Events Calendar
Nov 5 - Dec 26
11:00 - 13:00
British Cinema and the Second World War
Short courses

4 weeks:  5, 12, 19, 26 November

Tuesday: 11.00 - 13.00

Course code: 19TON407

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Although the importance of propaganda was widely recognised before the Second World War, the British were slow to use the cinema as a weapon.  Indeed, the fear of air raids prompted the Home Office to announce the closure of all cinemas, fearing mass casualties in such venues.  Within a week, the cinemas were reopened; audiences tended to consider cinema-attendance a worthwhile risk.  Moreover, the cinema could now play a vital role in wartime society. 

The Ministry of Information were largely responsible for Britain's propaganda output; they made documentaries and information films, looked over scripts, and ensured distribution. Official documentaries, however, could only have so much impact.  The commercial film industry willingly played its part in the war effort, and thrived as a consequence.  Filmmakers had a sense of purpose, incorporating important messages into films, engaging with the concerns of wartime Britain, and even asking questions about the post-war future. 

This course will examine the role of the commercial film industry during the Second World War.  We will see how these films related to the wider war effort, and think about some of the difficulties in utilising the cinema as a tool of propaganda. 

Week 1: Fighting the War

Two of the Ministry of Information's key film directives were that cinema should show audiences 'why we fight' and 'how we fight'.  In this session we will examine how these themes were represented in wartime cinema, considering such issues as the depiction of the enemy, and questions about how British people could play their part.

Week 2: Women and Wartime Cinema

This session will examine both representations of women in wartime cinema, and the roles they played.  As in the First World War, the position of women in society dramatically changed between 1939 and 1945.  But the First World War had been seen, to some extent, as a missed opportunity for women.  Would this be the same for women in the Second World War, and how did cinema engage with the issue?

Week 3: Unity

The civilian population were vital to the war effort during the Second World War.  British society, however, was divided in a number of ways.  There were great disparities between classes, regions, for example.  This session we will consider the ways in which wartime cinema attempted to overcome some of these divisions and unify the population.

Week 4: History as Propaganda

Throughout the war, filmmakers moved beyond the contemporary to convey a sense of national identity.  The past was used (and abused) frequently.  Cinema could equate Hitler with Napoleon, or Churchill with Henry V.  This session will consider how a common sense of a shared past could be invoked for propaganda purposes.

Additional information 

There is no required reading.  All materials will be provided in class. Books related to the subject include:

Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994).

James Chapman, The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda 1939-1945 (London, I.B. Tauris, 1998).

Jo Fox, Film Propaganda in Britain and Nazi Germany: World War II Cinema (London: Berg, 2006).

Filmography. Some of the films looked at in these classes include:

Brief Encounter; The Gentle Sex; Henry V; In Which We Serve; The Lion Has Wings; Millions Like Us; The Next of Kin; Night Train to Munich; Pimpernel Smith; This Happy Breed; The Way Ahead; We Dive at Dawn; Went the Day Well?; The Young Mr Pitt

This course is suitable for all: prior knowledge is not essential. The course allows you to spend time exploring a subject for interest, among like-minded people, without formal assessment. There will be discussion opportunities during the course.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the course you will have developed an understanding of:

the importance of propaganda in Britain during the Second World War; 

the key concerns of propagandists in wartime Britain; 

problems faced by democracies in producing works of propaganda and maintaining their democratic principles; 

the relationship between cinema and society; 

the role the Second World War played ushering in a 'golden age' of British cinema.

About the tutor

David Budgen received his PhD in History from the University of Kent.  His first book, British Children's Literature and the First World War: Representations since 1914, was published by Bloomsbury in 2018. David is a contributing reviewer for The International Encyclopedia of the First World War, having written its survey article on war literature. He has also published a number of chapters in edited collections.  These are largely focused on representations of history in film and television.  He teaches History and American Studies at both the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University.


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