The Graduate (1967), dir. Mike Nichols


The Graduate is one of the greatest films ever made. Landing with Embassy in summer 1965, The Graduate was a major success, opening in 950 cinemas and grossing $35 million dollars; Nichols won an Oscar for Best Director. In a 1968 press release, producer Joseph E. Levine described the film’s success as “like an explosion, a dam bursting”, predicting the film would become “the highest-grossing film in motion-picture history”. But The Graduate was equally shaped by the experimentation emerging from the French New Wave, on the cusp of the emergence of New Hollywood amid transformations in technology, film schools and American counterculture. As Mark Harris explores in Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood (2009), aging executives and the commercial failure of big budget family friendly musical spectacles like Doctor Dolittle left room for new voices. But as Nicholas Godfrey writes, many of New Hollywood’s lesser-known works display “formal and thematic adventurousness that far exceeds the ambition of the films now typically identified with the New Hollywood canon”, offering “stylistic maximalism” and “politicised self-critique”; the influence of Godard is “difficult to perceive”, accounting to a “general loosening of intellectual shackles”.

The Graduate was shaped directly by its period. Nichols had directly engaged with the Civil Rights Movement: as he tells in Mike Nichols: An American Master (2016), he performed with Elaine May at Selma, recalling the 20,000 marchers and people fainting. Jacob R. Brackman describes in his illuminating New Yorker piece the “national nervous breakdown”. In his 1987 audio commentary for the Criterion laserdisc, Howard Suber notes a scripted deleted scene with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) hitchhiking.

“Why aren’t you there?” the man would have asked, again and again, referring to, but significantly never mentioning the word “Vietnam”.

“Because I’m here,” Ben would have replied.

As Frank Rich notes, the characters are “uniformly upper-middle-class (or wealthier) and white”; Benjamin never smoked pot and doesn’t fear the draft; Berkeley’s students are “unreconstructed frat guys” from “the Eisenhower fifties”. Brackman offers a different picture, celebrating the film’s “look of today”, arguing the Berkeley students aren’t from a “dozen years ago”. But as Harris writes, “Eisenhower was barely out of office when Webb had first gotten the idea for his novel” (2009:122); Doris Day and Reagan were considered for the Robinsons.

Upon release, The Graduate created a cultural conversation. As Harris describes, “the film’s release marked the first time in many years that so many American moviegoers had felt the direct sting of a generational insult” (2009:381), becoming a hit amid college students and baby boomers, no longer relying on the epics and musicals their parents chose for them (2009:382). As Suber notes, what was new was “how many people there were”; Braddock’s peer group had increased by 60%, the amount of college students doubling. Writing in Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner notes students at Columbia University in spring 1968 “took turns sneaking out of the occupied president’s office to go see The Graduate”. But some objected to the lack of radicalism; as Brackman comments, the “subversive message” is that you “cannot sustain an opposition to America”; youth must “find someone to submit with”.

A 21 year-old graduate from Williams College, the same college author Charles Webb graduated from, Benjamin Braddock conduits the anxieties and uncertainties of drifting in an uncertain world. According to Harris, Nichols saw Braddock as “Holden Caulfield’s literary descendant” (2009:50), over a decade after The Catcher in the Rye (1951). As screenwriter Buck Henry tells Harris, him, producer Lawrence Turman and Nichols saw themselves as the “protagonist of the book” (2009:119). But Hoffman’s casting was controversial: speaking in American Film in 1979, Levine thought Hoffman was a “plumber who had come to fix the leaks” (2009:276). Hoffman returned to New York registering for unemployment (2009:311). Speaking in a 2007 commentary with director Steven Soderbergh, Nichols described Hoffman’s as “organic”; he never contemplated “changing anything” in the industry of stars.

Benjamin’s awkwardness and isolation is rarely captured on film. Hoffman “worried about his ability to manufacture nervousness on camera”, shaking through “the entire movie” (2009:311). In a deleted scene from the screenplay, Benjamin is shown giving his valedictorian speech (2009:291), but Nichols introduces Benjamin as an emptier slate. In the opening, we pan out from Ben upon the airplane, as the intercom announces their descent. He stands in isolation, down the escalator against the white wall; luggage reiterates his isolation, asking if the tags match, when Ben has no match of his own. At his parent’s house in Pasadena, this isolation becomes pronounced. Family friends list off awards and accolades: a track star, the college newspaper, debating club. Mr McGuire attempts to seduce Benjamin, suggesting a career in plastics. Suber notes a deleted scene from the screenplay where a “miniature set” depicted mute adults as “giants” hosting a dinner party. But his life is his own. The camera moves through upstairs, drifting through like Ben. Production designer Richard Sylbert achieves genius in Benjamin’s room: a fish tank, dartboard, model ships, sailboats and a globe, juxtaposing an outgrown childlike sense of play and yearning for escape; a framed picture of a sad clown in the corridor reflects his inner state. In reflections upon the glass aquarium, Buck Henry sought to convey “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in synch with” (2009:314).

But perhaps one of the most well executed elements is its use of the family pool as communal space. In his commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols recalls conflict with Turman over the scene in the wetsuit, wanting to create an image of Hoffman as a “creature in the corner”. Shot through an Aeroflex camera, we follow Benjamin through first person perspective, forced into the water by his parents. As Suber parallels, both The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) encased its protagonists in “technological apparatus”, focusing on “deep, aspirated breathing” to reflect “a combination of terror, isolation and imminent suffocation”. The Graduate is built by images; as Harris notes in Scenes from a Revolution, Sylbert wanted a “colder, more muted palette” that “refract[ed] Los Angeles through a prism of East Coast amusement”, photographing “every ostentatious new faux-whatever mansion with a swimming pool” in Beverly Hills they could find. One deleted scene from the script panned out in a helicopter to reveal 30 identical homes and pools. Speaking in a 2007 audio commentary with Katharine Ross, Hoffman comments he “had been born into a generation not dissimilar to this”, his father a Depression baby embracing materialism and consumerism; Nichols and Hoffman wanted to depict drowning around the “worship of objects”. Benjamin must negotiate his relationship with his parents: he sits by the pool sunglasses on, unable to see their faces. As he shaves by the mirror, steam engulfing the room, his mom pries into affairs; learning to shave, but still cutting his thumb. Over breakfast, his mom mixes pancake batter, acting as a clear family construct; suggesting he get with Elaine (Katharine Ross). At the suggestion of marriage, his mom lets out an excited screen; as the phone is picked up, the toast pops, right on cue.

Benjamin exists within a liminal space, without purpose: he sits in his bedroom watching TV over a beer, needing to get off his ass. Benjamin has expectations of what life has in store for him, but cannot put his finger on it; as Nichols tells Soderbergh, those “who expect wonderful things have serious problems”. Author Charles Webb remembers his mundane existence before the film’s release, stocking perfume in a Pasadena department store, working as a shipping clerk and in life insurance. The disillusionment of Benjamin extends beyond the generational sense of loss of 60s youth and an unclear path in life; as Harris writes, Nichols realised Benjamin was a “Jew among the goyim”, “a visitor in a strange land” (2009:319), mirroring his adolescence as an immigrant from a German mother and a Russian Jewish mother growing in Berlin. As Nichols recalls in An American Master, he attended a “special Jewish school”, remembering “Blackshirt kids taking my bike”. As his boat from Germany departed, he stood as he listened to Hitler’s “unintelligible” speech. Speaking in Vanity Fair, Nichols remembers the Bremen landing in New York, shocked by a “delicatessen with Hebrew letters” and “Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola”. Hoffman experienced anti-Semitism through his childhood and casting, living in “anti-Semitic neighborhoods” in L.A., returning to those same neighbourhoods where he felt aware “of how different I looked from them” that he’d escaped in New York.

Pursuing a secret sexual relationship with family friend Mrs Robinson (Anne Brancoft), Benjamin adopts a pseudonym as Benjamin Gladstone. Nichols underlines neat juxtapositions through his awkward comedy: elderly couple pass at the hotel entrance, a vision of the age that will meet him one day; crossing between contexts, the clerk (screenwriter Buck Henry) asks if he’s “having an affair”; the party mistakes him for a porter. Benjamin’s sexuality is covert: communicating with Mrs Robinson over the payphone asking for the room number; taxis and guests crowding around the booth. The immaturity of his rite of passage is a mess of contradictions; the act of booking a hotel room is a sign of status and adulthood, devalued by his inability to interact with hotel staff. In the Soderbergh commentary, Nichols comments the young man/older woman formula is a “classic situation” and how “most guys started their sex lives”; it “happens again in every generation”. Driving in his red Alfa Romeo across the sunset bridge, moving through trees, green lawns and night gives a feeling of freedom. We speed through the climax, running out of gas and running out of breath.

Both Mrs Robinson and Benjamin negotiate power dynamics. As an older woman, Mrs Robinson has power and allure. During one scene in rehearsal, Hoffman describes “break[ing] the scene” as both him and Nichols cracked up; he “stood against the wall” and “started banging my head”. Benjamin’s relationship has foundations within immorality, but Mrs Robinson never acknowledges her own power, victim blaming and twisting Benjamin into a “rapist”, becoming increasingly acidic. Dave Grusin’s score underlines their generational difference, utilising a jazzy music cue. But Benjamin looms over with the upper hand, decrying her to Hell as a “broken down alcoholic”, their relationship the “sickest, most perverted thing that ever happened to me”. When he tells Elaine it’s all over, it “was just something that happened”. The stresses and anxieties of the past become just another anecdote.

Mrs Robinson’s coercion should not go unacknowledged. As Ben takes her home at night, it’s under the guise of protection, feeling safe with the light on; she offers a drink attempting to seduce him; violates his own private space; she enters the room naked, appealing to her own desires. She asks Benjamin if he would like her to “seduce” him, throwing back Ben’s question as though appealing to his desires. Surtees and costume designer Patricia Zipprodt are immaculate in using setting and outfit to reflect character, from Mrs Robinson’s black dress to leopard skin coat; she sits on her black sofa watching TV with bourbon, greenery overgrowth behind her; Sylbert wanted to literalise the image of Robinson as a wild beast. In the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols points to the fact he had “months and months” to prepare, allowing thought to be taken into strap marks visible on Mrs Robinson. Mrs Robinson still has her story: the cigarettes she smokes, her fractured marital relationship, her tears as Nichols moves out from her crying face, her abusive scream as Ben tries to tell his own story. Her husband’s initial brief interactions with Benjamin communicates perfect dramatic irony and comic timing, giving Benjamin relationship advice on women filled with assumptions, suggesting he “ought to sow a few wild oats” and that he has to “fight ‘em off”; Benjamin responds with emotionlessness. As Mrs Robinson recalls the conception of Elaine in the back of a Ford, Benjamin must deal with the reality of Elaine’s age and the nature of their relationship. Nichols creates suspense: as he confronts Elaine about his relationship with her mother, Mrs Robinson’s head appears in the doorframe, foreshadowing Jack Torrance’s murderous rampage in The Shining (1980). In his commentary, Suber emphasises Mrs Robinson’s and Benjamin’s separate narrative arcs: Ben’s narrative is a comedy, ending in “integration and fulfilment”; Mrs Robinson experiences tragedy, ending in “alienation and frustration”. Mrs Robinson is a narrative function as the active agent and aggressor; at the pivot, Benjamin “seizes control” of “destiny”.

Elaine is introduced from the beginning: in Mrs Robinson’s bedroom, a picture of Elaine sits behind them, watching in in plain sight. The 60s bought its own wave of films about love, sex and relationships; The Graduate is but another lens to express values about sexuality and relationship politics, positioning marriage as a rite of passage. As Hoffman notes in his commentary with Ross, Benjamin’s dates with Elaine carry a 1950s vibe, going to a drive-in burger place; as he describes, they’d be “Republican kids”. Benjamin is rebellious, driving across the curb; taking her to a stripper. On the Boulevard, Nichols captures a documentary quality, moving past young teenagers through a long lens. Elaine’s presence allows for a different environment in which to view these characters: the study halls and sports halls of the University of California, shot over 1 day without permission in the Berkeley campus. But Benjamin and Elaine have little chemistry; Benjamin has few date ideas besides coffee; he stares at her across campus through a fountain. Elaine’s relationship with Carl becomes a perfect Redford stand-in: blonde, inoffensive, walking through the zoo as Benjamin stalks her. Marriage carries uncertainty: Ben’s conversation with his parents about his intention to marry is a masterpiece in comic diffusion, stressing his “half baked idea” is “completely baked”, before admitting “she doesn’t like me”. In bed, as he asks her, tired and asleep, yawning and embracing; she tells him “I don’t know”. Their screwball comedy-esque wedding has become the centrepiece, shot with a focus on close-ups as Ben screams for Elaine. The final scene parallels Elaine’s earlier departure on the bus, Ben running runs after her. They sit in silence, uncertain of their future. As Nichols tells in the Soderbergh commentary, the ending was “created by my unconscious”; rather than laughing, they look terrified and upset. As Nichols concludes, his “definition of shooting a movie” is to shoot “until something happens than no one could have predicted”.

Benjamin’s relationship with Mrs Robinson opens a question around what sex represents. In the age of the production code, sexuality was repressed, but as the production code tore itself apart and foreign cinema pushed boundaries, The Graduate allowed shock cuts to the breasts of a stripper substituting for Bancroft. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in a contemporary review in New Republic, the “moral stance” is “refreshing”, accepting “a young man might have an affair with a woman and still marry her daughter”, though “[m]oral attitudes” are “getting stricter and stricter”. As he concludes, beyond the “moral revolution” of “contemporary American fiction” from decades ago, cinema makes these statements “intrinsically new and unique”.

Mrs Robinson realises it’s his “first time”, stressing it’s “nothing to be ashamed of”. Benjamin’s inexperience plays in subtle movements: unable to take hangers off the rail, touching her breasts, undoing her zip, but without devolving into lewd sexuality. In the bedroom, Surtees uses shadows; Benjamin kisses Mrs Robinson, inhaling smoke. Nichols took advantage of Hoffman’s experiences: he asked him when he first had “any action at all” (a junior high production of The Jazz Singer, performed in blackface) (2009:294) and his struggles buying rubbers from a female clerk (2009:310). In the novel, Benjamin spent three weeks on the road post-graduation, admitting to his father he slept with a few prostitutes. By removing this backstory, Nichols elevates Benjamin’s awkward inexperience around sex to a place of greater universality; more people have had bad, awkward sex or should expect bad, awkward sex than have slept with prostitutes. Nichols was caught between two uneasy places: an industry of sex comedies that, as Harris writes, featured “as little sex as possible” (2009:313), and a film under Levine that didn’t feature sex, with Levine suggesting an arthouse poster with Hoffman and Bancroft naked (2009:361). Writing in the Vanity Fair piece, Turman recalls novelist Calder Willingham’s “vulgar” draft of the screenplay, incorporating “gratuitous homosexual and man-woman sex.” Benjamin seeks human connection within a relationship that cannot allow it: he wants to “liven up a little conversation”, before finding there’s nothing to talk about. As Kauffmann writes, the film’s “sexual dynamics” allow Benjamin to “assess and locate himself in every aspect” in identity formation, beyond the “sexual sphere”.

Perhaps one of the most important elements is the soundtrack, using a selection of songs by Simon & Garfunkel. But The Graduate isn’t a Simon & Garfunkel film, without the commercial backbone of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) though still promoting an artist and album in the process. Though some films play best in silence, a good soundtrack isn’t just interested in the charts, but in consistency. Simon & Garfunkel’s split might still feel tragic, but their 6 years together produced gems; my parents grew their relationship together to Simon & Garfunkel, and did the same to their kids.

The recurring theme of The Sound of Silence, cutting between the blackness, the pool, water and reflections, reflecting Benjamin’s “deep depression” of his “emotional suicide” of “fuck[ing] Mrs. Robinson” (2009:360), and its return in the final scene, and Scarborough Fair during the montage at the zoo, are incredible beyond words. During the final race to the church, Simon riffs along, in the zone. As Hoffman recalls in his commentary with Ross, Nichols told Hoffman the film has “no second act”; the “second act is Simon & Garfunkel”. As Nichols tells in his commentary with Soderbergh, Paul Simon “was so clearly Dustin’s voice” because his voice was still “searching”. Nichols had listened to Simon & Garfunkel as a morning ritual (2009:358), the duo receiving $25,000 and reaching the top of the billboard.

Having trained in theatre, Nichols embraces the theatricality of cinema in his attention to performance and small details, through 3 weeks of rehearsals (2009:290) and 100 days of shooting. Speaking in An American Master, he recalls being stunned when he first saw A Streetcar Named Desire and the power of its performances. But The Graduate is equally made by visuals, with freedom to move and shoot from a long distance that would continue through New Hollywood in films like The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Surtees pays close attention to the sun and rain, reflections upon the hotel table upon Benjamin’s meeting with Mrs Robinson and in the car window, and the dimmed lights as Elaine’s father confronts Benjamin. Kauffmann enthused of Nichols’ formal effects: his “expansion and ellipsis”, “subjective time” in sound editing and the “balletic”, “quintessential rhythms” akin to Kurosawa. As Brackman enthused, Nichols was like “a child who has been given a great many presents at once”, discovering the “camera will do all sorts of remarkable stunts at his bidding.”

Speaking in in the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols cites the long takes and filled frames from A Place in the Sun (1951), and Preston Sturges’ endless shots where it felt “like something really happening”. Speaking in An American Master, Nichols rejects the notion of auteur theory. Nichols argues “French guys with cigarette ashes all over them” had “misunderstood the whole thing”, whilst “ignor[ing] our greatest directors”. As he concludes, whilst “[o]ne man can’t make a movie”, the film itself has to “come from one mind”.

When I first watched the film aged fourteen, the same year I watched Metropolis (1927), Modern Times (1936) and Seven Samurai (1954) for the first time, I was transfixed by how radical its filmmaking style felt. But I’d already been introduced much earlier: in The Simpsons (1989-present) episode Lady Bouvier’s Lover (1994), the closing scene in the church is transposed with Grampa and Jacqueline Bouvier, complete with a parody rendition of The Sound of Silence. The Graduate has lived on in the popular consciousness: Saving Face (2004) modelled its final act on the church in The Graduate, using the same tropes to explore 21st century Asian American lesbian identity and generational love. The Sound of Silence has become one of the most precious memes. But The Graduate’s power has never left.


Persona (1966), dir. Ingmar Bergman


By the mid-1960s, Ingmar Bergman had other responsibilities, heading Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater. As he wrote in Images: My Life in Film, the theater was in “an advanced state of disintegration”, without a repertoire or contracts. (1990:44) He was lost. But Bergman found Persona the film that “saved my life”, proving he wasn’t “all washed up”. Shooting over two months in summer 1965 in the Filmstaden studio and Fårö, Persona’s experimentalism might suggest an atypical work, but Persona has the pathos and character that define Bergman, exploring the interior of the soul. As Alma (Bibi Andersson) reads aloud about anxiety, Bergman focuses close attention upon Fårö’s landscape of rocks. Equally, Alma’s admiration of religious belief carries shades of Bergman’s exploration of loss of faith. Through Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), fears of pregnancy and stillbirth equally mirror Marianne and Evald’s nihilistic conflict over her pregnancy in Wild Strawberries (1957).

Persona’s chilling early scenes in hospital reflect Bergman’s state as he wrote the screenplay. Wanting to develop a project entitled The Cannibals with Andersson and Ullmann, Bergman was confined to the Sophiahemmet royal hospital with pneumonia and penicillin poisoning. Over 14 days, Bergman wrote the screenplay for Persona from hospital. Early scenes are largely silent, framing clinical shots of bodies in a morgue in abstract close-ups; immobile vessels of bodies become another part of nature itself. A young boy rises, eyes opening; he puts on glasses, reading a storybook in bed. He moves his hand out to a screen, reaching out to us. In hospital, Alma and Elisabet develop a caring mutual relationship. But the hospital is also a place of routines, meticulously applying make-up and peeling potatoes, in constant search of something to do. The future and marriage stand off in the undetermined.

The young boy reaches his hand in the morgue out to us

Alma and Elisabet find escape, moving to a house by the sea with company where they have freedom to read books. They become adoptive sisters; Alma has never had the opportunity. Although some might perceive a queer element, Bergman largely frames their relationship as explicitly sisterly. Alma speaks of past relationships, powerfully recounting a sexual encounter: a boy fucked her and her friend on the beach, leading to her impregnation and abortion. Her description is never fetishising nor titillating: she recalls each action with detachment, as he moved against her body and came. Particularly for American audiences, these scenes would have been shocking: in the last days of the Production Code, Hollywood still attempted to cling onto morality around sexuality. Alma speaks of an abortion as no big deal, never maligned because of it. Bergman asked Andersson to rerecord her performance in the mixing studio, allowing for greater intimacy than in the original scene.

Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) develop a sisterly relationship

Bergman creates a ghostly environment within the house, rain hitting the window; both women walking through the night in white nightdresses amid the sound of foghorns. But their relationship is quickly tested; Elisabet writes personal information about Alma in a letter, details she trusted her to tell no one about. Andersson and Ullmann’s visceral performances carry the weight of the film, truly sensing discomfort as their relationship falls apart. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist pans through trees and the beach in a rush, Elisabet running away from Alma as she attempts a needed apology. The final scene is of loss: Elisabet packs her bags, walking by the ocean in the opposite direction to Alma in the prior scene, waiting for the bus with her luggage. It is a resolution of simplicity, but nonetheless effective.

Persona is equally about our and Bergman’s relationship with cinema. The working titles, Cinematography and A Piece of Cinema, emphasised this connection more explicitly. In the opening, we witness the physical process, self-reflexively looking at filmstrips, white lights, sprockets, scratches and the countdown as the reel begins. Bergman intersperses shock cuts to a wide selection of images: frames from a cartoon, a clip of skeleton costumes framed by a white border, an erect penis (censored from initial US and UK releases), guts spilling out a slaughtered animal, a tarantula walking across the white screen, an impaled hand with a nail akin to Jesus’ crucifixion. In less than a minute, Bergman encompasses almost every genre: animation, farcical silent pantomime, pornography, documentary, monster movies and religious parables. Bergman establishes images of its landscapes: trees covered in snow; a close-up of a gate. Through the boy, offering circularity as he reaches his hand out in both the opening and closing, Elisabet’s face as an actress, moving in and out of focus, Bergman, as Thomas Elsaesser writes, presents cinema as “the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s selfhood and identity”, separating body and image. As Elsaesser writes, Bergman follows Brechtian distance and “modernist self-reflexivity”, approaching film as a mirror alongside the techniques of the French and Italian New Waves.

Persona’s editing is decidedly experimental. In the opening credits, not only are colours inverted, framing black text against a white background, but Bergman follows a rhythm between fractions of a second, prefiguring film with images of a monk on fire, a lake of water, character faces, a policeman’s chase and so on. Midway through, Bergman uses a technique similar to the reveal of editor Yelizaveta Svilova assembling frames in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), before revealing the film fully cut together. In a moment of crisis, the frame splits, unable to process elevated drama, fracturing not only friendship but the physical film, an element lessened by subsequent digital releases and screenings. As editor Ulla Ryghe recalls of the premiere at the Spegeln cinema on 18th October 1966, film cans were marked with red labels as projectionists feared the film was burning up. In their confrontation, Bergman draws a parallel, juxtaposing faces against each other whilst moving across time, takes and performances.

As an actress, Elisabet is a product of cinema. We’re introduced to Elisabet as star, performing a role in a production of Sophocles’ Electra: she smiles, lights behind her and bathed in make-up. Bergman never tells us much about her, rarely elaborating on her background or co-stars, instead communicating her identity through images. Persona explores the economy of images and its relationship with the eyes. Old performances are transmitted on television as Alma watches, immersed, with the indignity of the passage of time, captured as cinematic beauty for eternity; Elisabet judges herself against the standard set by a film years ago.

Elisabet is a product of the cinema

The insular hospital becomes penetrated by television: Elisabet watches coverage of a burning monk in protest against Vietnam. In an incredible wide shot, she backs away from the television, unable to comprehend what she is witnessing, broadcast across the world. Around the same time, a similar scene plays in Night of the Living Dead (1968): the seclusion of the house anticipates the threat through continual coverage of chaos outside. As theorists like Marshall McLuhan began to question the media we consume, Bergman questioned the world we formulate in images. As Bergman wrote, his films “cannot melt, transform, or forget”, but he “shall never rid myself of those images”. American cinema’s reaction to contemporary events was slow, struggling to find relevancy before New Hollywood began to emerge. But within the elevated production of Swedish cinema – writing screenplays quickly, turning around filming and editing in a few months – Bergman responded to the chaos around Vietnam succinctly and effectively.

Later, Bergman plays a similar scene, cutting as he zooms closer and closer into the small details of a photograph of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland surrounded by SS, his fate predicated within an image itself. The image alone might reveal little, but surrounding context tells us this boy is likely dead. On the beach, Alma shoots her camera out at us, capturing an image of the audience watching the film, as though we are another rock in the landscape. In the reunion with Mr Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) towards the conclusion, Bergman invokes sight, an essential element to the process of watching. Touching his face and removing his tinted glasses, Vogler might be blinded, but is still able to sense the physical world.

The photograph of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto highlights our relationship with documented conflict

As he wrote in his essay The Snakeskin, Bergman felt creativity as a “sort of hunger”; his cinema “communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies” in a “rage”. Bergman began to question why he made films or staged plays. Laying in hospital, he had “driven all my engines at top speed”, shaking his “old body until it fell apart.” (1990:51) Persona is Bergman’s reckoning with his career, leaving open many masterpieces to come.

Monterey Pop (1968), dir. D.A. Pennebaker


Premiering in a new 4K restoration by Janus Films and Criterion and presented with a pre-recorded introduction by 91-year-old director D.A. Pennebaker, Pennebaker has been working tirelessly on presenting Monterey Pop in its best possible version. Held in the Monterey County Fairgrounds from June 16-18th 1967 to an audience of 50,000, producer Lou Adler sought a friendly, non-commercial environment where artists played for free and profits went to charity, no artists receiving top billing.

Thinking back to the late 1960s, it’s easy to romanticise: its inhabitants become caricatures, preaching about free love and peace, smoking dope, yelling groovy. 16mm creates a historical distance: it lacks the immediacy of digital, noise allowing a trace to the photochemical process but also displaces the film from the present moment. Rather than focusing upon artists alone, Pennebaker intercuts close-ups of the crowd, presenting a shared social space. Some subjects perform to the camera; others are caught unaware. People might seem eccentric: a man wears a top hat; clothes bathed in colour; a woman wears flowers in her hair; another man wears a pinstripe suit; a mother carries her baby in a homemade pouch; a monkey eats food standing on a man’s shoulder.

But the festival, in its ethos, doesn’t seem so far from Glastonbury or others today: watching the people within the frame, we see people who could be us. Behind the clothing lie people with similar values, aspirations, fears and desires. There might not be cellphones recording every performance live on Snapchat, but it isn’t so different technologically either: Jefferson Airplane use fragments of film in screen projection, prefiguring modern LCD screens and more elaborate set-ups. We pan by tents and stalls selling posters, art prints and zines; people stitch together colourful kites, an entire subculture long forgotten. Audiences embrace music, feeling individual relationships with the artists. Pennebaker portraits couples in love: cuddling, making out, laying next to each other, a generation that have grown up, broken up, aged or died, but aren’t so different from the young couples learning love and learning life at festivals today.

As Kevin D. Greene writes, baby boomers at the festival felt “resentment” against an “era of unparalleled affluence”, in a background of the Cold War, assassination of JFK, Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Pennebaker finds narratives, conducting interviews with the crowd: he interviews a police chief, concerned about numbers attending and the Hell’s Angels, in a decade defined by riots and clashes against police. A woman cleans up litter, as Pennebaker focuses upon the immensity of empty seats all around. Their generation had their own battles for individual autonomy, before our modern battles for identity politics. Some attendees might seem surprising: Pennebaker captures young kids, Hells Angels, African Americans and Asian Americans, beyond our preconceived notion of a white, young adult monolith.

In his 1969 essay Anatomy of a Love Festival, Robert Christgau wrote that the “love crowd is America’s affair with bohemia”: attendees weren’t just hippies or “lost kids”, but liberals, college instructors, and “everyone who smokes pot, and in California that happens to be a lot of everyone.” Christgau recalls taking a ride back with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness couple that asked if the concert attendees believed in God; Christgau didn’t have an answer.

Pennebaker focuses on the mundane: eating food, finding shelter from pouring rain, lighting cigarettes; Pennebaker closes the gap between present and past, as though history hasn’t changed. Attendees inevitably held onto their own mementos and memories for the rest of their lives, but Pennebaker captures a photographic memory of shared space, creating, as Matthew Eng writes, “moving scrapbooks”, offering a “multiplicity of perspectives” amounting to a “democratic document” that mirrors the festival itself.

Monterey Pop has one major difference from Pennebaker’s most intimate works, Dont Look Back (1967) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), never offering the same unprecedented backstage insight that defines him. Monterey Pop lacks a negotiation between artistic persona and human being that captured Bowie looking into the mirror applying make-up, or Dylan interacting with fans and journalists. Pennebaker emerged from television, working with Time-Life and ABC on Primary (1960) and the innovation and portability of 16mm news cameras. Pennebaker worked alongside 6 cinematographers and documentarians, including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles with 5 cameras and 4 track tape recorders, lacking synchronised sound, leaving them alone, supplied with rolls of film. Pennebaker’s most recent film, Unlocking the Cage (2016), still reveals a strong directorial voice, following an animal rights lawyer whilst making a coherent argument around a fascinating subject, without demarcating an obvious, un-contestable position.

Direct cinema might seem outmoded in an age of immediacy of daily vlogs and Instagram, but recent documentaries like Weiner (2016) follow similar principles, creating a developed portrait of a personality beyond the constantly shifting present. Our iconic images of the 60s seem authorless, a predestined record of time ingrained within national and global memory, but each image has an artist, director or photographer behind it: people like Abraham Zapruder, Eddie Adams and Steve Schapiro. Documentary cinema and photojournalism are processes, based upon what we choose (or are able) to capture. Direct cinema affords an interesting relationship to history: Medium Cool (1969) intersects along both the reality of the chaos outside the DNC and the film’s fictional narrative.

Monterey Pop exists in a place between concerts photographed today, with neither the extended duration of live TV broadcasts nor the condensed coverage of vlogs or newscast montages. Pennebaker allows a structure to emerge, condensing 3 days into an 80-minute piece, allowing intermissions as days close and mornings rise: people wake up in blankets, put on pants; an airplane sets down on tarmac. At points, the film seems amateurish: other cameramen appear in shot, perching their tripod upon the roof. From the opening, there’s a home movie quality: text appears on screen, not in type but handwritten marker pen scrawled across screen amid psychedelic flashes; after the credits, the reel dissolves into burns and scratches. It’s not so far from the casualness of Dylan holding up an endless stream of cuecards to Subterranean Homesick Blues in the opening to Dont Look Back. Concert films have many approaches: Sign o’ the Times (1987) may not be the most radical, but conveys clear choreography of Prince’s theatrical spectacle.

Monterey Pop may not be as narratively involving as most cinema, but it doesn’t need to be. The film feels like a compilation with a curated selection of tracks, letting artists guide the viewer along. Many artists seem familiar: Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Jimi Hendrix. Some are remembered more vaguely: The Mamas & the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Ravi Shankar. But who remembers Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela or Eric Burdon? Instruments and genre might represent the biggest difference from today, before synth, sampling, punk or heavy metal.

The opening shots might seem overly sentimental: Pennebaker traces arriving crowds as Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) plays over, but Pennebaker quickly launches into performances. The Mamas & the Papas offer circularity, appearing early and performing again towards the close, dressed in Russian clothing defying comprehension. Others become overblown through the limitations of 16mm, drowned by light: Simon & Garfunkel are scarcely visible, covered in red lighting; Otis Redding is captured from behind, white flashes encompassing his face. Some are welcome surprises: Jefferson Airplane transcend the limitations of Jefferson Starship in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) through the enjoyable High Flying Bird; Eric Burdon covers Paint It, Black, though unable to rival the iconic Rolling Stones original. Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain never leaves the mind, portraying powerful intensity that can never be matched, concealing an internal struggle.

My Generation by The Who and Wild Thing by Jimi Hendrix become easy rivals to Jim Morrison’s on-stage anarchy: at the end of their performance, The Who smash their guitar into shards, never giving up, as security and stagehands walk in to chaos, genuinely confounded. Hendrix grinds into his amplifier, has sex with his guitar and sets it on fire, threatening to leave the entire stage and electrical equipment aflame with it, before throwing the lone remnant of the guitar into the audience. But Ravi Shankar offers some genuine calm: Pennebaker surveys his audience, sitting in prayer or content with the present moment, bored or waiting around, holding on Dhun for the duration of the performance as he plays his transcendent sitar, something never heard before. As Christgau wrote:

It isn’t likely that a third of those present had more than the most rudimentary understanding of what was going on. But Shankar played to his audience.

Monterey had some setbacks. As Rolling Stone reported the following year, a backlash emerged from an “ugly collection of voyeuristic “taxpayers””, arguing the festival “resulted in sale of pornographic literature, trafficking in narcotics, an invasion of “undesirables,” and “open fornication”, that may not have been entirely inaccurate. Its artists represent a generation soon lost: Hendrix, Redding and Joplin passed within only a few years of the festival, gone too soon – something uneasily familiar to Pennebaker with his short Lambert & Co. (1964), film becoming a document of the transient. Monterey and Pennebaker set a high bar for the music festival and concert film that may be difficult to ever top.

The 10th Victim (1965), dir. Elio Petri


A particular strand of science fiction is built upon a certain question: what would happen if society’s morality became unbound, creating a culture of legalised killing? In The Running Man (1987), the arena between life and death becomes state-sanctioned reality TV entertainment, with the garish aesthetics of a game show. Battle Royale’s (2000) mass violence restages this moral question as high-schoolers fight to the death upon an island, inspired by Kinji Fukasaku’s experience as a teenager in World War II. The Hunger Games (2012) situates itself as a futuristic, downtrodden dystopia, its young inhabitants randomly selected as tributes, but remains limited through its younger audience. But perhaps the most bizarre rendition of this question is The 10th Victim.

The 10th Victim is unable to escape its aesthetic; its aesthetic is its reason for being. The 10th Victim relies upon the garishness and absurdities that dominate late 60s cinema. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) cradles a robot doll upon his chest. Bras conceal guns. An alligator is bathed in water. Saxophone plays stand motionless upon a podium, as action moves on around them. A house is surrounded by limbless statues. Part of the film’s joy is in its vision for the future, just as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) predicted the evolution of television. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) combines its 1960s fashions with tablets and modern passport control.

Is it the future, or is it 1965?

The 10th Victim delivers a futuristic vision, with white backgrounds, city steps and computers. Petri drowns certain shots in yellows. PanAm flights land upon American tarmac; Marcello wears cool, suave sunglasses; women wear white dresses; telephones look like game controllers. Marcello is in love with The Phantom, his favourite comic book. Parts feel like an early James Bond film: both the gadgets of the Sean Connery series, and the absurd colours and throwing everything at the wall of Casino Royale (1967). As we witness the training programme, other hunts going on around parked cars, it feels as though we’ve stumbled on Bond’s training at MI6, with Q offering an array of fantastical gadgets. A cigarette is lit from a lighter emanating from a metal claw. Caroline (Ursula Andress) customises one-of-a-kind body armour to protect herself, invisible and matching her skin.

The training sequences feel like something out of a James Bond film

Beyond its aesthetic, The 10th Victim asks questions. The 10th Victim captures a world in transformation, a hyperbolic version of the present reality. Marriage becomes a casual affair, moving between wives in rapid succession. Weddings are held on aeroplanes. IVF has given rise to a generation of women born from stem cells. Service stations are no longer a place for petrol and a bite to eat, but a place for sex amid a selection of prostitutes, where Marcello pulls a Holden Caufield, finding space to hide in a room but without desiring sexual contact. Looking out to the golden sunset of the beach, a regime of murder becomes justified by a religious cult, worshipping the sun in translucent robes with bathing suits underneath, as onlookers throw tomatoes. The 10th Victim’s youthful mortal fear isn’t so far apart from Logan’s Run (1976), where the state operates on killing its population at 30, leaving the ruins of old age as a hermit in the remains of Washington DC.

Murder becomes justified by a religious cult

The 10th Victim begins questioning the role of the media, in a world where Marshall McLuhan’s own theories around the role of television, radio, newspapers and other mediums were gaining traction as a celebrating scholar. A giant, moving eye watches from the bedroom as a piece of abstract art, as though it were the eye of Big Brother. Caroline shoots with both her gun and her camera. Death becomes an act of performance to play towards the camera. After shooting a young Hamburg man as victim at a horse race, Marcello becomes met by constant questions from interviewers, but objects to the constant barrage. The television offers an all-seeing eye, as monitors spy on Marcello. At the Colosseum in Rome, we acknowledge a history of performed violence going back millennia. The aerial helicopter flies over Rome’s fountains, squares and churches, surveying the best location for the cameras. Death becomes a media spectacle and commercial, staged with elaborate teacups, signs and cheesy dialogue for the Ming Tea Company.


The 10th Victim’s most gripping sequence might be it’s opening, as we follow an Asian man’s desperate escape from death on the streets of New York City, seeking the help of a cop, intercut with the rules of the game laid out in exposition. We feel his pain as he is killed by a woman in the Masoch Club. The 10th Victim imbues itself with a socio-political reality still relevant today. America is presented as a space of violence: guns are openly carried in hunts on the streets of New York, as though the assassinations of the 1960s and the school shootings today weren’t enough. Rome becomes caught behind restrictions: churches and restaurants refuse to allow hunts to be committed in its spaces, as though its restrictions were as simple as no smoking signs today.

Hunts are openly committed in the streets of New York City

Our animal instincts regress through state sanction, hunting game transposed against humanity itself. Where does the difference and boundaries lie? Murder becomes perversely justified: in the wake of World War II, expressing our rage and inhibitions in a controlled manner stops wars. Even Hitler would have been a member, we are told. Marcello and Caroline turn their brushes with death into a flirt, imbued with sexual tension, staging elaborate ruses and fake-outs until Caroline eventually succumbs to fate, Marcello heralded by the media. Or does she? Neither of our protagonists can escape the clutches of death.

My 2016 in Film

It seems almost customary at this point to slate 2016. But I feel like so many people are taking the message of newspaper headlines, memes and viral videos wholesale, without pausing to reflect on how it was for them.

Yes, 2016 seemed to have tragedy after tragedy. The deaths of not only cultural icons like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher, and film directors like Arthur Hiller, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Guy Hamilton, but also people who changed the world: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Vera Rubin. Politically, the world became divided by Brexit and Trumpism, against the backdrop of the assassination of Jo Cox, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and further ISIS attacks in Europe to shake the world, with Aleppo under siege.

But the world will always have to face new dangers. As time moves on, more icons of the 1960s and 70s will pass on. We have seen the rise of right wing populism before, just in different forms. Yet in my personal life, 2016 has been a pretty good year.

I came to terms with my asexuality. I decided to become vegetarian (and, possibly, on the verge of being vegan). I made more friends than I’ve ever had before, whilst finally settling into a degree I actually like. I helped launch a film society, and watched more films than I’ve ever done so before. I travelled more, from Dublin to Barcelona to Béziers, and my new favourite place in the UK, Brighton. For once, I’m actually feeling pretty comfortable with life.

In terms of culture, 2016 has been a brilliant year: in music, Blackstar and You Want it Darker closed out the decades long careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in a beautiful way. Lemonade and Blond revolutionised not only style, but also how music is distributed. Over in comic books, Paper Girls and Kill or Be Killed told engaging new stories which I love to my very core. As much as one might proclaim the death of cinema, 2016 saw so many strong films, like The Neon DemonI, Daniel Blake and Paterson (although some like Moonlight still await a UK release), that it becomes difficult to keep up. Meanwhile, labels like Criterion and Indicator launched in the UK, bringing more and more films out as the best they’ve ever looked.

Whilst other end of year summaries seek to examine 2016 as a whole, I can’t do so in good conscience. I can strongly advise that you stop everything you’re doing right now and watch Weiner, Baden Baden and Your Name. But I’ve simply not watched enough, still waiting to see releases like Silence and Manchester by the Sea in the coming weeks and days, that my list will never tell the whole story.

Because my film consumption isn’t linear, not based on what new releases are out in the cinema or on Netflix, but shifting between decades, directors and genres. Some I write reviews of – but for some, it might take days for my thoughts to settle in my mind, or I don’t have enough of something unique to say about it to sustain a whole review. So, over the next week or so, I’ll be highlighting some of the best films I watched in 2016 that I might have overlooked before.

The 1920s

The Epic of Everest (1924), dir. J.B.L. Noel

Everest has captured our imaginations more recently with Everest (2015), about the tragic 1996 expedition, but The Epic of Everest should go down as the definitive film about the mountain. Beautifully restored by the BFI in 2013, it charts the 1924 expedition by Mallory and Irvine, who died during the expedition. Although the film conforms to the ethnographic impulses of other films of the period like Nanook of the North (1922), creating a portrait of another culture through the perspective of the other, the film’s illustration of the customs of the Tibetan people are not its main draw.

Instead, the film becomes its most haunting in its presentation of the mountain itself. As Mallory and Irvine go missing, we painfully wait until, if ever, their bodies are found. We become aware of the etherealness of life against an unchanging landscape, in a beautiful red-tinted time-lapse of the mountain. As the best of silent cinema does, the image transcends itself, becoming almost otherworldly. The Epic of Everest has been overlooked for a long time, but it is a fascinating cultural document, preserving a period in history which deserves to be seen.

The 1940s

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

It seems easy to dismiss WWII era cinema as pure propaganda. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) seems almost alternative universe fantasy, as we see three Nazi officers crossing over the ocean to Newfoundland, hiding amongst the Canadian people and attempting to cross over the American border. It seems equally easy to dismiss WWII cinema as the purview of daytime TV, playing to older audiences who just about have a memory of the war. But Powell and Pressburger were masters of their day, and A Matter of Life and Death is no different.

The end of the Second World War acts as only a backdrop to wider events, as we see a pilot (played by David Niven) split between the afterlife and his miraculous survival, washing up on the English coast. Invoking spiritual and supernatural themes might seem less in vogue nowadays, outside of explicitly Christian cinema by the Kendrick brothers or PureFlix, but stories of afterlives and angels pop up everywhere from Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) to lauded classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But A Matter of Life and Death is more than these things: it’s a love story.

But A Matter of Life and Death deserves technical praise too. Shot largely in three-strip Technicolor, its use of colour is beautiful (and deserves the best quality version available, with an abundance of public domain copies out there), in spite of it clearly being an early and not fully developed use of it. Depicting the afterlife in monochrome might seem like a money saving process (If…. (1968) did similar), yet it lends it an ethereal quality, outside of the more grandiose depictions of Heaven, framed within the scientific universe as another planet far away. The film’s final act might feel like a courtroom drama, but it remains intensely watchable, and in light of Brexit, the discussions around national identity feel highly relevant.

The 1960s

Easy Rider (1969), dir. Dennis Hopper

Contemporary critical responses to Easy Rider seem split between regarding it as a cultural landmark, launching the New American Cinema and turning Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda into iconic names, and by dismissing it as an overextended bore where nothing happens. Born to Be Wild has dug itself into popular culture, used in every single kid’s film trying to be edgy.

Easy Rider is an acid trip of a film where nothing much happens, but that is the beauty of it. We join these three characters on the open road, where their lives are destined to be unpredictable. Like with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral (1969), the American landscape takes on an almost spiritual quality as our protagonists move through it. In the film’s most mesmerising scene, we join our protagonists in their acid trip, edited in what today would probably just be a music video. Alongside its soundtrack, combining music by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf, the film becomes an easy film to just slip through.


Medium Cool (1969), dir. Haskell Wexler


Medium Cool is of its time. This is not a criticism; it is its reason for being. Its genre is difficult to categorise, because it throws convention out of the window. In essence, it becomes a ‘time capsule’. It encapsulates a period where narrative is not necessarily its most important element, and is decidedly experimental.

Having never existed in 1969, I cannot fully judge how well it captured the period, only speculate. We see strobe lit raves with live performers singing about hippies and psychadelia within politically charged lyrics); a modern, more casual sexuality; campaigns for Robert Kennedy’s election; MLK’s speeches about finding the kingdom of God; lake-side baptisms; civil rights protestors; dominant police forces; the role of a cameraman; run-down, minority neighborhoods, defined by early seasons of Sesame Street  (1969-present); Eddie Adams’ iconic ‘gun to the head’ image from Vietnam, reproduced from magazine pages on John’s apartment wall.


There are still pertinent questions here. Our image of MLK today relies upon forgotten aspects: we remember “I have a dream”, but we forget that he was a reverend, powerful within the spiritual part of the black community; too we forget the more vitriolic speeches, and we forget his equally important peers. The film raises questions around civil rights protesters, drawing parallels with modern fights for equality, and the post-Ferguson consciousness around police brutality. Where a black woman demands her voice be heard in the media, and let her define her own identity, these battles are still not won. When a child bemoans the dominance of the television in classroom, not as an educational aid, all I can think of is how in high school I had substitute teacher lessons watching everything from Mr Woodcock (2007) to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2008). This is not the same world, nor a different world.

Photographic and videographic journalism faces new dangers today: more prevalent, but also more risky, war journalists captured or murdered by ISIS. The film presents us with the idea of respect with the cameraman: both giving respect to your subjects, and being respected. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, we see a black protestor lecture our protagonist; another man speaks, with a color photograph of MLK behind him on the wall. In the confrontation with the police, the cameraman becomes an obstruction.

Eileen searches through the crowd of protestors to find her boy, only to be enveloped into them; a bystander becomes the guilty. She stands apart from them, with her bright yellow dress creating a contrast; she has individuality, yet is simultaneously a part of a mass consciousness. Like the degrading “human interest” stories the Black Panthers speak of, the narrative of the film is a “human interest” story, profiling characters as a means of exploring a wider issue, of creating a connection with the audience. Eileen is our interest amongst an indistinguishable crowd; too often we think of mass crowds, rather than acknowledging that there is a story, a personality and a history behind each protestor.

The camera plays an interesting position here. We frequently break the fourth wall, with John speaking into the camera, or by looking at a cameraman, staring out at us. We are ‘filming’ by watching the film, creating a record of it through our lenses (our eyes) within our memory; but the camera pointed towards the cameraman is doing the same, albeit in a physical manifestation as a negative; the camerman is doing the same through his camera. In a sense the subject becomes active; the disconnect between cinematic reality and our reality become lost. The film’s cinéma vérité style never truly creates the feel of documentary because of its character driven narrative, yet there is also a sense of immediacy, especially during the scenes of the convention.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), dir. Richard Attenborough

Unlike other stage to screen adaptations like Les Misérables (2012), awkwardly using the gritty aesthetic of a war film, Oh! What a Lovely War remains theatrical in its film version. The wooden floorboards of the Brighton Pier become a makeshift stage for the film’s events, a variety music hall transfiguring the mundane and everyday into symbolic objects: marionettes into soldiers in the game of war; rifle ranges become guns in the trenches; binoculars on the pier become a lookout post. It becomes a wraparound for vignettes from throughout the war, from early negotiations through to its aftermath.


The audience is positioned within other stages too: Maggie Smith’s character’s performance in the theatre to a watching audience (both us as viewers and the theatre audience in 1914); the vast, cavernous enclosed spaces of the train station, full of extras; the white walled palace of the opening scenes, where the nations of Europe negotiate, so bare that it is a theatrical set in itself. Scenes merge from one into the other: fireworks transform into shellfire in moonlit trenches, as easy as a brief costume change or a change in set dressing; with no physical movement but an illusion achieved in seconds.


Attenborough’s visual style helps make the film. His compositions are perfect, riffing on paintings and creating multi-layered images with depth. The film is rife with symbolism, owing much to theatre. There is a recurrent image of soldiers as poppies, holding them before they go to their deaths. In death, they are given red blankets to cover their corpses.

Musicals have never appealed much to me; even the most well-regarded films of Rodgers and Hammerstein, like The Sound of Music (1965), bring actual pain. There are still songs here which make me want to gag, but the incorporation of soldiers singing songs of the time in the trenches create a sense of realism into a highly stylised film.


In some ways, a feminist portrayal of war is created. Not only does the Brighton Pier create a stage for the audience, it also creates a portrayal of the war back home, concurrent to life in the trenches – the southern coast away from the western front. War interrupts the end of the ‘golden’ Edwardian era: families on a June day by the seaside exist side by side to the patriotic marching band, the king’s men who become soldiers in combat.


In this world, women thrive. The suffragist movement, so often overlooked or considered in isolation: Pankhurst’s death, or the victory in 1918, are considered apart from the war, rather than an essential part and consequence of it. A campaigner is given the expected vitriol given to all conscientious objectors at the time; by the film’s end, the men have been buried in white, unmarked graves – with the white specks of the women of the family remaining in focus; women have ascended past the war.


Its satirical edge may not be the most accurate portrait of the war, promoting an image of an incompetent British Army that is not the entire truth; events like the Christmas truce exist somewhere between apocrypha and reality. But it creates a compelling attack on war, even outside of the musical numbers, through a heavy sense of juxtaposition. It could easily descend into offensive territory, belittling human suffering in the way The Producers (1967) satirised through its fictitious musical Springtime for Hitler, yet it never quite gets there.