Photographic, scientific and technological experiments in Britain clearly put in evidence that Britons were closely involved in the complex pre-history of cinema in the late nineteenth century. Britain introduced the cinema as a public spectacle in February 1896, two months after the first public exhibition of films in Paris by the Lumière Brothers (Auguste Marie Louis Nicholas, 1862 – 1954; Louis Jean, 1864 – 1948). The first motion two-colour pictures were shown in a London theatre in 1909. (Only in 1930 the American Firm Technicolour developed a full colour film).
The English Friese-Greene (1855-1921) introduced one of the best film cameras. As to film production there were few notable directors. Cecil Hepworth (1874- 1953), who came to moving pictures from a background of Magic Lanterns, was a very famous pioneer with the short film Alice in Wonderland (1903) and Rescued by Rover (1905), a dog that helps the police find a kidnapped child in a picturesque London.
At the beginning of the 1900 the British director James Williamson (1855-1933) started to make multi-shot films such as Stop Thief (1901) and Fire (1902), early examples of a ‘chase’ film, with people and cars running one after the other.
Before the First World War film makers both in Europe and America began to make longer narrative films, the feature films which mainly attracted the middle classes. The British followed the trend.
At the outbreak of World War One the British film production suffered a slow down. America dominated the movie world also because the American economic rise, and , even if new directors like Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (1899 –1980) and Anthony Asquith (1902 –1968) tried innovative techniques, the British production was really catastrophic by the middle of the decade. To protect the producers, Britain introduced a new legislation, The Cinematograph Films Act (1927) which obliged distributors to include a specified quota of British films in their annual offerings to exhibitors, in order to ensure that at least 20% of the films in British cinemas had British origin. The consequences of this Act were a development of integrated companies following the Hollywood example and an improvement of the British cinema in number of film produced. Consequently, the British cinema developed standardised production and commercial films such as crime films, comedies and musicals. Crime films were based on the literary traditions of thrillers and detective stories by “Sapper”, John Buchan and Edgar Wallace. The main figure as a director was Alfred Hitchcock with his The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938).The comedies were mainly adaptation of theatrical productions or found inspiration in the music hall acts and the musical genre.
Unfortunately the low budgets did not permit great productions and the quality of the films was quite poor, also obstacled by a strict censorship. On the contrary, the American production was sumptuous with elaborate costumes and settings. Many European directors moved to America.
One of the first successful on the overseas cinemas was Alexander Korda (1893- 1956), who directed The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), starring Charles Laughton (Henry), Rembrand (1936) always starring Charles Laughton, The Four Feathers (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940) with Douglas Fairbanks. Between 1934 and 1936 Paul Czinner (1890-1972), directed Catherine the Great and Harold French (1897-1997) The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard. Zoltan Corda (1895-1961), brother of Alexander’s, produced Bozzambo, or Sanders of the River (1935) in Africa and Elephant Boy (1937), inspired by R. Kipling’s The Jungle Books in Asia.
The Second World War was seen as the “golden age” of British movies as the war itself provided topics for film makers and many of the best remembered productions of the 1939-45 period mix war propaganda with dramatic action and romantic stories, characteristics of conventional entertainment cinema. Even the government, after the brief parenthesis in which it ordered the closing of cinemas, recognised the values of the films and used them as propaganda and as means to sustain civilian morale.Examples are The Gentle Sex (1943) directed by Leslie Howard and Fires Were Started (1943) by Humphrey Jennings.
American directors came to England to shoot their movies such as King Vidor (1894-1982) with The Citadel (1938) taken from Cronin’s novel; Sam Wood (1883-1949) with Goodbye Mr. Chipps (1939) and Basil Dean (1888-1998) with Twenty one Days (1938) starring Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, script writer Graham Green.
Of course British comedies and historical films continued with the adaptations by Gabriel Pascal (1894-1954) of G. B. Shaw’s Major Barbara (1940) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) which were enormously successful. These films together with Love Story (1944) by Leslie Arliss (1901-1987) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944) by Arthur Crabtree (1900-1975) focussed on the theme of female sexuality giving birth to a new generation of British stars including James Mason, Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Granger.
The post-war period brought a new crisis to the industry, although the British production was still protected from the American concurrency. The National Film Finance Corporation was created to lend money for film production to independent producers.
The dynamism of the war years re-started with quality movies like the literary adaptations of David Lean (1908-1991) such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Oliver Twist (1948), and the sophisticated thrillers of Carol Reed (1906-1976), including The Third Man (1949) and Odd Man Out (1947).
The 1950s saw the development of the international co-production, of American and European companies. Films such as Mogambo (1953) by John Ford (1894-1973), Bhowani Junction (1956) by George Cukor (1899-1983), Moby Dick (1956) by John Huston (1906-1987), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) by David Lean and The Ladykillers (1955) by Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1993) mixed British and American themes and stars
However the strong traditions of home made comedies went on with a character similar to Chaplin created by the comic Norman Wisdom (1915-2010) in Trouble in Store (1953), with the Boulting brothers’ production of the satirical stories I’m Alright Jack (1959) and Carlton Browne of the F.O. (1959) and with the comedy cycles like St. Trinians by Frank Launder (1906-1997) and Sydney Gilliat (1908-1994).
Another genre saw its birth after the war, the Gothic, so popular in British culture. The first successes were adaptations of television serials based the best-known horror stories of Frankenstein and Dracula: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) both directed by Terence Fisher (1904-1980).
At the end of the decade the new trend of Realist films began with Look Back in Anger (1959) by Tony Richardson, taken from the angry young man of the theatre John Osborne and Room at the Top (1959) by Jack Clayton and continued into the sixties with Saturdav Night and Sunday Morning (1960) by Karel Reisz (1926-2002), A Taste of Honey (1961) and the literary adaptation Tom Jones (1963), starring Albert Finney by Tony Richardson (1928 – 1991) ; A Kind of Loving (1962) by John Schlesinger and This Sporting Life (1963) by Lindsay Anderson.
Most of these films were adaptations of plays or novels about working class life. Near this so called “free” cinema, were born the social problem cycles about controversial topics such as capital punishment, adultery, juvenile delinquency, racism and homosexuality: Most of them were produced by small independent companies. The most famous are Yield to the Night (1956) and Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), both directed by J. Lee Thompson (1914-2002), Violent PIayground (1958) and Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1960) all directed by Basil Dearden (1911 –1971) who had already directed the war movie The Ship that Died of Shame (1955).However the cinema was starting its decline: the advent of television brought the movies at home and the families enjoyed a new sort of home made entertainment.
The only remarkable success of the 1960s was the James Bond cycle which began in 1962 with Dr. No and, the following year, From Russia with Love both directed by Terence Young (1915-1994) starring Sean Connery as Bond, a worldwide hit which lasted through to the late eighties. The spectacular qualities of the Bond films, the sex and the violence, provided a complete different form of entertainment from television.
The series success led to a spy film boom, with The Liquidator (1965) by Jack Cardiff (1914-2009), Modesty Blaise (1966) by Josef Losey (1909-1984), and to the production a new series of more realistic spy films based on the novels of Len Deighton. Pivoting around the spy Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) in The IPCRESS File (1965) by Sidney J. Furie (1933 – ), Funeral in Berlin (1966) by Guy Hamilton(1922 – ) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967) by Ken Russel (1927 – ). The success was followed by espionage films in the manner of the novels of John le Carré, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) by Martin Ritt (1914-1990) and The Deadly Affair (1966) by Sidney Lumet (1924-2011).
The success of British movies based on spectacular qualities like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) starring Peter O’Toole and Doctor Zhivago (1965), both directed by David Lean; Zulu (1964) by Cyril Raker Endfield (1914 – 1995) and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) by Kenneth Cooper Annakin (1914- 2009) encouraged American studios to invest significantly in British film production. Major films like Becket (1964) directed by Peter Glenville (1913 –1996), A Man for All Seasons (1966), based on Robert Bolt’s play and directed by Fred Zinnemann (1907 – 1997), Khartoum (1966) by Basil Dearden and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) by Tony Richardson, Billy Liar (1963) by John Schlesinger (1906- 2003) and Women in Love (1969)by Ken Russel and the four Academy Award musical film Oliver! (1968) by Carol Reed were all big popular and critical successes.
These production attracted some directors to England like the Polish Roman Polanski (1933- ) who made Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966); the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) who filmed Blowup (1966) starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, and François Truffaut (1932-1984) who directed his only film made outside France, the science fiction Fahrenheit 451(1966).
American directors were regularly working in London throughout the decade, and several became permanent residents in the UK. Among them Joseph Losey who collaborated with playwright Harold Pinter and directed The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967); Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) who started his English career with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Richard Lester (1932 -) with The Knack …and How to Get It (1965), and The Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965).