Monthly Archives: June 2015

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These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!

It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?

Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.

This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)

While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?

These are the readings:

Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.

Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.

Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006, https://airminded.org/2006/09/15/battle-of-britain-and-the-battle-of-britain/, accessed 25 June 2015.

Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.

S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.

Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).

Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).

Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.

There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.

Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...

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Alan Allport. Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War, 1939-1945. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Alan's –– since he's a longtime friend of this blog I feel justified in the slight informality -- last book looked at what happened to the British soldier when he went home after the Second World War ended. This is much more ambitious in that it's about everything that happened to the British soldier before Demobbed. Hopefully Alan will write a social history of the RAF next. (Well, I can dream, can't I?) In any case, he will no doubt be pleased to learn that it's on sale in Australian bookshops, since that's where I found it; and that I showed both Browned Off and Demobbed to a colleague who promptly decided to buy his own copies for his current research. That's outreach and impact, right there.

Anne Witchard. England's Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War. Melbourne: Penguin, 2014. A very cute little (less than a hundred pages) book and a useful parallel to the Germanophibia with which I am better acquainted. Witchard argues that the casualties of the First World War led to fears of racial decline and hence the identification of the Chinese as a racial enemy. I know what you're thinking -- didn't M. P. Shiel, Jack London, and for that matter Sax Rohmer himself all write about the Yellow Peril before 1914? Well, yes. That's a good point. Hopefully Witchard will address it.

Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.


  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54.