On screen, the Brits beat the colonies

New DVD releases of three famous movies illustrate the glories of classic English filmmaking.


April 22, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Americans' ambivalence toward things British is nowhere more pronounced than at the movies.

And as with the 1999 theatrical reissue of Carol Reed's "The Third Man," the new DVD release of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" should jolt movie-lovers into remembering the diverse virtues of classic English directors.

For decades, Lean was denigrated as impersonal or middlebrow. American filmmakers like Steven Spielberg swore allegiance to Lean's craft, and British filmmakers like Hugh Hudson ("Greystoke") and Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") tried, in vain, to emulate him. But film-school professors taught future scholars that Lean was a pitifully empty purveyor of high-class kitsch.

Sensibility and sensation

This bias is rooted in Americans' mingled love for and resentment of English culture. In his most famous essay, Philip Rahv, one of the founders of "Partisan Review," divided American writers into "Paleface" -- the author of keen sensibility -- and "Redskin" -- the author of passionate expression. He proclaimed Redskins "the true-blue offspring of the Western Hemisphere."

He didn't have to underline that two of his archetypal Palefaces, Henry James and T.S. Eliot, were Americans who fled to England. Americans have always held fierce conflicting feelings toward the British, our former colonizers and closest allies.

As far as our attitudes toward British and American movies go, Palefaces and Redskins more properly could be labeled Tories and Rebels. To appropriate Rahv's definitions: "At his highest level, the [Tory director] moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest, he is genteel, snobbish and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and the aspirations of the people, the [Rebel director] is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology."

Since narrative movies are, like jazz, a native American art form (as novels are a native English art form), film historians everywhere have usually been harsher on the "genteel, snobbish and pedantic" flaws of British movies than on the "aggression mixed with conformity" and "crude frontier psychology" of American movies.

A year ago, Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" dominated the revival scene. It was probably Hitchcock's defection to Hollywood in 1939 that sealed the textbook fate of British moviemaking. Hitchcock won the reputation of being primarily an American director, and the British movie industry won the reputation of not being sufficiently serious about frivolity to hang on to its most brilliant technicians.

This, of course, is the root of the Tory myth: that British films have always been bloodless, insipid, earnest, lacking the emotionalism and originality of Continental cinema and the hustling vitality of Hollywood's Dream Factory.

But British filmmakers of every era have found ways to echo and occasionally outclass American pop. Just think, currently, of that breezy single-girl laugh-and-sob story, "Bridget Jones's Diary." Only the most honored British films tend to fit the Tory / Paleface pattern.

And wild beauty and invention permeated even Tory filmmaking in its 1940s prime. Michael Powell, whose 1947 "Black Narcissus" blew away the other clipped films at last month's Academy Awards, was often berated in his own day for being too gaudy and unruly -- too "Hollywood." In fact, he had to be rediscovered decades later as a "personal" moviemaker. Andre Bazin, the critical inspiration of the French New Wave, once proclaimed that David Lean, perhaps the compleat Tory director, had hit on cinematic techniques so exact and expressive that they could be used "over and over indefinitely."

The DVDs of "Pygmalion," "The Third Man," and "Lawrence" cleanly demonstrate how Tory directors could beat Rebels at their own games.

'Deliciously low'

"Pygmalion" -- a 1938 Gabriel Pascal production, co-directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, with Howard as Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle -- adds emotional coloring to George Bernard Shaw's play without smothering it in chic the way George Cukor's "My Fair Lady" did. This movie doesn't muffle Shaw's cleverness, but it, too, is a popular entertainment, peppered with visual flourishes: Eliza's first bath is an inspired piece of slapstick, and Higgins' brutal phonetics lessons become the stuff of mad-scientist parodies.

The moviemakers -- who included Shaw himself -- gave Shaw's cascading words beguiling rhythms; the film was edited by, yes, David Lean, then a king of the cutting room, who, according to an onlooker, paced this ultra-talkie as if it were a silent. Howard is slender, light-timbred, and magnetic -- a Shavian Fred Astaire. He turns Higgins' intelligence into an invigorating spectacle of alertness and wit, coiled poses and barbed attitudes. And Wendy Hiller starts out more "deliciously low" than either Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn, only to grow into a regal womanliness.

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