British culture has a unique and unhealthy fascination with the glorification of the world wars — which has contributed to Brexit
Ever since I was a child in the 1970s, British movies, TV and other aspects of popular culture have been dominated by the world wars. In the Seventies it was perhaps more understandable as the veterans, like my own father and uncles, were the same age then as I am now. The war was only thirty years previous, and had been a dominating, formational experience of their youth. But in 2020, WWI has entirely passed from living memory. Why is the UK seemingly uniquely fascinated in endlessly revisiting these wars in popular culture?
From the earliest days of the movie industry, war has featured on the screen. The biggest grossing movies, and also most influential as far as camera techniques and special effects went, were also movies about the Great War. The Big Parade (1925) was the biggest commercial hit of the silent era, closely followed by Wings (1927), that won the first ever Oscar for Best Picture. Though many of these films had an anti-war theme (such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) that was banned Australia for promoting pacifism) they were undeniably produced to present war as spectacle, from the sweeping pans across the battlefield, explosions, to the sanitised depictions of death and injury. Very much these are tales of personal heroism and personification of ideals of nobility and leadership that all the target audience cultures shared and recognised.
During WWII movies were deliberately used as training tools for the military and also for propaganda purposes. These movies depicted again the heroic soldiers pitted against evil, alien, subhuman enemies and served a dual purpose; building morale at home whilst selling government bonds to support the war effort, and indoctrinating the troops at the front.
In the UK after WWII was over, war movies continued to be made in this manner, perhaps as a deliberate continuation or propaganda to continue to boost war morale. Britain had an extremely slow return to normality, illustrated to the populace daily by the bomb sites that remained derelict for decades, and the rationing that continued until 1954. But then of course for the UK, war continued unabated on foreign fronts from Afghanistan (1944–6) to Greece…