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Postwar British Cinema

Updated on October 8, 2013

The Postwar years saw significant changes in gender roles as women’s presence in the workforce decreased and British society was gradually re-establishing its patriarchal structure. The social concerns and significant changes taking place in Britain during this period were heavily conveyed in the 1950s film genres and in the New Wave and horror films of the Sixties. This period also witnessed the emergence of rebellious youths and of working and middle class writers like John Osborne and John Braine who formed part of the Angry Young Men movement.

The Fifties marked a shift from transgressive female protagonists to male actors dominating the screen. The main concern that is evident in most British films of the Fifties and early Sixties is related to the male psyche.

Most horror movies of this period centre on male protagonists fighting against chaos or a supernatural enemy to restore order in society. Whereas in the Gainsborough melodramas the female protagonists played the role of independent and exotic heroines, in most horror films produced by Hammer Film Productions, women are presented as victims of sexual pleasure which ultimately, in some way or another, leads to their death.

David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945)
David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) | Source

Gender and sexuality in 'Brief Encounter'

The disastrous aftermaths of the Second World War did not only affect the welfare and economy of Britain, but they also brought about drastic changes in the structure of society. Postwar British society witnessed a range of cultural and social phenomena that challenged the traditional notion of Britishness, particularly in relation to the family unit.

The late Forties and early Fifties were marked by an increase in divorce rates, contraceptive use and casual relationships, while birth rates fell. Consequently, the traditional role of the family became a national concern amongst the British, an issue which is subtly dealt with in David Lean’s Brief Encounter.

Lean’s Brief Encounter is considered to be one of the most austere films produced in Britain in the postwar period. The story of the main protagonist, Laura Jesson, mirrors the feelings of temptation and excitement that many women experienced while their partners or husbands were away at war. Although Laura’s extra-marital affair takes place in the Thirties, women who had gone out into the workforce had come across new environments and adventures, thus they could easily relate to Laura’s inner struggles when she encounters an attractive stranger.

The script of Brief Encounter presents two competing representations of sexuality, one which is ordinary and one that is spontaneous. Laura’s life is made more bearable and interesting by escaping her routine and daily role as a housewife when she goes to the cinema every Thursday during her leisure time. It is worth noting that the end of the Second World War was also characterised by an increase in cinema attendance as many youths and male viewers had now became frequent cinema-goers, especially with the introduction of British film noirs, horror and science fiction films. Featherstone suggests that Laura’s weekly cinema attendance, for which she displays sheer eagerness, reflects "the relationship of cinema-going, desire and nationhood" that was slowly becoming entrenched in British society.

The film also displays other traditional notions of Britishness, most prominently the recurring instances of the protagonists drinking cups of teas and talking about the weather. However, its representation of the family is not exactly an idealistic one. The audience does not learn much about Laura’s husband, except that he has a penchant for crossword puzzles. Moreover, the couple does not demonstrate any signs of intimate affection until the very end of the film when Laura is so overwhelmed by guilt that she throws herself into her husband’s arms. Thus, we never get to see the image of a ‘cereal box family,’ but rather a bleak depiction of family life.

Christopher Lee starring as the seductive Dracula
Christopher Lee starring as the seductive Dracula | Source

The horror films of the Fifties

The liberalisation of censorship contributed to a phase of horror movies, many of which were based on gothic novels by British writers. These horror films tended to deal with taboo subjects, namely new expressions of sexuality and violence, and appealed mostly to the counterculture sect of British society.

A common feature of the Hammer horror films is the presence of ‘the Other,’ something which is not only a monster, but a threat to the conventions of Britishness. Set in a gothic portrayal of London, Bram Stoker’s Dracula tapped into the Victorians’ fear of superstition, paganism and foreignness.

The 1958 film adaptation, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee as the seductive Dracula, established the gothic horror genre in British cinema. In the novel, the Romanian Count Dracula spends time learning the English language, especially the intonation, in order to be able to integrate with the Londoners without revealing his true foreign identity. This hints at the sense of foreign invasion that is suggested by Arat, however in the film adaption we do not get to see Dracula studying his English skills or roaming the streets of London. Instead, the focus is on imprisoned and passive women who are enslaved by sexual pleasures and should therefore be killed by the typical middle class hero of the Hammer films.

Other film adaptations directed by Hammer productions include The Curse of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Street notes that although these horror films were set in a different era, they still dealt with contemporary issues in Britain. She refers to the Quatermass films as a classic example of this relationship between fiction and reality, relating the film’s idea of the deadly fungi that attack the human body to the anti-nuclear protests.


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