Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film

James Chapman
2005

This book is an exploration of how British historical films have confirmed or confronted the idea of British national identity during their times. Chapman looks at a number of historical films spanning from the early 1930s to the late 1990s. Chapman places each film in both the context of the British film industry at the time and the wider social, economic, and political context. While I wouldn’t be looking at many of these same films, the contextual information for each decade from the 1930s to the 1990s is invaluable to me as I can apply it to my own analysis of the films that I look at that come out of Britain at these times, for example, Fire Over England (1937), Young Bess (1953), or Elizabeth R (1971).

Among the films Chapman discusses is Elizabeth (dir. Shekhar Kapur, 1998). This was a valuable chapter as it provided contextual, production, and reception information as well as analysis of the film itself. Interestingly, Chapman reads Elizabeth largely in the context of the legacy of Princess Diana who died tragically just days before the film began principal photography. He argues that outrage from historians and critics alike that the film depicted Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, as not a virgin at all can be seen as a desire to protect the national myth about Elizabeth I but also as a kind of proxy to defend the reputation of the late Princess Diana, another national icon. It is an intriguing reading that I will take into consideration. It would be interesting to think about how 16th century ideas about protecting a woman’s virtue and reputation are being invoked again at the turn of the 21st century for another female royal.

 

Chapman, James. Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film. London: I.B Tauris, 2005.