Top 10 British Films Of The 1940s

Not before or since has the British film industry produced such timeless and brilliant films. The 1940s weren’t just a golden era for Hollywood, there were riches to be found in British film too.

Originally part of a shortlist for the best films of the 1940s, I struggled to cut the group to just ten. It quickly becomes apparent when looking at the films released during the decade that many of cinema’s most memorable, timeless and influential works appeared during the ten years between 1940 and 1949.

Deciding instead to create separate lists for the best British and American films of the decade, the following are some of the greatest works to come out of Britain during the 1940s. The sheer quality of the films featured below highlights the strength of the British film industry during the 1940s, a decade that perhaps has never been matched before or since.

10. Fires Were Started (Jennings, 1943)

fires were started, great british film,
Probably trumped by the Powell and Pressburger comic fantasies during World War II, Humphrey Jennings’ film is a more sombre look at British life in the face of conflict. Using real firemen playing fictional roles, Fires Were Started follows the men of a fire station during intense German bombing raids.

9. The Man in Grey (Arliss, 1943)

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One of the most popular films Gainsborough Studios ever released, this costume melodrama, for which British cinema became renowned for during the middle part of the century, follows the lives of two women (Phyllis Calvert, Margaret Lockwood) who pursue fateful relationships with two unscrupulous men (James Mason, Stewart Granger).

8. Odd Man Out (Reed, 1947)

odd man out, carol reed, james mason,
James Mason delivers a fine performance as an Irish republican who plans a robbery to fund his anti-British gang’s cause but ends up shot and on the run. This brilliant political thriller takes place over one night. It is given further resonance thanks to a thoughtful script that intelligently looks at morality and social existence.

7. Henry V (Olivier, 1944)

henry five, laurence olivier, film, britain, british, UK, england, english,
Laurence Olivier, whilst serving with the British Fleet Air Arm during the second world war, starred in and directed this wholly patriotic film from the play from William Shakespeare. The film is best remembered for its wonderful stylisation, Olivier’s powerhouse performance, and score by William Walton.

6. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer, 1949)

kind hearts and coronets, film, dennis price, alec guinness,
The brilliant Alec Guinness plays multiple roles in this early Ealing comedy about the cunning Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) who decides to kill all members of the D’Ascoyne family who stand in his way of his dukedom and the family fortune. This is a deliciously dark comic tale that has lost none of its sly sophistication. Alec Guinness is superb.

5. Great Expectations (Lean, 1946)

great expectations, film, david lean, great british film,
David Lean masterfully adapts Charles Dickens’ novel for the screen. He would do the same for Oliver Twist two years later. Great Expectations is widely considered the finest literary adaptation ever filmed.

4. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, 1947)

bacl narcissus, powell, pressburger,
Have you ever seen a psychological drama about a group of nuns in an isolated Himalayan convent before? Probably not. Powell and Pressburger’s film, based on the novel by Rumer Godden, features a wonderful performance from Deborah Kerr and an even better one from Kathleen Byron as the directors cook up an emotional tale of ambition, faith and eroticism.

3. Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)

brief encounter, david lean,
David Lean’s film was ahead of its time. It tells the story of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a housewife who meets a gentleman one day whose company she enjoys. Arranging to meet again, the pair soon find their relationship developing into love. But, as they are both married, they find that the relationship cannot go on if they are to avoid hurting their families. The film is based on Noel Coward’s one-act play from 1936.

2. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 1948)

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Written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale and follows the story of a ballerina who must choose between her life on the stage and true love.

1. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)

orson welles, carol reed, third man,
Argued by many as the greatest film ever made, Carol Reed’s The Third Man follows an American searching for the killer of his best friend in war-torn Vienna. Visually mesmerising, the film paints a bleak picture of post-World War II Europe as the story’s setting becomes a character in itself. It is also memorable for Orson Welles’ fleeting appearance. Recently, the film found its way into our Top 10 films to watch before going to film school.

What are your favourite British films from the 1940s?

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    DEZMOND Reply

    HENRY V is the only one I watched from this list, but you know epics and historical films are my absolute favourite! One of the memorable classics! I miss the old golden age of Hollywood with dramatic and luxurious epics. Today, most epics flop at the box office 🙁

  2. Avatar
    Max Reply

    I’ve seen and own 1,2, and 4. I would be very interested in seeing the rest especially the David Lean movies. Never heard of ‘Odd Man Out’. Does it come any where close to achieving the greatness of ‘The Third Man’?

  3. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    God, I’m ashamed to say I’ve barely seen any of these (The Third Man and Black Narcissus aside)….

    Must…. go…. get…. some…. DVD’s…..

  4. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Max: I don’t think many films reach the level of The Third Man but I would say if you are a fan of that film Odd Man Out is definitely worth seeing, as are all of these films. Odd Man Out is one of my favourite films starring James Mason.

  5. Avatar
    Andy Buckle Reply

    I haven’t seen all of these, but glad to see Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes included. Nice work!

  6. Avatar
    Scott Reply

    It is BAD that I haven’t seen any of these isn’t it?

    I am a naughty boy…

  7. Avatar
    antnield Reply

    Agree with almost all inclusions – but the order is entirely wrong! 😉

    Great Expectations, for me, is the finest piece of cinema these shores ever produced, with Fires Were Started coming a very close second.

    I’d also replace Black Narcissus with A Matter of Life and Death and include a second Humphrey Jennings: Listen to Britain, which is just magnificent.

    One left-field choice: John Eldridge’s Waverley Steps, which is a 30-minute ‘city symphony’ through the streets of Edinburgh. It really does deserve to be better known.

    PS: @Scott – shame on you!

  8. Avatar
    antnield Reply

    …and The Thief of Bagdad. How could I forget?!

  9. Avatar
    Jim (in Cocoa, Fl) Reply

    One of my personal faves is “Goodbye Mr Chips”! 1939. In my opinion
    it was much better than the Peter O’Toole version in ’69.

    So many great European movies; Pygmalion, How Green was my Valley,
    Mrs Miniver, just to name a few.

  10. Avatar
    Andy Bowman Reply

    Undoutedly, Great Expectations must be high on the list. Martita Hunt was never finer

  11. Avatar
    Andy Bowman Reply

    No-one can ever match the brilliant work of David Lean with such memorable movies like GREAT EXPECTATIONS, TIS HAPPY BREED, PASSAGE TO INDIA and OLIVER TWIST

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