2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 2) British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus

I recall earlier on in my academic career giving a presentation on the image of Latin America in Hollywood from the forties through the seventies, which meant that I had to discuss the effect of Cold War ideology on a particular set of films released from the fifties through the sixties.  After I had completed my presentation a former professor of mine asked my thoughts on what "caused the Cold War" to which I do not recall my exact response, but I am certain it was something along the lines of suggesting that is impossible to pinpoint all the complexities of what started and to another degree what ended the war of ideals.  I figured that by entrenching myself behind the purely filmic I would never have to deal with such analysis, or could at least pass it off with vague indifference.  I used to think that, but then I read Tony Shaw's magnificent study of British cinema during the era titled British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus.  Where many historians will occasionally throw a piece of culture or two into their political breakdowns as a means to show that they are not stuffy intellectuals, Shaw does not bend under the pressures of historical exactitude and manages to draw out the necessary information about British involvement between East and West opposition.  Furthermore, when doing histories of cinema, it is often the case that the film historian working on the piece will make sweeping brush strokes about rather detailed historical moments, hoping that by doing so the reader will glean only enough to make their argument worthwhile.  Shaw does neither, he works with intimate care to assure that both the history and the cultural product receive an equal degree of mention, making sure to acknowledge the moments when an event led to a cultural product, just as he notes moments when a film, or a series of films lead to a political movement or were used in a propagandistic manner to affirm or discredit a cause.  I can say with absolute certainty that there is not a better text written about Cold War culture available and would even argue that Shaw's text stands to be one of the best works on history of film in general, holding such importance as Haskell's From Reverence to Rape or pretty much any text released by the late Roger Ebert.  Simply put, there are few texts with such cohesion as Shaw's, and it only helps that he choses absolutely enthralling films to discuss.

The Cold War and cinema does, admittedly, seem like a highly specialized topic and one that would be relevant to only those doing research.  Indeed, I came to it by the way of looking for information about masculinity in the era and while Shaw's book does not provide much in the way of that topic, it did prove quite informative in my understanding of studio systems, production and the process of British filmmaking that will invariably help me undertake at least two different imminent projects.  As noted earlier, this serves a hybrid text that intersects two areas of academia flawlessly allowing for unison to form.  When this is unsuccessful the result can be unflattering, as is the case with Jeremy Black's incredibly well-researched buy dry and unreadable The Politics of James Bond.  I would go so far as to suggest that Shaw's book is the ideal place to start if a person were interested in looking at the way in which politics influence film, regardless of era or locale.  Similarly, Shaw handles the equally complex topic of propaganda with such grace and poise that were it not for the seminal text by Edward Bernays I would say that this would be the place to begin such a quest for understanding.  Fortunately, even with his ability to attract the most general of readership, Shaw's text provides moments of insight and hidden gems for the more seasoned reader, tackling more experimental and non-mainstream texts alongside the important franchise works of the time, given brief but necessary credit to both the Carry On series, as well as James Bond.  Furthermore, in his understanding of the global nature of Cold War cinema, Shaw occasionally taps into the wealth of American films made during the time to draw upon ones that would extend metaphorically to Britain as well.  His reading of Dr. Strangelove is spot on and refreshing in comparison to its usual entrenchment within the psychoanalytic.  For those who have a preconceived notion of British cinema existing in a stuffy vaccuum of period piece melodramas and quip heavy comedies should take a glance at British Cinema and the Cold War, it will cause you not only to reconsider an entire nationhood's film history, but it will inspire you to branch your research beyond just the cinematic texts.

Best film discovery of the book:  While it is technically a rediscovery, because I know I watched it at least once as a kid, Shaw's discussion of the 1954 animated version of Animal Farm speaks to it as being one of the highlights of Cold War cinema, despite its seemingly specified audience.  A bit baffled by its inclusion, I decided to catch up with it only to realize that it is a creepy and thematically dark text that does wonders to metaphorically comment upon the Cold War, as well as existing as a solid adaptation.  You can find relatively cheap copies of the text readily available on Amazon, for which the cool cover helps.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review! I love when a book has something for general readers and also something for folks with more knowledge on the subject.