Hollywood's Changing Perceptions of the British




When I was a boy in New York City during the post World War II 1940s, there was an annual cinematic event that brought all the neighborhood kids out to the local movie palace 1 . This hallmark occasionwas the screening of thedouble feature of Zoltan Korda's The Four Feathers (1939)and Drums (aka The Drum, 1938), two spectacular action-packed depictions of the halcyon days of the British Empire, replete with proverbial stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen suppressing troublesome colonials in the Sudan and India. These films were produced by Zoltan's brother, Alexander Korda, the most important purveyors in the 1930s of what were called "empire films." The genre of "empire films" achieved its highest popularity in the 1930s, "a decade when the empire was, in fact, on the eve of post-colonialism."2

Marcia Landy has compared empire films to American westerns in their stories of conquest, i.e., "civilization vs wilderness", nationalism and frontier spirit, elements which appealed to American audiences and aroused a feeling of shared experiences with their British brethren. The empire films translated expansionism, colonisation, and commerce into a spectacle of benevolence of high-minded heroes acting in the name of royal prerogatives, culture against anarchy, and the white man's burden.3 Sarah Street makes the following observations:
In general terms, the films focused on the male experience of empire, usually from an upper-class imperialist perspective. The "white man's burden" was to maintain order and inculcate native obedience in the colonies. As well as articulating this ideological imperative, the empire genre colonised British and American audiences by exploiting elements of spectacular epic cinema: lavish colour, exotic landscapes, large casts, horses, regalia, military trappings, native dances and costumes.4

As young boys in our lower teens, who had pretty much experienced World War II through Hollywood movies, we reveled in the spectacle of celluloid warfare and generally accepted the villains and heroes as served up to us by the Korda brothers. I suspect that these films made lifelong Anglophiles of some of my friends by emphasizing the obvious cultural and moral superiority of Britain's "civilizing mission" to what Kipling referred to as "lesser breeds without the law."

George MacDonald Fraser gives his insight on how attitudes change from one generation to another:

"It is probably impossible for anyone born since 1950 to understand what it was like to be, and to think, British of the 1930s; equally impossible for someone over sixty to conceive what it is like to be young today and have no imperial outlook. This is something far beyond the generation gap, which has always existed; every generation is brainwashed, and brainwashes itself, but never before in Britain have there been two such diametrically opposed brainwashes inside half a century. The child of 1930 had an imperial view, whatever his class....[he] thought the Empire was terrific, giving him and his country a status beyond all other nations".5

And such an imperial view spilled over to Anglophile elements in the United States and impressionable young minds who thrilled at the brave on-screen deeds of British colonial soldiers and administrators, as I and my friends did on those long-ago Saturday afternoons in New York.

Although The Four Feathers and Drums were British films, they were helpful in stirring American sympathies for the soon-to-be beleaguered England which in 1940 would stand alone against brutal Nazi onslaughts. American attitudes toward the mother country historically have been ambivalent, generally having been hostile through most of the 19th century reflecting the latent bitterness remaining from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Oregon dispute in the 1850s, and British support for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The massive Irish immigration to the United States after 1845 and the gradual assimilation of these immigrants and their descendants into American society also came to constitute a large, and politically and culturally powerful, population base that has nurtured anti-British feelings from one generation to the next up to the present time.

Hollywood, the rather seedy city which does not now harbor any major movie studio but whose name still evokes throughout the world the awesome financial and cultural power of American filmmaking, has responded to and portrayed these volatile American attitudes toward Britain. In the 1930s such films as Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Gunga Din (1939), and Northwest Mounted Police (1940) glorified the 19th century British imperial mission of bringing civilization to, in the first two films, India and in the third to western Canada. Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Gunga Din were essentially buddy adventure/action movies in which Gary Cooper (an odd choice to play an Englishman, even though his father was English and Cooper did attend school in England for seven years until the outbreak of World War I) and Franchot Tone in the former made the subjugation of menacing natives in Northwest India into an amusing romp.

So too in Gunga Din, Hollywood's favorite expatriate Englishmen, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen 6, in the midst of comical carousing, nonetheless almost singlehandedly wipe out the dreaded Thuggee cult with the help of the native water boy (Sam Jaffe) who is dying to be a British Army bugler and gets his wish at the end, by sacrificing his life and warning his beloved British troops in time to avert an ambush. The film was of course loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling poem which ended with the stirring albeit patronizing tribute to the waterboy: "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." The none-too-subliminal message in all these films was the innate superiority of the white Britons who almost effortlessly defeated the best conspiratorial and military efforts that Indians and other colonized peoples managed to devise. And in the case of these films, it was Hollywood that was enthusiastically championing British colonialism.

Another interesting example of this genre, but one in which Americans shared the imperialist glory with the British, was Cecil B. DeMille's North West Mounted Police (1940). Although the film received some critical brickbats for its many outdoor scenes obviously filmed in indoor sets, what is of interest here is the none-too-subtle portrayal of Anglo-Saxons as being natural rulers over what Kipling termed ", sullen peoples/half devil and half child." This line is from Kipling's 1899 poem, "The White Man's Burden," in which he exhorted the United States to take the Philippines, just won from Spain, and pacify and civilize the islands. He calls upon the rising Anglo-Saxon imperialist power to join the mother country in ruling over the globe, a theme eagerly taken up by DeMille in North West Mounted Police (and also expressed by Winston Churchill immediately after World War II when he expected the triumphant United States and the British Empire to essentially maintain international order).

Gary Cooper (now more in character) plays Dusty Rivers, a Texas Ranger tracking a fleeing felon into Canada in 1885. He meets Sergeant Jim Brett (Preston Foster), commander of a Mountie detachment in central Canada who is dealing with a rebellion of métis (French for mestizos or, more indelicately, half-breeds; although the latter term is generously used throughout the film, métis is not) and Indians seeking to carve their own nation out of British Canada. This so-called Riel Rebellion was led by three mismatched frontiersmen--teacher Louis Riel (Francis McDonald), whiskey trader Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft), and trapper Dan Duroc, played by Akim Tamiroff. Dusty falls for nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll) whom Sergeant Brett also loves. And April's brother, Mountie Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) is in love with Corbeau's daughter, the fiery Louvette (Paulette Goddard). As George MacDonald Fraser puts it, Mountie Logan "forgets his duty in his pursuit of a half-breed wench." 7
Rivers and Brett, while competing with each other for the love of April, nevertheless join forces in suppressing the half-breed rebellion and preventing the Indians from joining in. The subtext here is that Rivers and Brett represent the two great Anglo-Saxon peoples of North America who must cooperate in maintaining control over the Native Americans and the mixed-bloods. The métis, products of French and Indian miscegenation, are represented as a childlike, irresponsible, drunken mob with no clear plan, and certainly no military skills, for their rebellion. Tellingly, Courbeau's daughter, Louvette, is an emotionally immature but dangerously seductive woman. Product of a white French father and Indian mother, she embodies the most negative traits of both races. And Ronnie Logan, by falling in love with her, demonstrates his weakness of character and lack of racial integrity like, say, the French or Spanish in their colonial territories. The Indians, on the other hand, while certainly not the equal of the English white men, do have their own racial pride and Brett can appeal to their sense of loyalty to the "Great White Mother" across the sea, convincing them not to join the half-breed uprising.8

The ideological message of North West Mounted Police was a fairly common one in Hollywood films of the 1930s. The innate superiority of the white race, usually Anglo-Saxons, was proclaimed in many films of this period. And this ideology usually brought Americans and Britons to stand together against the "colored" races, in other words defending civilization against the tide of "barbarism" set in motion by World War I. Described in more analytical terms, this can be seen as a reaction against a host of international trends and developments, such as immigration from Asia to the United States, independence movements in India and Vietnam, and China's struggle to create a strong government that would stop foreign encroachment on its territory-a goal somewhat hampered at this time by conflict between the Kuomintang and the Communists as well as by Japanese invasion.
The outbreak of World War II curtailed cinematic colonialist and racist messages but did increase Hollywood's solidarity with Britain. Most wartime film production in both countries was dedicated to supporting the war effort (i.e., propaganda). Nazi ideology was brutally racist, and even though Japan was one of the Axis powers, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines fought side by side with the Allied powers. So the war could not easily be seen as a racial war, but a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, which was not exclusive to any one race or nationality.

Sarah Street also points out that "From an early stage the British industry had to grapple with its home market being dominated by Hollywood. 9" To counter this, British companies sought access to the lucrative American market, but films that could compete with Hollywood products on their home ground, like the Korda brothers movies, were expensive to make and therefore had difficulty showing a profit. Hollywood's high production values and budgets were difficult for British filmmakers to emulate, and domestically oriented British films were crowded out in Britain by American films and were generally of limited marketability in the United States. Thomas McParland observes: "For perceived qualitative reasons, American films were generally preferred in Britain; it was not uncommon to hear sighs from '40-50's British audiences on seeing an English Studio Logo at the beginning of a film."10

One result of this was that attractive British stars and directors were soon lured away by Hollywood-an earlier, cinematic "British invasion." A strong impetus behind this importation of British talent was the "colonial Home of Theatre" attitude toward England held by Hollywood moguls like Sam Goldwyn 11. Naming just a few will suffice. Vivien Leigh achieved stardom in Gone with the Wind (1939); her husband Laurence Olivier, along with fellow Brits Merle Oberon, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, and Geraldine Fitzgerald, starred in William Wyler's acclaimed 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. C. Aubrey Smith, a tall, imposing actor with a glorious white handlebar mustache, was the informal leader of the Hollywood British actors. Among directors, Alfred Hitchcock is indubitably the most famous. His first Hollywood film was Rebecca (1940) after a distinguished career in England which began in 1922 and included such films as The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Jamaica Inn (1939).

Of Hollywood's role in World War II, Thomas Doherty writes: "The unique, unprecedented alliance between Washington and Hollywood generated not only new kinds of movies but a new attitude toward them. Hereafter, popular art and cultural meaning, mass communications and national politics, would be intimately aligned and commonly acknowledged in American culture 12." This attests to the power of film to influence and shape cultural and political attitudes, a phenomenon already well in evidence before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.

Mervyn Leroy's Waterloo Bridge (1940) was one of the first of Hollywood's backlot depictions of a romanticized Britain. Starring the box-office idol, Robert Taylor, as Roy Cronin, a World War I British officer from a titled family, and Vivien Leigh as Myra Lester, who had already achieved stardom in Gone with the Wind, the film was a shameless melodramatic romantic tearjerker. On the eve of World War II, a British officer (Taylor) revisits Waterloo Bridge and recalls the young man he was at the beginning of World War I and the young ballerina he met backstage after a performance just before leaving for the front. Myra (Leigh) stayed with him past curfew and is thrown out of the corps de ballet. She survives on the streets of London, falling even lower into prostitution after she hears her true love has been killed in France. He hasn't but the news does not reach her in time to assuage her grief, and she hurls herself in front of an army lorry. This Anna-Karenina-type ending imbedded itself in its audience's emotions and made this a cult film, especially in Korea and Japan 13. A factor perhaps was that Asian audiences did not notice that Robert Taylor, as a British officer, spoke with his own decidedly American accent.14
When America entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hollywood studios cranked into full gear to patriotically support the war effort in cooperation with the Office of War Information. But U.S. support for the embattled British 15 preceded its entry into the war with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's lend-lease arrangement to provide aid in spite of prevalent isolationist and anti-war sentiment in Congress and the American people.

A Yank in the RAF (1941) expressed popular support for Britain in the persons of two of Hollywood's most glamorous stars, Tyrone Power and Betty Grable, whose photograph featuring her famous legs would soon come to adorn many GI barracks walls for the duration of the war. Power plays the role of Tim Baker, a wisecracking, cynical American pilot who believes in very little beyond his own abilities. He gets into trouble by flying a new fighter to Canada instead having it towed across the border so as not to violate United States neutrality, but is offered a job ferrying bombers to war-torn England. While on a layover in London he meets old-flame Carol Brown (Grable), an American who has joined the RAF to fight for democracy. She also serves the cause of freedom by dancing and singing in a nightclub. In an attempt to impress her, Baker joins the RAF but in the course of several missions finally comes to understand what the British are fighting for. The action centerpiece of the film is the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk. An overt propaganda film, A Yank in the RAF was obviously intended to sway American sympathies in favor of Britain and the war in Europe.

A series of major British-themed films followed, presenting a very Hollywoodized Britain seen through sympathetic but sentimental lenses. Among the most popular of these films was Mrs. Miniver (1942), directed by William Wyler and starring Irish-born Greer Garson as the courageous English housewife who helps her family cope with the war. Attesting to its popularity, the picture won six Academy Awards. According to Leonard Maltin, "this film did much to rally American support for our British allies during WW2.16" Another view is offered by Thomas Doherty: By far the most popular wartime melodrama...Mrs. Miniver [was] the tale of a steadfast upper-middle-class family living in an English village landscaped by MGM. Filled only with the purchase of ridiculous hats, the pretty little head of Greer Garson's bourgeois housewife expands its imaginative horizons when her secure doll's house is shattered by the blitz. Like many homefront melodramas, it has a double edge. The Minivers exude such balmy bucolity that one waits expectantly for the Luftwaffe to blast them out of complacency. As war comes to a quiet corner of Britain, the family blossoms in maturity-husband Walter Pidgeon participates in the evacuation of the troops at Dunkirk, Garson captures a downed German flyer-and the English class system breaks down in the face of indiscriminate terror.17

Another popular Hollywood salute to the British was The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)--the story of an American woman (Irene Dunne) who marries into a rich English family in the early part of the 20th Century and experiences both World Wars in her adopted country, and the effects they have on her family. Produced while the Second World War was still being fought, this film was intended to be both a morale booster for American audiences and as a salute to our British allies. More than Mrs. Miniver wannabe, The White Cliffs of Dover, featured an American as the main character which was a tried and true method to involve American audiences in a movie with a foreign setting. And having an American intimately involved in England's 20th century struggles suggested that both countries' destinies were intertwined.18

Two other major, and extremely popular, wartime films about England were How Green was my Valley (1941) and National Velvet (1944). Although they did not address the war, both films still presented a warm, stereotypical view of English life and values. How Green was my Valley, set in the Welsh mining country, starring Donald Crisp at his most avuncular, featured crowds of miners making their way to and from the coal mines belting out gorgeous chorales in perfect harmony 19. Directed by John Ford and also starring Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O'Hara, it won five Academy Awards. And National Velvet (dir. Clarence Brown), featuring a gloriously young and fresh Elizabeth Taylor, summed up the meaning of life in riding her horse to victory in the Grand National Steeplechase.

With the war won, new social and political concerns surged in Britain and America. Postwar England spawned a twenty-and-thirty-something generation who had fought and won the war but returned to a country that they perceived to be mired in the same old class-ridden attitudes. In the words of Nora Sayre, they derided upper- and middle-class culture, and also criticized the stoicism of their seniors, who hadn't challenged "things as they are." They were indignant because little seemed to be changing in postwar Britain-they were wrong about that, but wouldn't know it for a couple of years-and because they thought there were few opportunities for the young. 20

A number of postwar British films, known in that country as "kitchen sink" genre, reflected the social and cultural malaise as expressed by these "Angry Young Men." The enormous success of Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (1959), adapted from John Braine's novel, established a market and an eager public for films that explored working- and lower-middle-class discontent. Other films that starkly contrasted with Hollywood's idealistic wartime view of British life were Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) starring Albert Finney, Tony Richardson's Look Back in Anger (1959) starring Richard Burton. These and other films showed American audiences a quite different Britain than the one described in the prologue to Mrs. Miniver: "When the sun shone down on a happy, careless people, who worked and played, reared their children and tended their gardens in that happy, easygoing England."

A "happy, easygoing England" was certainly not what was portrayed in the famous Ealing Studios comedies that popularized Alec Guinness to American audiences. The first of these, Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) was a black comedy about a castoff member of a titled family seeking to eliminate the others so as to inherit their titles and properties. Alec Guinness played all eight victims of Dennis Price's murderous plot. Other popular Guinness films followed, such as Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit (1951), Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob, and Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1955).

Perhaps what these films did was to help change the traditional view of most Americans toward Britain as not so much "a nation of gardeners" (to paraphrase Napoleon's derisive description of the English as "a nation of shopkeepers") but a complex, troubled society with serious social, economic, and political divisions. After all, the much-admired British Empire, so glorified in 1930s Hollywood, came apart after World War II.
In the 1960s, "the most potent myth of British cinema" was initiated with Dr. No (1962), the first of the James Bond series 21. Roy Armes wrote that Sean Connery "totally [recast] the source material so that the upper-class Englishness of Ian Fleming's original gives way to the more classless virility of the Hollywood action hero film 22." Connery, himself a strongly nationalist Scotsman, did not represent the typical prewar upper-class Englishman and British producers considered his appearance to be somewhat "exotic" thus frequently casting him in "foreign" roles. The extremely successful James Bond character was soon coopted by Hollywood supporting Armes's observation that the financing for "most of the more striking 'British' achievements in the 1960s came from Hollywood." 23

From the 1970s, another influence, first in television and then in film, that certainly punctured very big holes in all aspects of traditionally sacrosanct British culture was the Monty Python group, which can be said to have carried to an absurdist and surrealistic edge the social critiques of the Ealing Studios comedies of Alec Guinness. Things British were no longer automatically associated with dignity and high purpose, notwithstanding the BBC's Masterpiece Theater 24 which still tended to focus on refined dramas of the English upper middle class and the aristocracy. The madcap antics of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle offered weekly half-hour sendups of British manners, cultural foibles, and class arrogance. Their 1969-1974 TV series, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" created a cult following for them in the United States, which made it possible for them to make the transition into film with such critical and box-office successes such as The Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979), and The Meaning of Life (1983).

Another important factor in the changing American perception of Britain has been the conflict in Northern Ireland which engages the emotional involvement of the large and influential Irish-American community some of whom actively support the Irish Republican Army. The "Troubles" often put Britain in an unsympathetic light in the U.S. media. Thus the wartime image of Britain as a gallant ally against Nazism began giving way to a less flattering depiction of the British as oppressors of colonialized peoples as in Richard Attenborough's Anglo-Indian production of Gandhi (1982), Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996), Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993), Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), Michael Caton-Jones's Rob Roy (1995), and Roland Emmerich's The Patriot (2000).

The Crying Game was a huge success in America not only because of its political message; it was excellently written, acted, and filmed-a dramatic and gripping story with a surprise denouement. Michael Collins and In the Name of the Father, based on historical events, focused much more directly on heavy-handed--one might say tyrannical--British tactics in Ireland and Northern Ireland, respectively. Braveheart and Rob Roy brought another oppressed people to the fore-the Scots. And The Patriot starred Mel Gibson as an American colonial farmer fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. I must observe, however, that the most enjoyable performances in these films were largely those of the villainous English: Tim Roth and John Hurt in Rob Roy 25 , Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I in Braveheart, and Jason Isaacs as the merciless British officer Colonel Tavington and Tom Wilkinson as a foppish and weak-willed General Cornwallis in The Patriot. On the other hand, many positive British roles are given to American, Irish, or Australian actors, who at least are coached to speak with the correct accent.

Mel Gibson, born in Peekskill, New York, moved to Australia with his family in 1968. He achieved international recognition with Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). That same year he starred in Gallipoli, a film which expressed Australian nationalism and resentment of the British military for the ineptly planned campaign that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli in Turkey during World War I. Gibson then went on to stardom in Hollywood in a series of popular action and dramatic films such as the Lethal Weapon series. He was both director and star of Braveheart (which won him Oscars for both directing and best picture) and interpreted the lead character in The Patriot, two recent films with a decidedly anti-British thrust.

In Braveheart, Gibson took the obscure story (perhaps not that obscure to Scots) of William Wallace, a 13th century popular leader who led his countrymen against the English army of King Edward I, nicknamed "Longshanks." The story is presented as a straightforward narrative of a freedom fighter seeking to keep his country free from foreign tyranny, although the intertwined interests of the Scottish and English nobles are glossed over. It is interesting to see how the English soldiery are portrayed, in a stark reversal from Hollywood films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. In Braveheart they are unwashed (as most everyone was in those days) brutes who perform unspeakable atrocities on the long-suffering Scottish men, women, and children (again, behavior quite typical of everyone in those, and all other, ages). Something like SS Troopers in World War II films. Compare this to the representation of medieval English soldiery in Cecil B. DeMille's The Crusades (1935), made during the height of Hollywood's Anglophile "empire" phase. One reviewer said of Braveheart that it "...evokes old-fashioned movie epics. Gibson's stroke of brilliance is to revel in those epic qualities-tragic romance and unbounded heroism, gorgeous photography and a cast of thousands-and add a swift contemporary kick." 26

The "swift contemporary kick" is elaborated upon by a British reviewer:

...Braveheart brings a new piquancy to prejudice and serves up savagery in unfamiliar garb. Here the race being discriminated against is-heaven protect us-the English,,,[who] speak in clipped, twittish accents and behave with summary viciousness-like crosses between Monty Python characters and less sympathetic versions of the Nazis....It is no wonder the Scottish National Party...appropriated images from the film for their independence drive (to Gibson's disingenuous dismay). The movie is crudely one-sided in its portrayal of the conflict. 27

Another historically questionable sequence in Braveheart concerns the defection of King Edward's Irish mercenaries to Wallace's army. A clear celebration of Celtic solidarity, the scene reflects a dreamy romanticism found in many Hollywood movies concerning the Irish and Irish-Americans 28. The epitome of this stereotyping was John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952) where the Irish are represented as childlike but lovable folk who enjoy nothing better than a good-natured brawl and a drink, not necessarily in that order. More mature moviegoers will remember the epic fist fight between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen which ranged across the picturesque Irish countryside followed eagerly by cheering ambulatory spectators, stopping every so often when a pub came into view to imbibe restorative libations. Prominent in the crowd of tipsy Irishmen was the beloved and outstanding character actor, Irish-born Barry Fitzgerald, who was Hollywood's staple Irishman for many years. So too in Braveheart an Irish character displays plenty of the old blarney, ready for a good brawl, unlike the serious-minded Scots who are intent upon killing Englishmen. In a larger sense, this joining together of two Celtic peoples equally oppressed by the English symbolizes the changing attitude to Britain toward a more negative perception. It is also indicative of Hollywood's increasing attention to "minority" themes, focused mainly, but not only, on African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, women, gays, and to a lesser degree Arab-Americans and perhaps Jews, both American and foreign. And I might add, rarely to the satisfaction of various media monitoring organizations of these groups. 29

Since the end of World War II and the Cold War, and its villains that everyone could agree upon-Nazis and Communists-it has been increasingly difficult to come up with really satisfying movie villains that are not offensive to one or another group. For a while Arab/Muslim terrorists were depicted, but these portrayals soon ran afoul of the growing, and sensitive, Middle Eastern/Muslim population in the United States. The Arab-American Anti-Defamation League vigorously protested negative depictions of Arabs as terrorists until Hollywood producers drew back from presenting such characters, or at least taking care to offset them with a "positive" Arab or Arab-American, such as in Edward Zwick's The Siege (1998).

Briefly South Africans were the bad guys (Lethal Weapon 2, 1989), until Nelson Mandela's election as president. Unspecified Teutonic terrorists were the heavies in the original Die Hard (1988), Colombian drug traffickers in Clear and Present Danger (1994), and renegade anti-democratic Russians in Air Force One (1997). But it seems that for all the reasons offered above and a few other, more subtle, ones, English/British 30 characters may safely be used as villains. For instance, the British accent, especially upper-class speech, while mostly admired by Americans, particularly in Shakespearean plays and historical epics, seems to make a more convincing villain in Hollywood movies. Even in a light comedy like Bedazzled (2000) where Satan is played by Elizabeth Hurley. As George MacDonald Fraser puts it:

Generally, the voice of authority and aristocracy, be it Classical, medieval, or bewigged, has tended to be British, especially if the part is an unsympathetic one; on the other hand, the sturdy commonalty, including peasants, slaves, guards, soldiers, gladiators, and (most important) worthy or heroic figures of humble or yeoman origin and their followers, have more commonly been played by Americans.

Although portraying the British as unsympathetic characters is quite safe in the United States, because it doesn't roil a local and vocal minority group, it has been noticed and caused some consternation in the United Kingdom, as I have already indicated. Especially with The Patriot, another Mel Gibson vehicle in which he wreaks bloody vengeance on the Redcoats in the Revolutionary War while "[sporting] a period pony-tail and [spending] much of the picture covered in gore. 32" A controversial aspect of this film is the depiction of regular British troops committing atrocities more reminiscent of Nazi German barbarism in World War II, like the massacres at Lidice, Czechoslovakia and Oradour-sur-Glane, France. In The Patriot, the British herd civilian villagers into a church and set it afire, incinerating everyone within. In reality, the Revolutionary War was generally free of atrocities on the part of regular troops on either side. Eighteenth-century European wars were generally waged between armies according to strict codes of behavior and not carried to the civilian population (which changed abruptly with Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808). Atrocities were committed in the Revolutionary War, but mostly by irregular troops, such as the bloody civil war between patriot and loyalist factions in the Carolinas. And the Indian allies of the British did commit atrocities against civilians, although it was their customary way of waging war. And colonists were brutal with actual or perceived Indian allies of the British. But overall, it seems fair to say, no such massacre was perpetrated by British troops against American civilians in the Revolution. The English historian Andrew Roberts called the film "racist" in the Daily Express and went on to point out that The Patriot was "only the latest in a series of films like ' 'Titanic,' 'Michael Collins,' and 'The Jungle Book' remake that have depicted the British as 'treacherous, cowardly, evil [and] sadistic." Roberts's theory: "With their own record of killing 12 million American Indians and supporting slavery for four decades after the British abolished it 33, Americans wish to project their historical guilt onto someone else.34" The controversy can get nasty!

The Patriot, "a rumbustious anthology of Hollywood clichés,35 " is yet another example of the movies putting history at the service of contemporary social and political concerns. Most blatant is the depiction of free black workers on Mel Gibson's plantation. The very idea of this in late 18th South Carolina is ludicrous in the extreme. But since Gibson's character is the hero, it just wouldn't have done to show him as a slaveowner. And the dastardly British come along and enslave his freemen! The truth was that the British offered freedom to any slaves who joined them, and many did take advantage of this offer. But at the siege of Yorktown, when the British forces were running low on food and were forced to oust the blacks from their camp, the American forces shot them down on sight.

British sensitivities have also been ruffled by American films which seem to take the credit for World War II actions, such as U-571 (2000) which depicts a U.S. submarine crew disguising themselves as Germans to capture the famous Enigma code machine. The only trouble with this version is that it was actually a British crew that carried out the feat 36. Complaints about this movie even reverberated in the House of Commons. Some British commentators also complained about Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), saying that the British role was completely overlooked in the Normandy invasions. This accusation is not quite justified because the story is about American troops, and there were no mixed landings on D-Day. Yet these complaints show that the British do feel slighted at the way they are portrayed in some American films, and conversely that Hollywood producers and directors are remarkably insensitive to these concerns (as indeed they have been to the depiction of many other ethnic, racial, and national groups starting with the silent cinema).

The Economist, however, tempered indignation on the part of some British commentators by pointing to "traditional British-made films, which have portrayed the British as emotionally retarded fops, amateur gangsters or unemployed depressives [which] are no more flattering to the country than their glitzier Hollywood counterparts. 37" Of course, the reference here is to the postwar British cinema, discussed earlier, which dealt forthrightly with long-standing social, political, and class issues which generally did not present a pretty picture.

I have written this essay more as a personal reminiscence than as a research paper. Since the inception of cinema, national and ethnic groups in all countries have objected at one time or another to their depiction in films, be it of their own or other nations. And such perceptions are subject to many cultural and generational attitudes, as for instance the "Empire" point of view of the 1930s generation in the United Kingdom and the United States. But this is just one of a host of such attitudes. For instance, to name just one, the traditional depiction of African Americans in Hollywood films from the silent era to the 1940s (when they were called "Negroes") is totally unacceptable in our day. This is also due to sociocultural and political changes brought about after World War II and particularly by the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the independence of former European colonial territories, especially in Africa.

In each generation, in each decade, the cinema has represented the prevailing attitudes and biases of the general, majority population. Sometimes it does so incompletely and superficially, but still movies (as well as television) are the most immediate vehicle in which cultural shifts can be detected. I have observed, from my own subjective vantage point, some of these changes as they pertain to the British. A much more exhaustive study could be made referring to and analyzing many more films made in Hollywood on Britain and the British. But the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain and the affection and admiration displayed through the years by so many Hollywood films for the Mother Country make the recent angry words over a few films seem more like a family spat than a cause for real bitterness. Thus I leave the reader with my impressions, which I was inspired to set down by the memory of a couple of rousing, and very pro-British, adventure movies that I remember from my distant childhood.



1. For the record, it was the RKO Coliseum in Manhattan on 181st street and Broadway which still exists although converted to a four-screen theater. For this information, I am indebted to Richard Loncar who drove me around our old neighborhood in August 2000 enabling me to confirm this personally.

2. STREET, Sarah, British National Cinema (London, Routledge, 1997), p. 43.

3. LANDY, Marcia quoted in ibid., p. 43.

4. STREET, British National Cinema, p. 43.

5. FRASER, George MacDonald, The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 137

6. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was, of course, the son of the famous American actor, Douglas Fairbanks. Born in New York City in 1909, Douglas Jr. was a lifelong Anglophile and cultivated an English accent giving the impression that he was British. The fact that he usually portrayed British characters also helped in maintaining this image. Victor McLaglen, altough often portraying Irishmen, was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England in 1892. For the information on McLaglen and Gary Cooper I am indebted to Thomas McParland of London who read the draft of this article and provided many invaluable observations and corrections. He is a former teacher of English who has written comedy and music for prime time UK Radio and Television. He also writes reviews for the Internet Movie Data Base, and is an authority on American and British movie evolution. I also want to thank Dave Herzel of the University of New Mexico Fine Arts Library for reading the draft and offering suggestions.

7. Ibid., p. 163.

8. McParland observes: "Queen Victoria was often photographed with Asian Indians: Two reasons for this were: (1) The title manufactured by Disraeli, 'Empress of India' so…she wouldn't appear a mere monarch now [that] her cousin the Kaiser was Emperor of Germany, (2) It was considered exotic for [the] white upper classes to be photographed with 'exotic' races. A banner carried by parading Loyalist Orangemen in Northern Ireland depicts a Negro prostrate before Queen Victoria receiving the Bible; the banner reading 'The Secret of England's Greatness.' " Email, January 7, 2001.

9. STREET, British National Cinema, p. 23.

10. McPARLAND, Email, January 7, 2001.

11. Ibid.

12. DOHERTY, Thomas, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 5.

13. As told to me by my wife Jeehoon (Gigi) Mora and several other Korean friends of the post World War II and Korean war generation.

14. In 1969, when Robert Taylor was dying from cancer and confined to his bed, he requested to view his old films. Apparently, he hadn't seen most of them since their initial release. Afterwards, he was asked by friends which film was he the most proud of. Of all the films he made in his 35-year career, Waterloo Bridge was the movie he chose. "That," he said; "was my best film." Reportedly, Vivien Leigh also referred to this as her favorite film. From Patrick Sullivan's comments on the IMDb.

15. Thomas McParland calls this a "developed myth" because Britain called on Commonwealth forces from India, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and other territories of the Empire. Britain was "invasion proof" because of the Royal Navy. Email, January 7, 2001.

16. MALTIN, Leonard, 1998 Movie I Video Guide (New York: Signet Books, 1999), p. 910.

17. DOHERTY, Projections of War, p. 167.

18. On a personal note, I saw this film in Mexico City in 1944, dubbed into Spanish to gauge audience reaction to future dubbed films. The result was that Mexican audiences preferred hearing the original English dialogue with subtitles. And the film most probably did not have the same intended effect on a Mexican audience as it did on an American one.

19. The film ignored any intimations of Welsh nationalism and its intense feeling of distinctiveness from the English. However, it is true that this became more pronounced long after the war.

20. SAYRE, Nora, "British New Wave Film Flourishes," New York Times, October 29, 2000, Internet edition.

21. ARMES, Roy, A Critical History of the British Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 254.

22. Ibid., p. 257.

23. Ibid., p. 333; Thomas McParland comments: "Whilst the Bond movies superficially break with, or borrow from, 1960's 'new' British cinema, and their tongue-in-cheek attitude satirises old 'British Empire film bravery', they remain 'empirically' formulaic. Lampooning the derring-do of antecedents, [the Bond films'] new, jokey messages of promiscuity, mendacity and the attainment of victory remain the singular prerogative of the white Caucasian." Email, January 7, 2001.

24. This is the series title in the US for the popular PBS series originally hosted by Alistair Cooke. There is no such series in the UK.

25. Of this film, the title of William Cash's review says it all: "Vile, vicious, and evil-that's us. When Hollywood needs a rotter, it sends for a Brit-and Rob full of them," The Daily Telegraph, May 17,1995.

26. JAMES, Caryn, "Braveheart," The New York Times, May 23, 1995, Internet edition.

27. CURTIS, Quentin, "Mad Macs v the Poms," The Independent, September 10, 1995.

28. Thomas McParland opines: "Other antithetical ('Irish-American police') charmers were Three Cheers for the Irish (1940) and Judy Garland's Little Nelly Kelly (1940), the latter eponym living in a supposedly Irish-policed 19th century New York. 'Priest' movies, The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and Going My Way (1944) centred on Bing Crosby as 'Irish' Father O'Malley-co-star Ingrid Bergman's career being marginalised for her cohabitation with an Italian director [Roberto Rosselini], puncturing priggish popular belief that she was neither saint nor nun. Two awful British offerings were Jacqueline (1956) set in Belfast, and Rooney (1959)-locationed drivel about a Dublin refuse operator and his girl…played by English actors. In fairness, moviemakers knew their fickle audiences. The…pre-TV Irish [audiences] went in droves to see their home cities on celluloid. Collectively, these films, although separated by an ocean, are united in their dubious splendour of social mis-statements and nostalgic ignorance." Email, January 7, 2001.

29. Italian-Americans are disproportionately shown on screen as Mafia mobsters, an image more persistent than, say, Mexican-Americans or Mexicans as gang members or illegal aliens, respectively. However, few Italian-Americans, be they actors or viewers, protest against these depictions. The contemporary trend reinscribing the Mafia as an epic American folk saga was initiated by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather (1972) and continued in its sequels and Martin Scorsese's many films about mob life. Previously, in the 1950s, a television series titled "The Untouchables" did elicit strong protests from Italian-American groups, obliging the producers to not give Italian names to any of the mobster characters. Stanley Tucci recently complained about this stereotyping, qualifying it as "racist," but other Italian-American actors seem to not mind and welcome the work. Paul Sorvino, who has played many mob roles, once said on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" that Mafia themes were just more interesting and did better at the box office than movies about Italian-Americans in more mundane but law-abiding occupations--a questionable proposition. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, who have specialized in mobster roles, are not at all sensitive about it and indeed have parodied themselves on "Saturday Night Live" and De Niro in Analyze This (1999), in which he plays an emotionally insecure mob boss. A current runaway hit on cable television is HBO's "The Sopranos"-about a mob family coping with work and family pressures. Still, there are some protests: Essex County (New Jersey) officials denied the show permission to film on county-owned property citing it as a "profit-making enterprise which depicts an ethnic group in stereotypical fashion." Also, New York City Columbus Day parade organizers refused Sopranos-related floats and William Paterson University withdrew permission for the show to film there after a professor protested who was scheduled to lecture about negative Italian-American images. PARRY, Wayne, "The Sopranos Gets Whacked in its Own 'Hood," Fox, December 18, 2000. For an interesting sociological analysis of Italian-Americans and how they react to cinematic mob portrayals, see RUSSO, Maria, "Fuhgeddaboudit: The Sopranos have made being Italian-American seem cool again, but maybe it's time to say arrivederci to all that,", December 19, 2000.

30. English or British? Although often used interchangeably by Americans, the terms are very specific, and sensitive, in the United Kingdom. Britain or Great Britain refers to the island containing England, Wales, and Scotland. So "British" is an inclusionary term that encompasses the Scots and Welsh, as United Kingdom also embraces Northern Ireland or Ulster. A detailed and lively discussion of this nomenclature issue is provided by DAVIES, Norman in The Isles: A History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. xxi-xli.

31. FRASER, The Hollywood History of the World, p. 6; see also MORA, Carl J., "The Image of Ancient Rome in the Cinema," Film-Historia, Vol. VII, No. 2 (1997): 230-231

32. "Hollywood on Britain: I say, old chap," The Economist, July 15, 2000, p. 54.

33. Although Britain actively supported the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War.

34. Jonathan Foreman, "The Nazis, er, the Redcoats are coming!", July 7, 2000.

35. "Hollywood on Britain: I say, old chap," p. 54.

36. Thomas McParland adds: "The British [were] first supplied with a wooden model of Enigma by [a] Polish worker; code only 'broken' by German repeated misuse of machine." Email, January 7, 2001.

37. Ibid., p. 55.