Article in Film International · November 2006 doi: 10. 1386/fiin

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Capturing the true moment: realism in British cinema of the late 1940s, its

antecedents and its legacy





Film International · November 2006

DOI: 10.1386/fiin.4.6.50





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Capturing the true moment: realism in British cinema of the late 1940s, its

antecedents and its legacy 

by Philip Gillett

Realism is an apparently simple creed which aspires to capture everyday life

on screen. Unpacking the term reveals a range of issues including the

technical (how this should be done), the sociological (whose life is being

considered), the political (the responsibility and ability of film-makers to change

the social order) and the philosophical (whether film can ever escape from

artifice). Attitudes to realism helped to define the character of British cinema in

the late 1940s, the debate focusing on the presentation of realism, its assumed

value and nostalgia for the qualities in wartime films. The writing of the time

gives a glimpse of the values being applied. 

One stumbling block is that the term realism was so widely used and widely

accepted that nobody bothered to define it. Some strands in its evolution can

be traced. With the plethora of newreels during the Boer War and the First

World War, British audiences came to recognise the conventions for filming

real events, even where incidents were re-enacted for the camera. With this

acceptance, the conventions took on a life of their own and could be applied to

a range of material. In a sense the cinema was looking back to its improvised

roots. Events were grounded in everyday life, in contradistinction to genres like

the musical or the farce which could escape into fantasy. In a realistic work, the

man next door could be the hero; there was no place for kings and queens.

The sense of capturing the moment was enhanced by location shooting, which

was preferred to studio sets, particularly for outdoor scenes. Camera work and

lighting might be less than ideal in situations where repeated takes were

difficult, e.g. during storms or in crowd scenes, but this was the price to be paid

rather than a conscious attempt to convey spontaneity. Exploiting this limitation

had to wait until cameras became more manoeuvrable and less intrusive (a

hidden camera was used for the street scenes in Brighton Rock (John Boulting,

1947). Crucially there was no place within realism for histrionic acting, which

detracted from the illusion of real people in real situations. Actors had to adopt

a low key approach, or alternatively amateurs could bring verisimilitude to

scenes where specialised occupations such as fishing, farming or mining were

being depicted. J. Arthur Rank’s first foray into feature films, Turn of the Tide

(Norman Walker, 1935), set in the fishing community of Whitby, showed how

the desire to depict reality permeated feature films, but painted backdrops and

rickety sets were still common. It was not until the Second World War that

realism achieved wide acceptance among audiences and film-makers.

Why realism became the preferred approach in Britain is less easy to

explain. Andrew Higson dates the rise of film culture to the establishment in the

1920s of the London Film Society and the appearance of specialised journals

such as Close Up. With a distaste for mass entertainment came an attempt to

establish an indigenous national film culture in opposition to Hollywood’s



 Given this elitist aspiration and the preference for European

cinema, it is not clear why realism was favoured over movements such as

expressionism or surrealism. One clue might be the early and widespread

acceptance of photography in Britain, including its use by artists such as

Atkinson Grimshaw and the tradition of photography as an art form pioneered

by Julia Margaret Cameron and others. Part of the answer may also lie in the

fluid and sometimes contradictory nature of the British class system. The

conventions of realism were not applied equally throughout the social

hierarchy. Working-class life presented in photographic detail was central to

Victorian narrative painting, while fewer people sought to apply the same

principle to the aristocracy. The nobility of manual labour provided the theme

for Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852-65), while the deserving and undeserving

poor peopled the works of Luke Fildes, Stanhope Forbes and Hubert von

Herkhomer, among others. For the upper middle class there was apprehension

at the potential power of the masses, a yearning for the pre-industrial age when

the poor knew their place and there was a patrician impulse propelled by

Christianity to improve the lot of those lower down the social scale. There was

also the implied threat that the citizen who did not live an upright, God-fearing

life might join them. The First World War marked a change in both technology

and attitudes. Power shifted from the upper class to the middle class, while the

realist tradition passed to film and photography as exemplified by the films of

John Baxter such as Dosshouse (1933) and Love on the Dole (1941), and the

photographs of Bill Brandt.

The documentary movement provided a template for what was deemed to be

realistic. Two strands became apparent during the 1920s and 30s: the factual

and the poetic. The factual strand often had a left-wing agenda, with the

message taking precedence over the medium. This became overt when

Thorold Dickinson and his fellow British film-makers covered the Spanish Civil

War, but on a more mundane level political and religious organisations from

the Co-operative movement to the Communist Party produced polemical works

throughout the period. Public information films on such worthy topics as health

and housing originated from public agencies including the post office and

progressive local authorities, while advertising thinly veiled as information

came from gas and electricity undertakings. 

The poetic strand of the documentary parallelled the work of Dziga Vertov in

Russia and Walter Ruttmann in Germany, with John Grierson and Humphrey

Jennings as the movement’s principal British exponents. If their films contained

a message, it was couched as an artistic statement. Though the factual and

poetic strands were conceptually distinct, in practice they could co-exist within

the work of one individual. Grierson moved away from the poetic Drifters (1929)

towards more political statements, while Vertov produced his share of Soviet

propaganda and Ruttmann became tainted with Nazism. Nor did the romantics

assume a united front against the philistines: Grierson was critical of

Ruttmann’s approach.


 To emphasise the unifying principles of the

documentary movement is to minimise these tensions. 

If elements of the documentary found their way into feature films, feature

films could reinvigorate the documentary. The innovative editing techniques

which created a sense of immediacy and discontinuity in The Battleship

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