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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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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