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The American ‘Occupation’ of Britain: Three films

Mark Glancy takes a closer look at three depictions of Britain's love-hate relationship with American GIs during the Second World War.

Published: September 2, 2010 at 9:13 am
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"It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now occupied territory,” George Orwell complained in December 1943. At that point, there were nearly one million American troops in Britain, and another 700,000 would arrive before D-Day. The authorities recognised that this influx would lead to tensions and, from the outset, films such as A Welcome to Britain (1943) – which urged GIs to behave as thoughtful guests – aimed to address the situation. However, other films tried to gloss over the difficulties and used comedy and romance to soften what was, by other accounts at least, a discordant cultural clash.


1. A Matter of Life and Death

Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946. With David Niven, Roger Livesey, Kim Hunter, Raymond Massey

By the end of the war, there had been innumerable films about Americans in wartime Britain, including the Hollywood films A Yank in the RAF (1941) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). The clichés about brash Yanks and restrained Brits were overly familiar to audiences, and so too were homilies about the need for postwar co-operation.

A Matter of Life and Death was vastly different from earlier films on the subject. This was partly because it was produced just after the war, and so the film-makers were less constrained by propaganda policies. It was also because Powell and Pressburger were Britain’s most imaginative filmmakers.

The one predictable element is that the future of the Anglo-American alliance is represented by a transatlantic romance. This was timely: tens of thousands of GIs returned to the USA with a British bride at the end of the war. And it is handled here without cinematic clichés. The couple’s fate does not hinge on any petty romantic misunderstanding, but is being decided in the ‘next world’. There, in a vast celestial courtroom, Anglo-American differences are thrashed out in a debate between an American Anglophobe (Raymond Massey) and his British counterpart (Roger Livesey).

The immediate issue is whether the British flier Peter (David Niven) should be allowed to live and be with the American wireless operator June (Kim Hunter). The larger issue is whether the two countries can set aside their animosities for the sake of peace.

It is perhaps the film’s bizarre plot that enables it to acknowledge some uncomfortable wartime truths. Not least among these is the number of young men killed in wartime service. There is a steady stream of youthful arrivals in the ‘next world’.

But is it accurate?

The film does not explore grievances arising from the ‘occupation’: the fact that American troops were paid three times what comparable British troops earned and that they were regarded by many as loud and ill-mannered. Furthermore, by having a woman as the main American character, it avoids the resentments that arose over American men pursuing British women.

Yet, with its awareness of the two countries’ differences, and their shared wartime sacrifices, A Matter of Life and Death is more potent than any other film on the subject.

Accuracy: 5/10

2. Yanks

Dir: John Schlesinger, UK, 1979. With Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Gere, William Devane

Made more than 30 years after the end of the war, Yanks casts a rosy glow of nostalgia over its portrait of American army troops stationed near a small Lancashire town. This is a war film with no battle scenes, but that is not a misleading way to represent the GIs’ experience of Britain in the Second World War.

Many of those who served in the army were waiting for D-Day, and most had a long wait indeed. Time was spent building camps and in training, but also on leave and seeking some recreation. This film is mainly concerned with the latter.

Yanks portrays three wartime romances between British women and American men: a middle-class couple (Vanessa Redgrave and William Devane), a lower-middle-class couple (Lisa Eichhorn and Richard Gere) and a working-class couple (Wendy Morgan and
Chick Vennera).

The emphasis is on Matt (Richard Gere), who plays a well-mannered, good-natured conscript from Arizona who falls in love with the softly spoken and very respectable Jean. Not much happens. Jean feels guilty about betraying her long-standing British boyfriend and her parents disapprove of her new romance, but the film is low key and proceeds at a stately pace. It does, however, boast a good period sense.

Wartime austerity is apparent, despite the nostalgia, and it looks appropriately grim and dull. The film also has a strong sense of place, enhanced by location shooting in Stalybridge, near Manchester. In 1979, critics found it overly sentimental, but audiences who enjoy historical romances were more enthusiastic.

But is it accurate?

The film has at least one scene that is altogether free of nostalgia. On New Year’s Eve, white and black American GIs inadvertently come together in a dance hall and a massive fight breaks out. This was an aspect of the ‘occupation’ that most feature films avoided.

The unpalatable truth was that the US military was segregated and some American whites (especially those who hailed from the south) reacted violently to seeing blacks treated with equality. Many Britons, in turn, were dismayed by American racism. Yanks captures these conflicts briefly but with a rare frankness.

Accuracy: 7/10

3. Memphis Belle

Dir: Michael Caton-Jones, UK/USA, 1990. With Matthew Modine, Eric Stolz, Billy Zane, Harry Connick, Jr, John Lithgow

This feature film is a fictional version of the wartime documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), which follows a real US bomber crew, stationed in Britain, on its last mission over Germany. The documentary was made by the Hollywood director William Wyler and it was designed to reassure audiences back home. Hence, the film emphasises that the crew are well-trained and carefully briefed.

There are decoy strategies to help them evade German fighters. The ground crew back at the base offer skilled support. Most importantly of all, the crew successfully completes its 25th mission, and thus its tour of duty, and returns to base safely.

Forty six years later, the director’s daughter, Catherine Wyler, teamed with the British producer David Puttnam to remake the documentary as a full-length feature film. The idea was not to recreate the exact mission: some details have changed and fictional characters are used instead of the real fliers seen in the documentary. Instead, the plan was to flesh out the original scenario, giving the men more individuality and the story more drama and tension.

The introduction of a sub-plot, involving a cynical army public relations officer (John Lithgow) who wants to exploit the crew for publicity purposes, is unfortunate. In a film emphasising the bravery and sacrifice of fliers, this is an unnecessary distraction.

The tone is uncertain, too. It is not clear whether the film-makers were attempting a taut military drama, or an epic tribute to those who served, but the film misses the mark on both counts. Nevertheless, the extensive aerial photography gives an idea of how harrowing these missions must have been – there are certainly no Top Gun heroics here. And, although the characters are rather simply drawn, the cast is full of charismatic young stars.

But is it accurate?

The fictional version has a few too many dramatic contrivances. Will the crew’s youthful favourite (Eric Stoltz) survive his injuries? Will the malfunctioning landing gear cause the plane to crash and burn? These twists do little to build tension.

Yet Memphis Belle at least shows American troops in action, playing their part in the war effort, and it avoids the ‘over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ clichés that usually accompany depictions of Yanks in wartime Britain.

Accuracy: 6/10

Other films about the American Occupation of Britain:

A Canterbury Tale

(Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1944)
Powell and Pressburger’s oddest film, featuring a ‘glue man’ who attacks women in the blackout, also has an American GI among its characters.

I Live in Grosvenor Square

(Dir: Herbert Wilcox, UK, 1945)
Anna Neagle and Rex Harrison play the very posh English couple whose romance unravels when she falls in love with a US Air Force sergeant (played by Dean Jagger).

The Way to the Stars

(Dir: Anthony Asquith, UK, 1945)
A wartime classic about the impact American airmen (led by Douglass Montgomery) have on a British base and nearby village.


Hanover Street

(Dir: Peter Hyams, UK, 1979)
Harrison Ford plays an American pilot in Britain who falls in love with a married British woman (Lesley-Anne Down) and is then sent on a mission behind enemy lines with her husband.


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