The BBC is conducting a poll on the best British film of all time, and I am struggling to come up with one. There is Last Orders, which is gentle, tender and funny and would probably bear repeated viewings, there is Kes, there is Nil by Mouth, there is Distant Voices, Still Lives but I am really struggling to come up with anything that can compete with the best of the US or France or Italy, or Japan or just about any country you can think of; British films just seem terribly parochial, and, worst of all, of their time; few seem to transcend the era they were made in and I can’t think of one that I would have as my “desert island” film. It’s quite shaming, really.
My Life as a Dog just popped into my head, a great film, better than any British film I can think of, but a film which would get nowhere near my top ten films.
Part of the problem here I suspect is the difficulty one often has is determine precisely what can and cannot properly be considered a British film.
In the case of Japanese, French and Italian cinema - and indeed films originating in any country in which English is not the primary language, then language itself typically creates a clear delineation between what should and should rightly be considered to the output of that country’s native film industry. The very fact that films are produced in a language other than English for a non English-speaking market naturally creates a film industry in these countries that is far more self-contained in almost every aspect of film production than is the case in Britain - the French film industry, to give but one example, makes films in the French language in French studios using French actors, writers, directors, technicians, etc, financed by French money for distribution by a French company in the French market.
By contrast, a ‘British’ film may quite easily - more often than not, in reality - have been financed with American money and be distributed by an American studio. It may have American actors in its cast, even in leading roles, an American producer and/or director, American scriptwriters, American technicians. It may even have been filmed in America, be set in America and be targeted primarily at capturing the American market.
To compound matters even further, the same may be true of the American film industry, which makes extensive use of British actors, technicians, directors, studios, scriptwriters, stories and settings and even that disregards the complications arising from careers that span and move between both industries - Hitchcock is, perhaps, the classic example, having directed films such as The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes, that are rightly considered classics of the British film industry, and films such as Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, etc are accorded equal status in history of American film-making.
Perhaps the best one can genuinely say is British films are impossible to define fully, but you know what one is when you see it.
I disagree with FMIAB’s contention either that Britain has little to offer to match the output of America, France, Italy, etc or that British films are necessarily ‘parochial’.
It would certainly be true to say that Britain’s film industry excels in certain clearly defined genres that have a definite connection to British culture - no other country quite does period drama, especially around themes of social class, quite as well as we do, and in the work Ken Loach and Mike Leigh we can rightly say that we’re near the top of the pile when it comes to themes rooted in social realism. And, of course, Britain has traditionally had a very distinctive - and very British - approach to comedy, from the classic Ealing comedies to the Carry On films right through to Monty Python, which may well reinforce the impression that the one truly definable characteristic of British film-making is its parochialism.
That’s a view that, to my mind, sells British film-making at its best woefully short, especially by comparison to the output of other countries.
Is the epic sweep and cinematic beauty of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia not more than a match for Kurosawa’s Ran - which is, itself, merely Shakespeare’s King Lear transposed to feudal Japan.
What of the all-American action hero? Doesn’t it tell you something that even the best and most profitable US efforts in this genre - think of Die Hard, for example - are good for what? Three, perhaps four movies at best?
How many Bond films are up we up to now?
What about the ‘caper movie’ - which would you rather watch, Oceans’ 11 (12 and, soon, 13) or The Italian Job? (and not the god-awful American remake, either).
Think about it - is Life of Brian a less funny film than Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or Blazing Saddles?
Of course not - not least because simply by naming a character ‘Biggus Dickus’, ‘Life of Brian’ executes the single greatest and most painfully funny sustained knob gag in comedic history, and all without recourse to an apple pie as a crude prop.
I’ve already listed a fair few films that I think easily rank alongside the best that any other country has to offer, even America, and I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of our own film industry’s output over the years.
If Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t grab you, then what about one of his other classic films -say Bridge on the River Kwai or his adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations?
If Life of Brian doesn’t tickle your funny bone; how about The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Lavender Hill Mob.
You want gangsters? Try Get Carter or The Long Good Friday.
You want a thiller? Try The Third Man or the Ipcress File.
Black humour? How about If… or maybe Withnail and I.
Science fiction? Just try finding a better piece of dystopian SF than Brazil…
You know, perhaps the hardest thing about coming up with the best British film of all time isn’t a lack of quality at all but rather that we’re really spoiled for choice