Post-WWII Film and the Rejection of Western Imperialism

Video clips may contain racist language and spoilers

In the decades following the Second World War, Western powers were forced to concede that empire had been something of an ongoing territorial, racist-hierarchical, socio-economic evil and start processes of decolonisation. This occurred for a number of reasons, some economic, strategic, military and logistical, and basically because there was lack of popular will.

Second World War veterans started to recognise that the tactics of empire and those of the Nazis were all too close. Unlike in our era, members of Western news apparatuses, having so recently fought the Nazis, found it distasteful to imitate Lord Haw-Haw type propaganda and cover up the crimes of empire. And of course there were oral histories available. Some career servicemen would come back from military activities in the colonies unashamed of what they’d done, and proudly speak. Other conscripts, less enthusiastic about empire, spoke in horrified terms about what they’d been ordered to do. And migrants from the colonies brought their personal accounts of their families’ violent victimisations.

More recently, despite very large compensation pay-outs to surviving victims of ‘90,000 Kenyans … executed or tortured and 160,000 people detained’, the torture and rape of victims in Cyprus, and substantial histories and dossiers of brutalities in Malaysia and the British Mandate in Palestine, along with equally horrifying accounts of French offences in Morocco, Algeria, Mali and so on, and US violence in Vietnam and further across the world, Western news media have attempted to downplay the historical crimes of empire, and Western political elites now paint the violence of US global domination as benign. In light of this, it is informative to view just what Western popular culture was willing to concede in the era of the postwar consensus.

Empire History

These days when Muslims state that ongoing grievances against Western racist-imperialism go all the way back to the Crusades, modern right-wing news broadcasters raise their eyes to the heavens in exasperated denial. However, in 1976, in the silver-years romance Robin and Marian, during a discussion about duty the character Robin Hood lets slip just what offences occurred during his military service with Richard I (Richard the Lionheart had been a boys’-own hero in the previous ‘great men model’ of narrating history). It’s worth emphasising that this film is a tragi-comedy and an adventure romance. There are no Black or Muslim characters or scenes set in Palestine. What is retold is just part of establishing historical credibility and the flavour of the era. But it is also a critique of blind loyalty to power.i

Robin and Marion, 1976

And the following scene caused something of a stir when the film Lawrence of Arabia was released in 1962. For the first half of the twentieth century the British Board of Film Classification banned filmic representations that brought the empire and/or the status of the British military into disrepute. Here, however, the central character, played by Peter O’Toole, is mistaken for an Arab by a British officer, racially abused by him and struck with impunity.

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Factually, this was a fairly tame representation. The testimony of serviceman Arthur Lane is brutally frank about British use of torture in Palestine, the use of Arabs as human shields and crushing of their bodies under military vehicles and the ‘collective guilt’ revenge killings of random locals. He is quoted extensively in Mathew Hughes’s historical academic critique.

Hooded Arabs forced to “run the gauntlet”, photo documented by British soldier Arthur Lane, BBC

The British had a practice of softening up victims prior to torture/interrogation by keeping them in open-air barbed-wire cages with no or limited access to water or sanitation. It took the British government sixty years to compensate victims of rape, torture and caging in Cyprus. But here, fifty years ago, it is mentioned in the 1969 crime drama Special Branch episode ‘A Date with Leonidas’. A variant of the racist ‘Wogs in Cages’ limerick cited in this clip is alleged to have appeared in The Grenadier, the in-house publication of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s old regiment which was stationed in Cyprus (Macmillan is reputed to have autographed a souvenir copy).

Special Branch (1969)

The cages of Halhul, Palestine, 1939, photo documented by British soldier Arthur Lane, BBC

During this period, for reasons of credibility and audience recognition, torture and abuse would feature in all sorts of productions as either a central or a peripheral theme, including in The Brigand of Kandahar (1965), The Long Duel (1967) and the TV series The Jewel in the Crown (1984). In films such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Conduct Unbecoming (1976), Gandhi (1983) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969) the historical military/security apparatus would be the object of critique, and as The Hill (1965) demonstrates, it would often also function as a metaphor. Here the strict demarcations, brutalities and abuses of a military prison represent the structures of Western class and race oppression. Three years after Lawrence of Arabia, the racism depicted is even more overt.

The Hill (1965)

Forgetting History in Service of US Neo-Imperialism

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was one of a number of politicians globally who, seemingly organised to sing from the same hymn sheet, marketed joining the US war on Iraq as some sort of return to the ‘heady days’ of the Second World War alliance. Actually, Britons often had bad experiences playing host to white American servicemen during the Second World War, and had to witness attempted lynchings of Black GIs and attacks on Allied colonial troops. This was not unique to the UK. The Battle of Manners Streetin New Zealand occurred when white US troops attempted to race bar Māori New Zealanders from a Military Service Social Club. Race was also cited as a contributory factor in the rioting of The Battle of Brisbane.

Representing this, an attempted wartime dance-hall lynching appears in a scene from the Richard Gere vehicle Yanks (1979). Like Robin and Marian, this is a romance and a largely white, ethnocentric film—the featured African American characters have few lines. Yet this violent sequence is dropped into the middle of the romance as apparent social history. The scene seems to be saying that on the issue of race ‘we Britons are very different to Americans’. Twenty years after the Second World War, Harold Wilson’s Labour government would keep Britain out of the Vietnam War, so despite subsequent public relations, there was no supposed ongoing continuity of UK interests and American imperialism either. In this ‘different to Americans’ vein, following this sequence from Yanks is a clip from the Second World War documentary A Welcome to Britain (1943), in which actor Burgess Meredith explains for the benefit of American troops that there is social mixing with ‘coloureds’ here in Britain, the subtext being that US troops shouldn’t riot when they experience this.

Yanks (1979)

A Welcome to Britain (1943)

Generally, as evidenced from examples like Japan, Vietnam, the Middle East and elsewhere, the US has thrown out the Geneva Convention and much of the international humanitarian rule book whenever it defines particular groups of people of colour as its enemies. This means its current Western allies have found themselves in bed with a country practicing torture, and having their own standards corrupted as a consequence. But what sort of torture is being enacted, and whose model is being perpetuated here?

After the Second World War, the horrors of Nazism began to become public. The experiences of victims of torture began to be published, and material from the Nuremberg trials also started to enter the public domain. Fairly quickly, Nazi water torture and drowning tortures began to appear in filmic representations. Below are two examples from Circle of Deception (1960), starring Bradford Dillman as the victim, and Battle of the V1s (1959). When American authorities began to use these techniques they were rebranded ‘waterboarding’, as if they were some harmless leisure activity.

Circle of Deception (1960)

Battle of the V1s (1958)

Whereas Nazi torturers were represented as monsters, US interrogators in modern drama Zero Dark Thirty (2012) are depicted as bravely willing risk emotional damage and dehumanisation in order to get answers. And waterboarding as a practice was similarly sanitised. It does seem that we are back in an era where the military and security services can insert their narratives into certain Hollywood products as they do into the news media, using access/resources as carrot & stick. Some critics have cited Top Gun: Maverick (2022) as a recent example. The pseudo-respectability of this returning practice is largely due to the fact that it had a high point during the Second World War, prior to the emergence of the postwar counterculture. Koppes and Black, in Hollywood Goes To War (1988), have documented how the America’s Office of War Information could just about dictate what topics and branches of the services were given prominence in Hollywood film during this period.

It is also indicative of the extent of the news media’s ideological manipulations that Western political elite allies have gone to war alongside the United States despite America’s atrocities in the Vietnam War and elsewhere, including lending support to fascist and monarchal dictatorships globally. Clips even from most of the Hollywood films in this period and its immediate aftermath, including Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Deer Hunter (1978), are damning, and too graphic and age restricted to show here. One interesting oddity, however, is the western Soldier Blue (1970), which was released two years after the US military’s infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. This film asks some questions about the cultural DNA of the perpetrators by revisiting the similarly notorious Sand Creek Massacre of Native Americans in the 1860s. The film graphically represented rape and, as in US lynching culture, body parts being cut off and taken as souvenirs during the slaughter.

Soldier Blue (1970)

From Britain to the United States: Australia Fighting Other People’s Wars

Like Jack Straw, Prime Minister John Howard spun sending Australian troops into Iraq on the basis of Second World War nostalgia. Australia had similarly fought at the side of the United States in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975, unlike socialist traditionalist UK Labour Britain. Shortly after, New Australian Cinema produced two filmic critiques of the requirement to fight other countries wars: Gallipoli (1981) and Breaker Morant (1980).

Gallipoli features Anzac loss of life fighting for the British in the First World War, in what was one of history’s most arrogant and calamitous imperial military mistakes. ‘Can’t ask the men to do what I wouldn’t do myself’, states an ageing, balding, portly officer clearly physically ill-equipped for heroics but realising in solidarity that British attack orders mean certain death for his enlisted men. Breaker Morant is set against the backdrop of the Boer War. Britain’s violent colonial brutalities against equivalently racist colonialist Dutch Boar colonialists in this war—including a concentration camp system—drew contemporary global criticism. For international public relations purposes, the British needed to demonstrate they were a law-and-order power, so decided to publicly punish someone. This film argues they found Australians the most expendable. In this scene at the end of the film, the two central characters go to their executions holding hands like kindergarten children, suggesting that real solidarity is that which occurs emotionally between people, whatever their class, rather than the cosy deals carving up the world for territorial gain, made by great powers.

Breaker Morant (1980)

Ironically, in the twenty-first century Australia’s military has been accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan. You’d have hoped the lessons of imperialism and history would have been learned. If anything, though, past popular culture does demonstrate the importance of maintaining a critical cultural space and scrutinising the manipulations arising from the over-concentration of political and media power.

i Reference supporting sources: see Massacre at Ayyadieh, and World History see section Massacre of Prisoners, Graham Smith (1987) When Jim Crow Met John Bull. Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain.

About the author

Gavin Lewis

Gavin Lewis is a freelance Black British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race, and representation. He has taught critical theory and film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.

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