Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

v

Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

The Picturegoers by David Lodge (1960)

First Hilda, then Damien, then Mark. Hilda’s life was ruined – she was a complete neurotic. Damien was all queer and twisted because he had thought she liked him when she didn’t. And Mark – he would never make a priest. He would end up as another frustrated religious failure like herself and Damien. Religion had ruined him. Religion had ruined them all. (p.208)

David Lodge’s first novel, published when he was 25. Short and powerful, it confidently establishes techniques and themes which will dominate his later writing.

Multiple characters The most obvious feature is the technique of featuring a dozen or so characters and continually cross-cutting between them. The novel is divided into three parts but within them there are no chapters, no sense of moving between big blocked-out scenes. Instead there are a hundred or more relatively short (sometimes less than a page) sections of prose, each devoted to one or a pair of characters, their dialogue, thoughts, decisions, actions, feelings.

This is a very economical, snappy approach. Compare and contrast the directly opposite approach of his friend Malcolm Bradbury who, in his debut novel Eating People Is Wrong for example, opens one chapter with a page-long description of the ‘moral’ development of one of the characters (Emma Fielding), as if rewriting a Jane Austen novel. Unlike Bradbury, Lodge is actually in the 20th century and realises that cutting between short cameo scenes means you don’t have to give yourself the labour of writing – and the reader the burden of reading – long establishing sequences. Bang! You’re there!

The title, The Picturegoers, is not as mysterious and cryptic as I initially took it to be: the book literally describes a cast of picturegoers ie a group of (generally young) people who, on the evening described in part one, all converge on their local, run-down cinema in the fictional town of Brickley, and for whom the cinema flickers in and out of the warp and weave of their lives over the next few months.

Dramatis personae

  • Mr Maurice Berkley, one-time manager of the music hall which declined, was shut down, and replaced by the new cinema, which he sadly manages, lamenting the passing of the glory days.
  • Mr Mallory, kind-hearted middle-aged man, head of a vast Catholic family, eyes the cinema-going young girls in their tight dresses, but warmly loves his wife.
  • Patrick and Patricia Mallory, two of their younger children, who bicker and argue their way to the cinema; when Patricia leaves early a middle-aged man moves next to Patrick in the dark and puts his hand on Patrick’s thigh – there is a short description of the panic of a pubescent boy at being touched up before Patrick is brave enough to get up and flee the building.
  • Clare Mallory – only recently arrived home after abandoning her vocation as a nun, still full of piety and innocent emotions, good and honest and pure and who immediately bewitches the new lodger, Mark.
  • Mark Underwood, recently arrived with the Mallorys as their lodger, is a lapsed Catholic who unexpectedly finds himself responding to the Irish Catholic atmosphere of the Mallory household, initially because he fancies the beautifully innocent Clare. He is a would-be writer, depressed at having his stories rejected for publication, and so presumably the representative of the ‘author’ in the text ie a more educated, ironical observer of the life around him, and with more space than for other characters devoted to his early life, his upbringing in a stifling lower-middle-class household in the respectable suburb of Batcham.
  • Damien O’Brien, cousin of the Mallorys over from Ireland, rat-faced, intensely pious, seething with jealousy over the casual way Mark Underwood asked Clare out, takes her to the pictures and has generally become her boyfriend – exactly what Damien obsessively wants to be.
  • Father Martin Kipling, naive and innocent, is on his first visit to a ‘cinema’, in order to see the pious Song of Bernadette. He trips over feet in the dark, wants to chat to neighbours and then is appalled at the scantily clad ‘actresses’ on the screen whose sole purpose seems to be stirring up lascivious passions in their audience. He woefully discovers the Song isn’t on this evening, instead he is watching the legendary Hollywood actress Amber Lush in a variety of scenes which show off her taut buttocks and pert bosom.
  • Len, working class man, in love with Bridget, is frustrated by both his poverty and the knowledge he is about to be called up for National Service.
  • Bridget, Len’s girlfriend.
  • Doreen the usherette who dreams of having the kind of life those stars up on the screen enjoy and sort of fancies the older, married, Mr Berkley.
  • Harry, a wound-up, monosyllabic, very angry youth, dressed in black, who fantasises about hurting everyone he meets, carries a flick knife and – very spookily – follows Bridget home down dark roads and across bombed-out lots so that I was beginning to worry I might be about to read a rape scene, but no, she gets home just in time, making herself a cocoa with her hands shaking. Makes me realise that in all the other Lodge novels, in the Amis novels and Bradbury novels which I’ve been reading, there are few if any actual criminals – men obsessed with sex in every one, sure, as the authors themselves seem obsessed with sex; but men who break the law, through theft or vandalism or violence ie a type of man who obviously exists in the real world in large numbers — none.

Part one

All the characters converge on the knackered old Palladium cinema, bringing their hopes and fears into its sweaty, smoky interior, as per the thumbnail sketches above.

Part two

Six months later. We learn that the serio-comic result of Father Kipling’s visit to the cinema was a fervent sermon he gave denouncing film as the work of the devil and announcing he would be moving the Thursday Benediction to Saturday nights, as an alternative, and launching a crusade against the Cinema. Six months later, a mere 12 parishioners are turning up for it and he ruefully regrets the enmity created with the cinema manager, who complained to Kiplings bishop about the boycott, the bishop then, embarrassingly, over-ruling Father Kipling and saying there was nothing ungodly about the cinema.

Meanwhile, the Mallory’s lodger, Mark, who started out pretending to be religious in order to seduce Clare, really has undergone a conversion back to his boyhood Catholicism and, ironically, now finds himself the pious one in the relationship, while Clare herself has completely redirected her libido towards him – with tearful results.

Damien is the furtive watcher, the ‘creeping Jesus’, who is always spotting them in the street or kissing in a doorway or overhears their endearments on the front doorstep, as his crush on Clare curdles into hatred and contempt.

The old cinema manager Mr Berkley is now having an affair with the once naive and innocent usherette Doreen, happy now to strip off in the manager’s office and climb into their makeshift bed for office sex, before they get dressed again, he drives her home and then returns to his wife.

Harry, the would-be rapist, takes his stalking of Bridget to another level, lying in wait for her in a bombed-out lot near her house but – to our relief – miserably fails to assault her; he’s barely got his hands over her mouth before she bites his fingers down to the bone and screams her head off, sending him running off down the street.

Central to this part is the evening when a number of the key characters converge on The Palladium to see The Bicycle Thieves, the 1948 Italian Neorealistic classic which Mr Berkley is showing as part of an effort to liven up the cinema and draw in a new crowd. In this it is a complete failure, a depressing and inconclusive movie which reminds most of the visitors of their own cramped lives, except for Mark, of course, who incisively and intellectually analyses it for Clare, who understands nothing, but nods approval in her doomed infatuation.

Part three

Two months after that evening things have moved on for all of the characters. This third part again features an evening at the cinema; after the failure of trying contemporary European movies Mr Berkley has booked the latest Rock’n’Roll movie, blaring with its Bill Haley soundtrack. This time there are queues around the block of Teddy Boys and their pony-tailed, bobby-soxed girlfriends. And in this final 40-page section Lodge winds up the stories of our ten or so characters:

Clare and Mark have a painful showdown in which he declares his wish to join the Dominican Order and try his vocation. Clare is furious at him leading her on, leading her to abandon the last of her religious feelings which she transferred to secular love, only to be dumped.

Mark walks back to the Mallory house where he is mortified to discover Mrs Mallory has stumbled over some of his scribblings about love and Clare and sex, explicit notes and thoughts jotted down for a story. She thinks he’s revealed himself as immoral when, ironically, he is reaching the height of his religious faith and completely disavows the writings. He offers to leave immediately and makes his way, disconsolately but firmly back to the stifling purgatory of his suburban home, determined to apply to a religious order.

Devastated after their final argument, Clare wanders the streets in a daze, passing the cinema and its huge queue of jitterbugging rockers but, with no money to spend, ends up, ironically, in the local Catholic church. Here – as it happens – she is press-ganged into being a witness to the rushed wedding of Len and Bridget.

After the sad service she finds herself in the church alone with Father Kipling and realises for the first time how feeble and unsatisfactory he is, and how sadly conscious he is of his shortcomings as a priest. Depressed, she emerges to find Len and Bridget having cheap photos taken and then is further press-ganged into accompanying them to the nearest Lyons Corner House for their wedding ‘reception’.

As she listens to their tale of poverty – nowhere to stay, Len’s poor widowed mother, his miserable time doing National Service in the Army – Clare is overcome with compassion and writes them a cheque for £5 to pay for a few days’ honeymoon at Margate or somewhere, and promises to talk to Father Kipling about a little church flat which she knows has become empty because the old lady who was living in it has gone into hospital.

These scenes could hardly convey a more depressingly miserable, black-and-white, cramped, austere, limited, narrow ration books and National Service existence. How awful the 1950s sound.

If the two main characters, Mark and Clare, end in disarray, minor characters have unexpected epiphanies. Harry, the would-be rapist, hanging round outside the cinema, finds himself drawn in and then the Teds and Rockers who are packing the place start getting out of their chairs and dancing to Bill Haley in the aisles. To his amazement a pretty little blonde girl asks him to dance and he turns out to be able to do it and it makes him smile and even laugh, for the first time in years; later that night he walks her home and, after a quick peck on the cheek, makes an date to see her at the Monday night hop.

We eavesdrop the thoughts of Mr Berkley, the cinema manager – initially happy at the big box office takings then concerned at the way the Teds are getting out of their seats – as he dismisses rock’n’roll for being unmusical, simple-minded etc. He predicts it will only last a year then be replaced by the next fad. But we have seen, in the story of Harry, that simply dancing, that music and dance and physical expression, can liberate the soul.

At the end of Part Two Lodge showed us Mr Berkley having sex with Doreen in his office, for the first time not using a condom as he had run out. Now, two months later, Doreen is pregnant. Mr Berkley knows his (Catholic) wife will never divorce him in that guaranteed-to-make-everyone-as-miserable-as-can-be way of theirs, so he gives Doreen a load of money and the address of a boarding house in Newcastle where she can go to have it. In almost the last scene we see her confidently on the Newcastle train getting into conversation with a likely cockney lad also going the same way. Might love be about to blossom…

It is a multi-stranded ending to a multi-stranded novel and a triumph, unexpected, moving, insightful, poignant.

Themes

David Lodge’s three themes are Catholicism, sex and Eng lit academics and all are present here.

Catholicism In the point of view and thoughts of the priest and every member of the Mallory family (Dad, Mum, Patrick, Patricia, Clare) as well as the reconverted Mark and the Irish cousin Damien – that’s seven characters who all provide different perspectives on faith and belief and sin and the rest of it, so we have the thoughts of the cradle Catholic, the convert, the zealot, the lapsed Catholic, the teenage Catholic, the ex-nun, and so on. Enough Catholicism for most tastes.

The common mistake of outsiders, that Catholicism was a beautiful, solemn, dignified, aesthetic religion. But when you got inside you found it was ugly, crude, bourgeois. Typical Catholicism wasn’t to be found in St Peter’s, or Chartres, but in some mean, low-roofed parish church, where hideous plaster saints simpered along the wall, and the bowed congregation, pressed perspiration tight into the pews, rested their fat arses on the seats, rattled their beads, fumbled for the smallest change, and scolded their children. Yet in their presence God was made and eaten all day long, and for that reason those people could never be quite like other people, and that was Catholicism. (p.173)

Pilgrimage A long section at the end of Part Two describes how Mark, in the grip of his new Catholic fervour, undertakes the pilgrimage to Walsingham in Norfolk; it is referred to by other characters and Mark gets out and rereads his diary of the experience which suddenly gives us a blast of full-on first person narrative. This is the first mention of the pilgrimage theme which will also be present in Lodge’s later novels, in comic form in Small World, and more seriously in the concluding sections of Therapy.

Sex Mark starts out simply wanting to seduce Clare. Damien is obsessed with Clare but sublimates his feelings into fierce religiosity. Clare was expelled from the convent where she had been a novice nun, for her passionate/lesbian involvement with a teenage girl pupil, and now finds herself actively wanting Mark’s masculine touch. Old Mr Mallory enjoys watching the pretty young things dolled up on a Saturday night, but also enjoys making love to his plump wife. He is disappointed when Mr Berkley experiments by showing contemporary foreign films, namely the depressing The Bicycle Thieves.

Where were the luscious slave-girls with swelling breast and buttocks like ripe fruit, on which he could feed his harmless, middle-aged lechery. (p.130)

Mr Berkley enters Doreen in his office. Len, on their wedding night, blissfully ‘broaches’ Bridget, Damien sees couples in the sunny park, men’s hands up girls’ dresses, driving him wild with anger/frustration.

I am, I hope, an averagely-sexed middle-aged man and no prude, but I find the relentlessness of the Male Gaze in all Lodge’s novels a little hard to take.

[Mr Berkley] stood at the back of the packed auditorium. There were people standing all along the back, and down the sides. He watched with interest a young girl in front of him in tight trousers. Her buttocks were twitching rhythmically to the music. On each alternate beat a hollow appeared in her left flank. (p.226)

In a touching scene the confused 17-year-old Patricia, who has a crush on Mark, has a chat with him about how isolated she feels in the family and how she wants to run away from home. All very sensitive apart from one false note. She’s wearing a faded old dressing gown buttoned up to the neck, but: ‘Beneath the faded material was a figure full of promise.’ (p.169) Who makes this remark? Not Mark, who is in his newly moral religious phase. Not Patricia herself. It is the narrator, the creator, the author, creating all sorts of women whose shapes and naked bodies he can then lovingly describe.

[Patrick, 16] had slipped into a rather alarming habit lately of looking at every girl or woman he encountered to see how big her bust was. Bust. That was a new word he had just discovered. There were several words that meant the same thing. Bust, bosom, breasts…  (p.136)

All the way back in 1960 I wonder if Lodge’s novels were praised for their frankness and honesty and lack of shame about sex. I can see the merit in his not shying away from the fact that sex does indeed dominate lots of men’s thoughts lots of the time. But it is a bit like the food in a certain restaurant always being a bit too salty or spicy or oily. Lodge is great at what he does, but the relentlessness of the sex sex sex, and the way it’s always the horny male view of sex, sometimes gets a bit too much.

Literature Mark is a would-be writer, still very young, self-conscious and unpublished, he keeps a notebook which he fills up with bons mots and insights, is constantly on the lookout for material, feelings and incidents which he can turn into a short story, and he is considerably more intellectual than the other characters. He shares his sophisticated insights into The Bicycle Thieves, into the warmth and piety of the Mallory household; he gets the lengthy theological passages tossing to and fro about the religious life and sin and redemption and forgiveness etc, in this respect the precursor of all the other Lodge protagonists who will agonise over Roman Catholic faith, sometimes at very great length. Most 20th religious novels document the painful fading of a character’s religious faith – I thought it original enough to see a young man following the opposite trajectory.

Humanity Lodge’s style is cold and blank, not deliberately heartless but always factual, clear, unambiguous, unsentimental. For example, he describes Clare’s feelings when Mark dumps her, but doesn’t really wring the reader’s heart; same for Mark’s increasing sense of devotion, specially in a Mass he attends. But if there aren’t extremes of emotion, not emotion in the language, anywhere in his work, there is often a kind of cool, limpid humanity; an implicit sympathy for the sadness of so many people who life has let down. Thus Clare, after being dumped by Mark, finds herself observing Father Kipling as if for the first time, as if for the first time really understanding something about other people and their pain. Without any comment from the author it dawns on me that she is possibly finding within herself the compassion and charity for others which she was too young to experience when she was a novice nun.

[Father Kipling] stooped over the sink, leaning heavily on locked arms, and staring at his hands, flattened against the bottom of the bowl. The sense of failure which haloed his bowed head made Clare conscious for the first time of his identity as a person. He had never been an impressive priest –  dispensing sacraments, sermons and whist-drive announcements with the same patient ennui, like a weary shopkeeper who has forgotten why he ever started to sell. But now, at this moment, she understood his inadequacy in personal terms, realised what it meant to him not to be able to move people, not to be able to find the encouraging word, the inspiring slogan. (p.217)

With its understated humanity, with its confident handling of the multi-character cast, in its quiet way I think this is a very good, a very powerful and moving novel – and quite amazing considering it was his first.


Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – Ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, amid numerous lectures on artificial intelligence, cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s. Tiresomely predictable.
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

%d bloggers like this: