and Reception in Britain,” ed. Annette Kuhn and Sarah Street, special issue, Journal of Popular British Cinema, no. 2 (1999), 67. The proportion of women in 1946 was 62 percent; in 1950, 52 percent; in 1952, 50 percent; and in 1960, 47 percent.

24 ibid., 77.

25 Odette, press book, 1950, British Film Institute (BFI) Special Collections. The male audience was not neglected in the marketing of Odette. Apart from factory workers (presumably of both sexes), the groups that exhibitors were advised to invite to their premières were mainly male: local dignitaries, British Legion, Soldiers Sailors and Air Force Association, RAF, and Sea Cadets.

26 A Town Like Alice, press book, 1956, BFI Special Collections. Managers were also to persuade the local press to seek out, through their pages, ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese and to suggest “a fashion angle for the Women's Page—coolie hats.”

27 The Daily Cinema, 29 January 1960.

28 Carve Her Name with Pride, press book, 1958, BFI Special Collections.

29 “Celluloid Monument,” Times Educational Supplement, 27 February 1958.

30 For a discussion of this problem and an interpretation of the last Mass-Observation survey of film audiences, conducted in 1950, see Sue Harper and Vincent Porter, “Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Post-war Britain,” Screen 37, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 152–73.

31 “Angela Pope on Carve Her Name with Pride,” Guardian, 6 September 1996.

32 For a historical account of the work of Sansom, Szabo, and other SOE agents, see Pattinson, Juliette, Behind Enemy Lines: Gender, Passing and the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War (Manchester, 2007). Because of their many similarities, Odette and Carve Her Name with Pride are discussed together here, followed by A Town Like Alice and Conspiracy of Hearts, even though this departs from strict chronology.

33 The Daily Cinema, 17 February 1958.

34 For example, Nicholas Monsarrat describes, and depicts, the French as motivated not by “a patrie but by l’amour—a four-letter urge which, by an odd coincidence, seemed to render them impotent” in his best-selling novel The Cruel Sea (London, 1951), 150.

35 For a discussion of accents in wartime films, see Jo Fox, “Millions Like Us? Accented Language and the ‘Ordinary’ in British Films of the Second World War,” Journal of British Studies 45, no. 4 (October 2006): 819–45.

36 Street, National Cinema, 133–34.

37 On postwar divorce, see Carol Smart, “Good Wives and Moral Lives: Marriage and Divorce, 1937–51,” in Gledhill and Swanson, Nationalising Femininity, 91–105.

38 Kathleen Paul, “‘British Subjects’ and ‘British Stock’: Labour's Postwar Imperialism,” Journal of British Studies 34, no. 2 (April 1995): 237, 241–42.

39 These films were The Cruel Sea (1953) and The Ship That Died of Shame (1955).

40 McFarlane, Autobiography of British Cinema, 222.

41 ibid., 382. McKenna had no “double” for the roughest parts of the film, and Daniel Angel worried about the actress's “reckless enthusiasm” for the part (Jympson Harman, “At the Cinema,” Evening News, 20 February 1958).

42 On tomboyishness, see Tinkler, Penny, Constructing Girlhood: Popular Magazines for Girls Growing Up in England, 1920–1950 (London, 1995), 74; on the British combat taboo, see Summerfield, Penny and Peniston-Bird, Corinna, Contesting Home Defence: Men, Women and the Home Guard in the Second World War (Manchester, 2007), 6373.

43 In case it was not enough, the filmmakers also inserted a romantic attachment between Violette and her commanding officer, Tony (Paul Scofield). The authenticity of this affair was hotly denied in the press on behalf of the family (e.g., Anne Moses, Sunday Graphic, 23 February 1958), and Violette's biographers found no evidence for it.

44 Paul Dehn, review of Carve Her Name with Pride, News Chronicle, 28 February 1958. (Dehn refers to his wartime role training agents in a review of Odette, “Paul Dehn on the New Films,” Sunday Chronicle, 11 June 1950.)

45 Marks, Leo, Between Silk and Cyanide: The Story of SOE's Code War, 1941–1945 (London, 1998); Quentin Letts, “How Leo's Ditties Fooled the Nazis,” Daily Telegraph, 30 October 1998; “In Memoriam,” Evening Standard, 8 January 1999; Ottaway, Susan, Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have (Barnsley, 2002), 180–82. In an interview published in French in 1983, the film director Michael Powell stated that Daniel Angel, producer of Carve Her Name with Pride, told him that Leo Marks had given the poem to Lewis Gilbert and himself while they were making the film in the mid-1950s (Michael Powell, “Leo Marks et Mark Lewis par Michael Powell,” Cinématographe, no. 95 [December 1983]: 56). Marks's copyright in the poem is dated 1958. See Marks, Leo, The Life That I Have (London, 1999). To complicate matters even further, Ottaway suggests that John Pudney, a published poet, rather than Leo Marks, in fact wrote it at the behest of Daniel Angel. Pudney's poems were used in films, notably The Way to the Stars (1945).

46 Marks, “Preface,” in The Life That I Have; Dehn, review, News Chronicle, 28 February 1958.

47 Ian Carmalt, “William Alwyn: A Romantic Composer of His Time,” first published in British Music Society Newsletter, posted on (accessed November 2007).

48 The interrogator tells Odette “We have ways of making you talk,” a line much exploited in later satirical productions.

49 There are reversed echoes of Odette and Carve Her Name with Pride in the scenes in 633 Squadron: Erik is interrogated by a female Gestapo officer, whom we see looming hugely above him; Erik repeats “I have nothing to say,” Odette's words.

50 The point is supported by one of the other films in which women feature in active resistance roles. Battle of the V.1 (1958) includes scenes of Zofia's torture, semi-clothed, by the Gestapo in the baignoire, resulting in her death. The Italian film Roma, Città Aperta (Roberto Rossellini, 1945), however, does not shrink from depicting the brutal and humiliating torture of a man. But, as a documentary-based film about the Italian resistance made before the end of the war, it belonged in a different cultural and political world from the British war movies of the 1950s and 1960s.

51 Foot, Michael R. D., SOE in France: An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France, 1940–1944 (London, 1966), 430–31.

52 ibid., 431.

53 Odette Churchill was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE; 1945), awarded the George Cross (1946), and made an officer of the French Légion d’Honneur (1950) (obituary, The Times, 17 March 1995). Peter Churchill was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO; 1946) and also received the insignia of the French Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre (obituary, The Times, 2 May 1972). Violette Szabo was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross posthumously (1947; R. J. Minney, Carve Her Name with Pride: The Story of Violette Szabo [Barnsley, South Yorkshire, [1956] 2006], 190).

54 Foot, Michael R. D., SOE in France: An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France, 1940–1944 (second impression with amendments, London, 1968), 209, 431. On the legal challenge, see “Law Report, Queen's Bench Division: Wartime Agent Gets Libel Damages,” The Times, 28 January 1969, where it is reported that Churchill “is to receive very substantial damages from Professor M. R. D. Foot,” author of “S.O.E. in France, a companion volume in the official history of the war, and from the Stationery Office, the publishers of the book, for defamatory statements in it.” The contested statements suggested that Churchill was unsuitable for his work as an agent, that he and Sansom lived a life of luxury on the Riviera, and that Churchill had irresponsibly kept secret messages, which were found when he was arrested. The court was satisfied that these “slurs on Captain Churchill's reputation were totally unfounded.” The report stated that “corrections had been agreed between the parties and incorporated in the second impression, with amendments, of the book.”

55 Minney, Carve Her Name with Pride, 162.

56 Ottaway points out that there is no reference to maltreatment in the witness statements of those who shared Szabo's cell at Fresnes Prison in Paris (Ottaway, Violette Szabo, 116; Pattinson, Behind Enemy Lines, 163).

57 Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties, 167–74.

58 ibid., 167.

59 ibid., 174. For Geraghty, McKenna as Szabo embodies the contradictory construction of the modern woman of the 1950s and shows that “this figure proved difficult to translate into cinematic terms.”

60 Pattinson, Behind Enemy Lines, 85, 106.

61 Pattinson makes a distinction between public and private, or group, memory. She suggests that the films “may also have influenced veterans’ perceptions,” but she reports, nevertheless, that the former agents that she interviewed robustly rejected the “myths” created by these and other films, such as Charlotte Gray (2002). See Pattinson, Behind Enemy Lines, 106–9.

62 Gottlieb, Sidney, Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley, 1995).

63 The preference for blond victims perhaps contributed to the decision not to make a film about the one black SOE agent, Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of an Indian father and American mother, even though a biography was published in 1952 and in spite of similarities between her story and those of Sansom and Szabo. On Khan, see Shompa Lahiri, “Clandestine Mobilities and Shifting Embodiments: Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan and the Special Operations Executive, 1940–44,” Gender and History 19, no. 2 (August 2007): 305–23.

64Odette Makes Eight Faint,” Sunday Times, 25 October 1950.

65 Worpole, Dockers and Detectives, 63–64, makes a similar but stronger point about the promotion of popular literature of the Holocaust in the late 1950s with sexualized images of suffering, which he refers to as “the pornography of sadism.”

66 Shute, Nevil, “Author's Note,” in A Town Like Alice (London, 1950; Thirsk, North Yorkshire, 2000). In the second half of the novel, for which authenticity was not claimed, the main character endeavours to create a town similar to Alice Springs in the unpromising setting of Queensland cattle-ranching country.

67 Nevil Shute, “Author's Note.” See also Julian Smith, Nevil Shute (Nevil Shute Norway) (Boston, 1976), 99–100, quoting Shute's log, 10 February 1949.

68 The difficulty of identifying the film's genre may have prompted the objections of contemporary film critics, who found it shapeless (e.g., “A Town Like Alice on the Screen,” from our London film critic, Manchester Guardian, 3 March 1956; Saturday Review, 9 September 1957.

69 Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties, 171.

70 F. Jackson, Reynolds News, 4 March 1956.

71 Christine Twomey, “Revisiting A Town Like Alice,” Australian Feminist Studies 21, no. 49 (March 2006): 91.

72 Smith, Nevil Shute, 87.

73 This makes possible Jean's eventual discovery that he survived and their romantic reunion in the Australian town of Alice Springs.

74 Reviews: Manchester Guardian. 3 March 1956; Daily Worker, 3 March 1956. Japanese responses: Daily Mail, 28 March 1956; News Chronicle, 4 October 1956.

75 Worpole, Dockers and Detectives, 54.

76 “Royal Title for Gurkha Rifles,” The Times, 2 January 1959; Philip Deery, “Malaya 1948: Britain's ‘Asian Cold War’?” Working Paper no. 3 (International Center for Advanced Studies, New York University, April 2002), 28.

77 David Robb, “Naming the Right Names: Amending the Hollywood Blacklist,” Cinéaste 22, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 25. Dale Pitt fronted for Scott in the credits. Robert Presnell adapted the screenplay, and Betty Box paid Scott through an intermediary, Sally Stubblefield (Box, Lifting the Lid, 202).

78 “Anthony Carthew Reviews the New Films,” Daily Herald, 19 February 1960. See also McFarlane, Autobiography of British Cinema, 549; “Films by Nina Hibbin,” Daily Worker, 20 February 1960; “John Braine, ‘I’ll Say It: No Other Love Story Gripped Me Like This!’” Daily Express, 19 February 1960.

79 Mary B. Haralovich, Janet Jakobsen, and Susan White, “The Trouble with Angels (1966),” in Kuhn, Queen of the B’s, 121.

80 See Bhabha, Homi, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in his The Location of Culture (London, 1994), 6684.

81 The Colditz Story (1955) in particular evokes the oppressive order of a British public school, visually by virtue of its staircases and turrets as well as socially via the accents and attitudes of the male inmates.

82 Isabel Quigly, “Horrors beyond Art,” Spectator, 28 February 1958.

83 Kushner, Tony, “The Memory of Belsen,” in Belsen in History and Memory, ed. Reilly, Jo, Cesarani, David, Kushner, Tony, and Richmond, Colin (London, 1997), 185. It was shown for the first time to British audiences in 1985 (ibid., 197).

84 ibid., 186.

85 ibid., 191; Sheerit, Irgun Hapleita Me’haezor Habriti, Belsen (Tel Aviv, 1957), 30–31; 63–66.

86 In Tickell's biography of Sansom, there is likewise no mention of Jews. The other inmates, with whom Odette had limited contact since she was kept in solitary confinement most of the time, are not sympathetically sketched. In particular, the Ukrainian women prisoners with whom Odette was initially housed are described as almost bestial (Jerard Tickell, Odette: The Story of a British Agent [1949; rev. ed., London, 1955], 259–64). Minney, likewise, does not refer to Jews in his biography of Szabo. While sketching the international composition, and blamelessness, of the camp inmates, he focuses on Szabo's relationship with the other British agents, Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch, who were executed with her (Minney, Carve Her Name with Pride, 172–73).

87 Novick, Peter, The Holocaust and Collective Memory (London, 2000); Kushner, “Memory of Belsen,” 197.

88 Omissions include consideration of the use and effects of the atomic bomb in Japan, the wartime role of the Soviet Union and conditions on the Eastern front, and the contribution and treatment of colonial troops in the allied war effort.

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