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England in the 1960s

11.01.2011

In England, the Free Cinema movement, pioneered by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson, was a direct response to the New Wave in France. The movement had been inaugurated in 1954, and as with the Cahiers du Cinéma group, all three men began their careers as critics and then branched out into documentaries dealing with emerging postwar British society. Anderson, one of the most idiosyncratic and individual directors of the movement, directed O Dreamland (1953), about Margate, a British amusement park; Every Day Except Christmas (1957), depicting the Covent Garden market; and Thursday’s Children (1954), about a school for deaf children, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Reisz and Richardson co-directed Momma Don’t Allow (1955), about a night at a jazz club. Next came the “Kitchen Sink” dramas, such as Jack Clayton’s MickTravis (a young Malcolm McDowell) fires on his schoolmasters in Lindsay Anderson’s apocalyptic fantasy of British boarding school life, If … (1968).


Room at the Top (1959), featuring Laurence Harvey as an amoral social climber, and Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1958), starring Richard Burton, from the play by John Osborne.


These corrosive views of British working-class life soon became a thriving subgenre, with such films as Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Anderson’s brutal soccer drama This Sporting Life (1963), starring a young and athletic Richard Harris; If… (1968), a political fantasy set in a boarding school; and O Lucky Man!(1973), a satire of contemporary social mores. If… is undoubtedly Anderson’s most famous film, chronicling the adventures of young Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) as he attempts to keep his individuality intact in a society bent on repressing individual impulse, with apocalyptic results. Another key film, Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), is a boys’ prison drama in which delinquent teenager Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is caught after a robbery and sent to a harsh reformatory run by the spit-and-polish “Governor” (Michael Redgrave).


Obsessed with sports, the Governor sees in Colin a promising candidate for an upcoming long-distance running contest between the inmates of the reform school and the boys of a privileged private school. Colin trains aggressively, all the while flashing back to the events that got him into prison in the first place and developing a hatred for all authority, especially the Governor. On the day of the big race, Colin runs easily, but stops short of the finish line by only a few feet to humiliate the Governor, looking at him with a triumphant smile. At the film’s end, Colin is back in the reformatory disassembling gas masks—one of the most menial and filthy jobs at the school. But by not “winning,” Colin has shown that he refuses to be crushed by the system, and the film became a cult hit among youth of the period.


Swinging London


In the early 1960s, gay rights began to emerge as a social issue, and a small group of films began to champion the cause of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. Basil Dearden cast matinee idol Dirk Bogarde in Victim (1961), one of the first British films about closeted homosexuality in a society where being gay was a criminal offense. The film was so direct and unapologetic for its time that it was refused a code seal by the Motion Picture Association of America when Dearden refused to edit it. A movement of similarly themed films would explode in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including works of Derek Jarman, but the roots of this tradition began here. Sidney J. Furie, who directed the Canadian drama A Cool Sound from Hell (1959), moved to Britain in the early 1960s and directed the pioneering Queer biker drama The Leather Boys in 1964, starring Colin Campbell as the straight-arrow motorcyclist Reggie, and Dudley Sutton as Pete, a gay biker who falls in love with Reggie and tries to seduce him.


In 1965, Furie went on to direct one of the most intelligent Cold War spy thrillers, The Ipcress File, the film that shot Michael Caine to stardom. Designed as an antidote to the gloss and chic sadism of the James Bond films, The Ipcress File ably displays Furie’s considerable gifts as a visually dazzling director, who also gets the most out of his thematic interest in the grimier side of espionage. The Bond films, of course, became a national industry that is still an ongoing franchise, with Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), and Guy Hamilton’s excellent Goldfinger (1964), which remains the high point of the series. In a more realistic vein, Bryan Forbes dealt with racial prejudice and unwanted pregnancy in the pioneering drama The L-Shaped Room (1962), while Basil Dearden also tackled British racism and “passing” in the crime thriller Sapphire (1959).


On a more cheerful note, the American expatriate Richard Lester made the short The Running Jumping Standing Still Film (1959) for a few hundred pounds, featuring Peter Sellers and members of the “Goons,” a zany comedy troupe whose off-the-wall humor inspired the later Monty Python television shows and films. The Beatles saw the film, loved it, and insisted that Lester direct their films, both A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), which met with great success. Lester also directed the brilliant comedy of the sexes The Knack … and How to Get It (1965), which won the top prize at Cannes and established 1960s British humor as surreal, offbeat, and irreverent. Lester’s visual inventiveness (freeze-frames, sped-up motion, repeat montages, other camera tricks) became his trademark, though in later films such as Petulia (1968), The Bed Sitting Room (1969), Juggernaut (1974), and Robin and Marian (1976) he displayed a considerably more restrained approach.


Other important films of the British New Wave include John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963), about a compulsive liar stuck in a small British town which he will never leave, and Darling (1965), featuring Julie Christie as a ruthless model and social climber who will stop at nothing to get to the top of the celebrity-driven world of “Swinging London.” David Lean created the spectacular Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which made Peter O’Toole a star, and Doctor Zhivago (1965), which did the same for Omar Sharif. Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), based on Henry Fielding’s novel about a worthless but charming ne’er do well who makes his way from one misadventure to another in eighteenth-century England, won multiple Academy Awards. Peter Watkins created a terrifying vision of worldwide nuclear holocaust in his newsreel-like fiction film The War Game (1965), released in 1967, which used nonprofessional actors and crude handheld camera work to give the feel of a documentary film. Ironically, the film won an Academy Award as Best Documentary in 1968 for its depiction of the outbreak of World War III. The American musical director Stanley Donen traveled to London to make the satiric comedy Bedazzled (1967), in which short-order cook Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) sells his soul to the Devil (Peter Cook) for a chance at the woman of his dreams. The film is smart, funny, and sharp; it was remade by director Harold Ramis under the same title in 2000. Joseph Losey, who fled America during the years of the blacklist in the mid-1950s, established himself as one of England’s most perceptive social critics with The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967), both starring Dirk Bogarde, and both dealing with the inequities and suppressed passions of the British class system, with superb scripts by the playwright Harold Pinter.


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