The big show: British cinema culture in the Great War 1914-1918

Michael Hammond,
The big show: British cinema culture in the Great War 1914-1918.
Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 85989 758 3
£45 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Exeter Press)

While film studies has traditionally been grounded in textual analysis, it continues to try out models for incorporating context and reception in its accounts of meaning production. Post-structuralism disputed the adequacy of textual structures alone, seeing films as sets of instructions needing subjects to complete them. While this gestured in the direction of audiences, there was still an overwhelming gulf between subjects of textuality and real historical people. The transaction between audience and film was still heavily weighted in favour of the text, which positioned subjects in a highly deterministic fashion. To the extent that these determinations were based on psychoanalytic theory, they were also open to charges of ahistoricism (as well as an increasing scepticism about the psychoanalytic project).

Cultural studies and reader-response theory have been the other alternatives explored by film studies to redress some of these problems. Here the grounding assumptions are not that films position subjects, but rather that they address audiences, constructing preferred readings but leaving space for a range of meaning making activities. One proceeds cautiously here, aware that the huge gaps in our historical understanding cannot be covered over by the simple invocation of the latest champion of French theory. Writers are now aware that audiences will vary in their historical and geographical diversity, but will also be internally differentiated by factors such as class and gender. In this line of inquiry, issues concerning the functioning of cinema are more likely to be seen as empirically researchable questions about distinct audiences. In this book the audience are even given names: Walter and Mabel.

These theoretical assumptions are at the heart of Michael Hammond’s The big show: British cinema culture in the Great War 1914-1918, which uses the British port city of Southampton as its focus for an investigation of the social function, the industrial organisation, and the contextual factors pertinent to the functioning of the British cinema during the First World War. The term British cinema is understood here in light of Andrew Higson’s consumption-based definition of a national cinema, which includes films circulating within a nation-state, regardless of the origin of their production.

The focus on Southampton provides an initial focus, though it is not maintained throughout the book. While the first two chapters use archival research among local press sources and trade papers to lay out the disposition of cinemas around the city and then attempt to distinguish the different tactics employed by cinema managements to position their cinemas in relation to local audience segments, the bulk of the book (the final six chapters) are taken up with the reception throughout Britain of individual films. These range from solemn war films such as the Roll of Honour tributes to the fallen, and actuality based films such as The battle of the Somme (UK 1916), to the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and imported super-films such as Griffith’s The birth of a nation (US 1915) and Ince’s Civilization (US 1916).

Hammond makes two significant contributions here to national cinema studies. Throughout the book he provides rich insights into the ways that those involved in film exhibition were attempting to re-position the cinema to ensure its social centrality while balancing the objectives of social uplift and restorative entertainment during a time of war. In shifting the balance from production to exhibition, Hammond shows that there is a major role for local agency at the level of exhibition and that theatre managers cannot simply be dismissed as compradors of Hollywood.

The second factor is his valuable emphasis on nationally specific contexts rather than nationally specific contents. He provides some marvellous instances of the ways in which imported films could be recontextualised by different audiences. The British reception of The birth of a nation, for instance, stands out for the way the film could be positioned as a triumph of Anglo-Celtic heritage over monstrous others – a distinctly different set of meanings from those which might be fore-grounded in an American context where the historical issues could not so easily be converted to contemporary allegories of the European situation. In that sense, this book is a significant contribution to those interested in taking a restrictive nationalism based purely on production out of the study of national cinemas, and opening this area up to the burgeoning interest in what happens to media texts as they cross national borders.

Questions remains, however, about the models of meaning production on which Hammond relies. Rather than breaking fresh theoretical ground, Hammond tends to cast around for his ideas, finding them in the work of Miriam Hansen, Janet Staiger, and Yuri Tsivian, who have themselves drawn on reception theorists such as Iser. The result is a proliferation of roomy heuristic concepts. While films might not dictate irresistible meanings, audiences are “encouraged” (14) to make sense of films by a range of textual and extra-textual factors. To account for the type and degree of such encouragement, Hammond has recourse to concepts such as “the homefront imagination” (5), “the imperial imagination” (52), “the melodramatic imagination” (121) and “the popular imagination” (206). You might trace a trajectory here from the Lacanian-Althusserian heritage of the Imaginary, through a post-Benedict Anderson period where there was a proliferation of different types of Imaginaries, and now to lower case i imaginations. Theory has gone down-market here in its attempts to find capacious concepts for describing the way that we can generalise about groups of people holding roughly similar ensembles of beliefs about the world.

Hammond makes other moves from emptied out psychoanalytic concepts to those found in contemporary cultural studies. So, audiences regard films with both a colonial gaze (57) and an investigatory gaze (88) which can then be processed through interpretive frames (86), tropes of reception (9), social horizons of understanding and expectation (83, 215) and more generally, cultural memory (100).

Hammond concludes his book by reflecting on his methodology as a “bottom up approach” (250) which begins from the local and from small scale observation. This is certainly the strongest aspect of the book and the one which makes it valuable to the increasing number of scholars working on local reception histories of the cinema, which deal with the social experience of cinema-going and with crucial local variations in the structure of exhibition and distribution. At other times when he jumps to large scale frames of explanation such as Benjamin’s interest in modernity (179) or Benedict Anderson’s interest in calendrical coincidence (222) he is straying back into the traditions of top-down theorising based on epochal descriptions of history attached to small textual details such as cross-cutting.

Mike Walsh
Flinders University, Australia.

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →