Women S History Film History And The Man Problem

What is Women’s Film History? Crossing Disciplines and Media Practices
University of Sunderland 12-13 February 2010

Women’s History, Film History and the Man Problem

Penny Summerfield, University of Manchester

Women’s history’s core purpose is to recover the lost or hidden history of women, and in so doing to throw light on gender relations, gender identities and the shifting meanings of femininity and masculinity over time. Women historians have been increasingly keen to engage with film as part of this recovery project, not just because films are more readily available to use as a source than they used to be, since the advent of videos, dvds and the internet, but also because of the cultural turn which focused attention on the importance of representation in the study of history. Film history – including feminist film history – shows just how complex this endeavour is. I have learned from film historians, many of whom are here today, that we need to pay attention to a dauntingly long agenda. It includes the history of film production: the economics, politics, cultures of particular studios and film companies; the particularities of specific producers and directors; the specific trajectories of individual actors. It involves tracing the development of screenplays, analysis of the content of films including their semiotics, scrutiny of the linguistic, visual and auditory dimensions of genre, and exploration of inter-textuality and referentiality between films. And it includes study of the reception of films, at the time of their release and when they were re-released or screened on television, by film critics and by socially-segmented audiences.

I have come to film history as a historian of women in the Second World War. It gradually became impossible to ignore the importance of film representations of women in this war ( - especially once I’d been recruited to contribute to Nationalising Femininity edited by Gledhill and Swanson, in the 1990s). Currently I’m working on the popular memory of the Second World War between 1945 and about 1970, focusing on films about the Second World War made in this period. How popular memory intersects with film is another area of debate and controversy. Suffice to say here that as a historian I follow Geoff Eley rather than Jay Winter in thinking that there is an important connection, and as a feminist I follow Sue Harper in assuming that popular memory is gendered. In my brief remarks today I want to tease out a few of the implications of the history of films about the Second World War for the gendered memory of the Second World War.

There are numerous comments by contemporary film reviewers to the effect that women are kept on the sidelines or don’t feature at all in 1950s war films, and that this is ‘all to the good’. As we know, it wasn’t like this during the war itself, when there were plenty of women in war films – because of both the mass audience the films were aimed at and the morale-raising, unity-inspiring purpose of films (nudged by the MoI). A deliberate process of reconstructing the memory of war as male was going on in the post-war period and the 1950s and 60s.

In the few cases in which women are at the centre of 50s and 60s war films interesting things happen to both women and war. Christine Geraghty argues that film-makers had trouble representing the modern women in film, and that this accounts for some of the contradictions and tensions in the 50s war films, in terms of the competence, femininity, sexuality and motherhood of the women featured (Fifties, 167-74). I would agree, and add that placing women centre screen changes the representation of war too. I’ve recently published an article on the four poular war films of the 50s and 60s that do focus on women: Odette (1950), A Town Like Alice (1956), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) and Conspiracy of Hearts (1960). In it I argue that the leading women characters serve as vectors of memory not just for the heroic roles of women in wartime, which involve enormous personal suffering and sacrifice, even death, but also for the suffering of others. Because of what happens to the women characters in three of the films, Odette, Carve Her Name with Pride and Conspiracy of Hearts, these films transmit images of concentration camp victims and of the Jews of Europe, who do not get so much as a reference in contemporary films about men and war. In the forth film, A Town Like Alice the fate of the women involves depictions of prisoners of the enemy, specifically of civilian prisoners with no hope of escape. Representations of male prisoners of war focus on the continuation of war through resistance and escape; p.o.w. films of this sort abound, such things being compatible with proactive masculinity. But it takes a film about women to explore the dilemmas and difficulties of the non-military participants in war. One of the problems of men, then, is that plots of war films centred on men (with perhaps just a few exceptions) have historically been incompatible with depictions of collective victimisation and responses to it. This of course affects the memory of war that films bequeath.

In seeking explanations for these things, an appropriate question for a historian of women is whether the gender of the makers of war films made a difference. Almost all the war films of the post-war period were made by men, unsurprisingly since, as Annette Kuhn states, this was a male dominated and macho profession. Were any made by women? Yes, one. Betty Box was the producer of Conspiracy of Hearts (1960). Box was not just the only woman producer to make a war film, she was just about the only woman producer working in Britain in the 1950s and 60s (although her more celebrated in beleaguered sister-in-law Muriel directed films). Conspiracy of Hearts is a film about nuns in an Italian convent in 1943, aiding the escape of Jewish children from a concentration camp, hiding them and smuggling them to safety. The film emphasises the extreme risks the nuns are taking: one of them is killed, another is brutally de-veiled, three are lined up for execution although they are saved. Why did Betty Box make this film, especially since she said publicly that she was only interested in films as entertainment? Indeed, most of her films, which she made with Ralph Thomas, were light comedies like Doctor in the House and its six sequels. In her autobiography, Lifting the Lid, Box wrote that she was committed to making Conspiracy of Hearts ‘because I believed it had something worth saying’ was quite different from her usual approach. At least one contemporary commentator said the film would sell extremely well in the USA because it was about both Catholics and Jews, and Betty Box was sufficiently businesslike to have been aware of this. But did she also have a compulsion as a woman to make a film about women in wartime? This is not clear. Box stresses the emotional impact on her of the ‘real life’ connections between the cast, the production team, the characters, the plot and the filming location, and she referred to refugees, Jewishness and Nazism, but not to women. However she chose a good setting: as Harolovish argues in a piece in Kuhn (ed.) Queen of the Bs, films focused on convents give film-makers ‘a place at one remove from masculine domination’ in which to explore their themes.

Nun films were also good for film actresses, in that they tend to have quite large female casts. One of the problems of the era of the war film was the dearth of roles for actresses, something that women film reviewers noted. The only other film in the group I studied with a large female cast was A Town Like Alice: the older actresses in the cast emphasised publicly that they were glad of the work. Another aspect of the man problem, then, is that men rarely chose to use women’s talents as actresses in their war films. This was the case even though the few films that did so, sold well and the women’s acting attracted favourable critical comment. For example, male reviewers praised Virginia McKenna in both Carve Her Name and Town Like Alice for being spirited and resourceful, and contrasted her acting in these roles favourably with her more ‘wooden’ appearances in the male-centred war films The Cruel Sea and The Ship That Died of Shame. The men who made Odette, Carve Her Hame, and ATown Like Alice all said they were terribly impressed by the stories of the women concerned. But they still didn’t choose to make more such films. Arguably, strong women could not be case beside strong men without leaching the men’s virility and heroism. Hence the shadowy women characters in the other war films: the virginal innocent, the clingy wife, the femme fatale. They represent obstacles to be overcome by the male protagonists as part of their construction as heroes. There is also the very occasional modern woman, like nurse Diana, in Ice Cold in Alex (1958), a model for the 1950s companionate wife. Her self sufficiency is, however, vulnerable to the allure of the problematic male, the alcohol-dependent, nerve-shattered Captain Ansom. These then are the contours of the gender relations that the war films transmitted and that became deposits in the memory banks of the Second World War.

Finally, what of audiences responses? As Sue Harper has shown us, they are hard to get at. A Mass-Observation survey in 1950 suggests that women on the whole did not like war films, whereas men did, and the gradual shift of the cinema audience from 62% female in 1946 to 47% in 1960 may in part have been a response to the proliferation of war films between those years. The responses of film reviewers were sometimes gendered. For example, while male reviewers of the film Dunkirk argued about whether the film was too documentary or insufficiently realistic, and whether or not there was order on the beaches, the women reviewers Dilys Powell and Isobel Quigley praised the film for giving women, who rarely had experience of the front line, a glimpse of what it was like – namely unheroic and terrifying.

What do we know of the reactions of those who have watched the war films as memory documents? The returns to a recent M-O directive (Spring 2009) on the ways in which the memory of the Second World War impacted on people in the years since 1945 reveal a clear gender divide in terms of engagement with war films. To quote just two respondents, both born in the decades after the Second World War, Anthony (A4127) recalls vividly the commando picture books and the war games that dominated the lives of the boys he grew up with, and lists no fewer than 120 war films he remembers having seen. In contrast, Sarah (S4002) writes of her difficulty in relating to representations of the Second World War. ‘The films seem very distant to me … I can’t really distinguish one from the other – just a lot of grainy black and white images of brave men and women.’ Of course, these are only two of around 200 responses that I have just begun to analyse, and one would expect to find a more complex and less polarised picture.

The M-O directive brings me back to the relationship of women’s history, film history and studies of popular memory. Films are undoubtedly an immensely powerful and important component of popular memory, but they are not the only vector of memory. The M-O resondents also write about family stories, literature, television and theatre; environmental traces; commemorative practices. I shall end by saying that, as a feminist historian, I would expect that, as with film, so with these other sites of study, none is free of a ‘man problem’!

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