If you really want to get a sense of British culture and history, let Hollywood help you. Each of these movies in its own way can help you gather new appreciation for the British heart, mind, and spirit.

  1. Peter O'Toole as Lawrence

    Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia

    Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole (Irish-British), Alec Guinness (British), Anthony Quinn (Irish-Mexican American), and Omar Sharif (Franco-Arabian); directed by David Lean. Columbia Pictures: 1962. This epic-length film (almost 4 hours long) won 7 Academy Awards – including Best Picture – 19 other awards, and had 12 more nominations. Set in the Suez Canal area during World War I, the film is an historical action-adventure account based on part of the military career of author, poet, and intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence. It gives a sense of British pride and might at the height of the British Empire and of the rigid, dispassionate British military order set against the passionate, sensitive, caring genius of one army lieutenant (Lawrence, played by O’Toole). In history, Lawrence was a controversial figure, and this film successfully leads one to an ambivalent relationship toward the character of Lawrence. You cannot help but love the dash, passion, grit, and humanity of Lawrence as he leads Arab tribes against the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire. But by the time the story is told, you also cannot help but wonder what his problem is. In many ways, the character of Lawrence is a reflection of the best and the worst of the British Empire as an institution. A GREAT movie.

  2. My Fair Lady  starring Audrey Hepburn (English-Dutch), Rex Harrison (British), Stanley Holloway (British), and Wilfrid Hyde-White (British); directed by George Cukor. Warner Brothers: 1964. This long film (almost 3 hours) won 8 Academy Awards – including Best Picture – 14 other awards, and had 10 more nominations. This musical comedy is based on the George Bernard Shaw play, “Pygmalion,” which in turn is based on the Greek myth of the sculptor who falls in love with his own creation. The entire cast is British, the humor is British, and the entire proposition of the story line could only take place where a British idle class has nothing better to do than to place a wager on a language professor’s proposition that he could so educate a crass, illiterate, low-life gutter snipe  that he could pass her off as royalty. Set in London, early twentieth century.
  3. Waking Ned Devine starring Ian Bannen (Scottish), David Kelly (Irish), and Fionnula Flanagan (Irish); written and directed by Kirk Jones. Fox: 1998. This brief (91 minutes) comedy didn’t even receive an Oscar nomination, but it won 8 other prestigious film awards and as many other nominations. Beneath the outrageous plot (winning the Irish Sweepstakes and dying of shock), a keen sense of modern life in the simple and impoverished Irish countryside peeks through.
  4. Braveheart starring Mel Gibson (American), Sophie Marceau (French), and Patrick McGoohan (American); Icon Entertainment International: 1995. Rated R for depiction of brutal medieval warfare. Historial fiction based on the 13th century Scottish uprising against England led by William Wallace.
  5. The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, and Richard E. Grant;  Film 4: 2011. Released January 13, 2012, winner of two Academy Awards and 12 others. Meryl Streep won Best Actress for her portrayal of Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Nice contemporary examination of British politics and culture.
  6. Robin Hood. Hollywood loves to do versions of this tale set in late 12th and early 13th century England during the reigns of Richard the Lionheart (son of Henry II) and King John of Magna Carta fame. Most recent are the Russell Crowe – Cate Blanchett version from 2010 and the Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio version of 1991. The generic theme is very British (and resonates with Americans): A commoner who steals from corrupt barons to improve the lot of  the poor.
  7. A Knight’s Tale starring Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon, Paul Bettany, Laura Fraser and Mark Addy; Columbia Pictures: 2001. This production was winner of four prestigious awards and another 10 movie nominations. This action-comedy is “inspired by” a Geoffrey Chaucer story of the same name, included in the Canterbury Tales. In this version, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the characters – a writer who plies his gift to forge a pedigree for a peasant squire.
  8. Becket, starring Richard Burton (Welsh-English, Oxford scholar), Peter O’Toole (British), John Gielgud (British); Paramount Pictures: 1964. This movie is based on the real-life 12th century friendship of King Henry II and Thomas à Becket that turns into a tragic rivalry as the boyhood friends mature and pursue separate paths as a king and a saint. The martyrdom of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral set the stage for the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and was also the raw material for T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. This Hollywood rendering of the story, starring three of Britain’s greatest actors of the mid twentieth century, garnered 12 Oscar nominations.

    George III

    Amanda Donohoe, Nigel Hawthorne, and Helen Mirren in The Madness of King George.

  9. Madness of King George, stars Nigel Hawthorne (English), Helen Mirren (English-Russian) and Ian Holm (British)  directed by Nicholas Hytner; MGM 1994. This film is based on the life and illness of King George III (monarch 1760-1820), who is suspected of having a blood disorder that drove him insane. The movie is an exploration of the vagaries of power. Won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and 15 other major awards.

Shakespearean plays on film

Underpinning every Shakespeare play is a current of English sensibilities. For example, no matter how dark the tragedy and how rampant chaos runs through the action (as in the play Hamlet), there is always someone in the wings to restore order (as in Fortinbras in Hamlet). Other English sensibilities permeate the craft of the Stratford Bard, and many of his plays have been set to film. Some run very close to the Shakespeare script, others take great liberty.

  1. Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and John Leguizamo; directed by Baz Luhrmann. Twentieth Century Fox: 1996. While much of the original dialog is preserved in this movie version, the setting and props are 20th century surreal Baz Luhrmann. This version won no Oscars (although it was nominated for sets and scenes), but did win 13 other awards and 20 nominations in various contests. In some ways this is a test of how adaptable the Shakespeare script is to settings radically departing from the original. Not my favorite.
  2. Romeo and Juliet starring Leonard Whiting (British), Olivia Hussey (Argentine) and John McEnery (British); directed by Franco Zeffirelli. BHE Films: 1968. The script for this film version of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy adhere’s very closely to the playwright’s original – including even the Prologue and Epilogue. But the camera work – the cinematography – set such a stunning standard that it won an Academy Award. The party scene where the “star crossed lovers” first meet is still a standard in most film schools. This is my favorite R&J.
  3. The Taming of the Shrew starring Elizabeth Taylor (English-American) and Richard Burton (Welsh-English, Oxford scholar); directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Royal Films International: 1967. This two-hour Shakespeare comedy about the battle of the sexes received two Oscar nominations. The stars were both big box office attractions, were married and divorced from each other at least twice, and clearly enjoyed doing this play for the big screen. A lot of fun. Director Zeffirelli (see Romeo and Juliet above) is widely respected for his adaptation of Shakespeare for the big screen.
  4. Much Ado About Nothing starring Kenneth Branagh (Irish-English), Emma Thompson (English), and Keanu Reeves (Lebanese); directed by Kenneth Branagh. Renaissance Films: 1993. This classic Shakespeare comedy revolves around mirroring plots of matchmaking, romance, and again the battle of the sexes. The songs (Including “Sigh No More”) are Shakespeare’s own and perfectly applicable today. This too, is lots of fun.
  5. Henry V is a 1989 Kenneth Branagh interpretation of William Shakespeare’s history play about a king who leads his army into war with France as a result of a personal insult.
  6. Hamlet. This Shakespearean tragedy and psychodrama has been made into a movie about as often as any drama ever. In 1996, Kenneth Branagh wrote this adaptation, directed it and starred in it. This rendition was nominated for four oscars and won several other awards.

Arthurian Legend

Many scholars agree that there really was a warrior-king upon which the legends of King Arthur were based. Over time, and with repeated tellings, tales of the late fifth – early sixth century hero were embellished and took on a life of their own. The list of books, short stories, poems, songs and movies about Arthur, his court, his knights, his sorcerer (Merlyn), and his sword (Excalibur) would fill a sizable library. Here’s a few worth noting.

  1. Camelot, starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; directed by Joshua Logan; Warner Brothers / Seven Arts: 1967. This musical rendition of romance and intrigue in the court of King Arthur won three Oscars and several other awards.
  2. Excalibur starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, and Nicholas Clay; Orion Pictures: 1981. This slice of the legend of King Arthur focuses on the key personalities of Arthur, Guenivere, Morgana, Lancelot, and Perceval. The title is the name of the mystical sword given by the wizard Merlin to Arthur’s predecessor. This picture was nominated for the best cinematography Oscar.
  3. King Arthur starring Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, and Keira Knightley; directed by Antoine Fuqua; Touchstone Pictures: 2004. Although this film received no Oscar nominations, it did well at the box office and received other awards. The attempt of this film is to create a realistic portrayal of the legendary king and of the politics and power struggles of his time.

Films set in England: