The British historical film, 1930-1990
This thesis aims to understand the ways in which the historical film has vexed its many critics, and in doing so will look beyond its perceived inadequacies to provide a new appreciation of its character, appeal, f unction and development. I have attempted to achieve these goals through a substantial generic study of the British historical film, utilizing notions of myth and ideas derived from reception studies. In terms of overall approach, this project is an example of what David Bordwell has called 'middle-level research', applying theory to a problem-driven, in-depth, empirical investigation. In following the precepts of middle-level research, it is an additional aim of my thesis to contribute to theoretical and methodological debates surrounding the writing of film history and the study of film genre. In chapter one, I review the literature which addresses questions of historical film and film history, and in chapter two I discuss the various ways in which a generic consideration can be conducted, with particular reference to the work of Rick Altman and the idea of genre as mythic-ritual. Beginning in 1930, after which date a coherent genre begins to emerge, I apply the approach expounded in chapters one and two to a wide range of primary sources for British cinema, including Kine Weekly, Sight and Sound, the memoir, the pressbook, and a number of audience surveys. Ile result, in chapters three and four, is an original overview of the British historical film genre in the period until 1980. Chapter five then situates the British historical film in relation to the genres (both British and American) which lie adjacent to it, and chapter six examines the genre and its history in the 1980s, through detailed case-studies of Lady Jane, Chariots of Fire and Henry V. Finally, my conclusions are worked out by setting the genre as I have defined it in the context of two pertinent concepts - British national cinema and British national identity - and the discourses associated with them, in order to elicit key themes and issues. The main thrust of my argument is that recent work on 'the costume film', by Pam Cook, Sue Harper and others, has tended to distort the nature of the British historical film, ignoring generic distinctions made by those who produced and consumed the films in question. I hope that my analysis, and my archival research in particular, will lay a foundation for a clearer and fuller future understanding of films which represent the past.