The production code and a Promising Young Woman

Despite the lurid poster, the film is notable for its restraint on a difficult subject.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In some dreary and anonymous urban bar, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is way too intoxicated to know what is happening around her. She seems hopelessly drunk at a bar. A male customer offers to take her home to ensure she is safe. The man then changes tracks and invites her to her apartment first. He then makes sexual advances to her comatose form. At that point, he realises that not only is she not drunk, and he is a potential sexual offender – and not the nice guy he imagines himself to be.

Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s ambitious first film Promising Young Woman is a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film. The central character Cassie was a ‘promising young woman’ when her friend was raped, which caused her friend’s and also her own breakdown. Cassie leaves her high level medical career to work in a coffe shop, while living at home. She remains highly embittered by the attack and vows revenge on the killers – and men who take advantage of drunk women.

The film is well made and astonishingly tense depiction of a troubled young woman. It also has elements that stretch back to the depression era films. The Production Code of the 1930s was issued to help the film industry avoid a raft of state and federal censorship. It was a type of industry self-censorship to forestall government intervention.[1] Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice, the major Hollywood studios used the code to deal with the pressure from religious lobby groups. The code developed real teeth later in the 1930s, and films could not get a release if it violated its rules. Rape and depiction of rape were highly sensitive topics of the period. Some have argued that the Production Code meant that directors and writers were far more careful and clever in the way they depicted

While no code is in place now, as it fell apart several decades ago, Fennel employs an impressive array of techniques to depict the impact of violence, without showing it. She shows that an intelligent director does not have to be explicit.

Alexander Heller-Nicholas’s survey of rape-revenge films mentions a whole stratum of these types of films, arguing that Thirteen Women was an early example of rape-revenge film. It is certainly a distant ancestor of a Promising Young Woman. The 1932 thriller film directed by George Archainbaud did not explicitly depict rape, but the film provides clear evidence that the attack or attacks occurred. The film also even repeats the “We were young,” defence that the witnesses and the rapists employ in a Promising Young Woman. [2]

A distant ancestor of Promising Young Woman was Thirteen Women. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Of course, the Me-too Movement’s politics in 2021 is a world away from the Production Code of 1930, and some aspects have altered markedly. The rape is the now central incident in the film – there is no veiled references. What is remarkable about the film is that while the topic is odious, the depiction of sexual violence is kept to a minimum. Fennell prefers to allow the audience to project their fears rather than depict the incidents. Aside from one scene, the film is an exercise in restraint.

The writers of the production code may not have liked the nudity or the violence – very subdued by today’s standards – but they would have understood the ending and it could have got the code’s stamp of approval. Each of the people who allowed the rape to occur unpunished receives some form of retribution. One of the basic tents of the code was that overt act against the law would be punished.

Unfortunately, under the code, anyone who commits a crime must also pay the price, and Cassie is guilty of a host of offences in her pursuit of revenge for her friend. The framers of the production code would understand her penalty as a suitable corrective to anyone who considers breaking the law.

The code is still hanging in there, even in 2021.


[1] Motion Picture Association of America, A Code Governing the Making of Motion Pictures: The reason supporting it and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. 1930- 1935,

[2] Alexander Heller-Nicholas, Rape Revenge Film: A Critical Study, London: MacFarland, 2011.

Godfather, Sopranos, and Suburra: Blood On Rome

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Melbourne, Australia

Suburra continues the transformation of Gangsters that began in The Godfather (1972) .

The year 2020 saw the release of The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, which is a re-editing of The Godfather Part III, originally released in 1990. The third part of the Godfather trilogy was always the most maligned of the Godfather set of films. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) are well entrenched in the cinematic canon, but the third suffered in comparison. Director Ford Coppola has re-edited the film with a new beginning and end. Critics have said it is a modest improvement on the previous version. Its release almost certainly denotes the final chapter of the most influential and important film series of the 20th Century.

With less fanfare, the year also saw the end of the Italian TV series Suburra: Blood on Rome (2017-2020), which concluded its run with a climactic shoot-out. While radically different visions of organized crime, both Suburra and The Godfather upended a long-held tradition in Hollywood films, where criminals tended to be brought to justice in the last reel. Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) were remotely based on figures such as Al Capone of the Prohibition era. Acting under the production code, all of them suffered the consequences of their law-breaking. However, audiences in the Depression still identified with their willingness to go outside the traditional system’s bounds to make a living. [1] The films of this era saw the gangsters and the law in direct opposition.

In the 1970s, with the release of the Valachi papers, and the realization of the Mafia’s workings, this formula underwent a radical shift, with the gangster now a respected member of society. Indeed, the way the gangster image has evolved reflects how we have moved as a society. In The Godfather, the Don’s immediate successor Santino Corleone is violent on occasion. Santino nearly beats his brother-in-law to death for striking his sister. He is much closer to the cinematic psychopaths of the 1930s, and he is passed his use-by date.

Vito Corleone is a controlled and intelligent killer. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The other Dons: Vito and Michael, kill for business or honour, as do their opponents. Santino is not seen as “a good Don” because he fights with a violent passion. He needed a practical approach as declared by their enemy Sollozo, the Turk. Sollozo told the Corleone family lawyer Tom Hagen: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman; blood is a big expense”. Neither of the other Corleone dons is likely to lash out for no reason at all or to even respond to a simple provocation. Murders are simply cold and calculated efforts to achieve practical goals.   Michael shoots the Turk and his police captain bodyguard to protect the family and to save his father. From that point on, Michael certainly uses his newly attained power to murder opponents or traitors, but always for “business” reasons.

Director Martin Scorsese took some elements of The Godfather and made it his own. His gangster world is lower-middle-class, and it has a violent edge. However, being a gangster is also fun. Brian Phillips has argued that Goodfellas (1990) is the bridge between The Godfather and the crime families that emerged in the TV series Sopranos. “Goodfellas is far more than a transitional film, but it does link the past and the future in some important ways. If it’s true that every great work of art ends one genre and founds another, then Goodfellas could be seen as the culmination of the tradition represented by The Godfather and as the vital link between the New Hollywood cinema of the ’70s and what we now think of as the golden age of TV.” [2]

Building on the world created by the Goodfellas, the TV series The Sopranos (1999 to 2007) focused on a more middle-class setting in New Jersey. While Michael Corleone strived for upper-class respectability, Tony Soprano has no such pretensions. As a physically imposing man, Tony Soprano used his stature and threats of violence to run a criminal enterprise. At best, Tony Soprano barely manages to keep his modest middle-class facade intact – needing some psychological support to do so. The Sopranos has no intersection with the political world, other than some links to the union movement. Unlike the Corleones who appear untroubled by the police or government, Tony Soprano and his group appeared doomed to either death or imprisonment. The Sopranos stripped away any sophistication or style from the image of gangsters.

With the end of the Sopranos in 2007, there seemed to be no likely successor to the organized crime family. However, the arrival of internationally based streaming services in the 2010s created an incinerator-like demand for high-quality TV shows. Countries outside the United States have started to fill the void. The clear successor to the Sopranos was Suburra: Blood on Rome – and to a lesser extent Gomorrah. Previously, shows such as Suburra: Blood on Rome would have played in Italy and a few foreign language television stations. With streaming services and the strong demand for content, the show is now shown in 190 countries. While the United States’ dominance in world culture is still strong, it is certainly being eroded by the new technologies that give access to programs worldwide – and we are starting to see and hear new voices.  

In the world of Suburra: Blood on Rome, all are corrupt, from the Vatican, through all government levels to the streets – no one is safe, and no one is clean. Suburra: Blood on Rome began life as a 2013 novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo. The book was based on a 2015 Italian neo-noir crime film directed by Stefano Sollima, which the TV series then reworked. Despite its Italian origins, Suburra: Blood on Rome owes a great deal to The Sopranos in taking a similar path of sending the gangster genre down market. The lead character in Suburra: Blood on Rome is Aureliano Adami, from a gang from Ostia – a port near Rome.  Son of the chief, Adami is a gang member who appears to have no interest in upper class or even middle-class respectability. He will kill on impulse and exacts savage revenge on anyone who crosses him. In one scene, Adami beats a man to a pulp and then shoots him – he makes Santino Corleone look restrained.

Even so, Adami is a charismatic leader, and, with his allies, they challenge the gangster hierarchy of Rome. In 2020, our gangster figures have moved far away from Michael Corleone, whose murders were “strictly business,” to figures who murder for revenge – or simply because they are just in the way. Other changes are evident in the projection of power in the key actors. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a man whose rage is tightly controlled, and he acts after thinking things through. Tony Soprano is an intelligent thug who rules with cunning and violence – he is no planner. Aureliano Adami is just a scary human being with a possible death wish.

As the gangster genre continues to move along, it has become more violent and continues to set out in different directions.In the 1970s, The Godfather was seen as a commentary on the Nixon administration with its conservative façade and criminal underpinnings. When the Watergate scandal derailed Nixon, it also led to a toxic loss of confidence in the government’s honesty and integrity. As time has progressed, the cultural myths about gangsters have become more violent, and the government appears to be ineffectual in helping people. In the Trump era, that loss of confidence has ebbed further.[3] In Suburra: Blood on Rome, the government is now in alliance with the gangsters, and it is hard to see where one begins and one ends. In The Godfather, there are references to political connections, where Vito Corleone has a strong influence. When a Senator threatens the Corleones, Michael looks blankly and says: “Senator, we are all part of the same hypocrisy.” Suburra takes that idea to another level. Close to 50 years down the track, we can barely say who is worse: the gangster or the government. Yet with all the evolution of style, the end is a shoot out is straight out of the 1930s. Despite Aureliano Adami’s clear psychotic behaviour in Suburra: Blood on Rome, he has some sense of honor, but the central politician is a repulsive character. The politician gets away with it.


[1] Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. Chicago: Elephant, 1992, 3 – 17.

[2]  Brian Phillips, “How ‘Goodfellas’ Serves As the Bridge Between ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’,” The Ringer, 17 September 2020, accessed at https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/9/17/21440866/goodfellas-martin-scorsese-the-godfather-the-sopranos, on 12 December 2020.

[3] Among many surveys see OECD survey, Trust in Government, https://www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm.

The age of the instant legacy: Comey’s Rule, Mank and the Crown

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow,

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

When George Orwell died in 1950, he requested that no biography be written. It was request that stood for a few decades until scholars began to research one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. Now many Orwell biographies have been written, and it is certain more books are on the horizon. While Orwell’s request was followed for a long time, a major public figure would see little point in making the request. Today, we face the trend of the instant biographies of people living and working. More importantly, depictions on TV and in the movies are coming thick and fast. Indeed, the half-life between an event happening and its depiction on the screen used to be decades. The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events on TV screens surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

That gap has been narrowing and it has become a matter of months before a prominent figure is depicted. At the time of writing Donald Trump – who is still president – has had a raft of books written about him. (Few seem to be interested in the new president Joe Biden.) Donald Trump has had two biographies written about his presidency by the iconic Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, but Woodward’s impact is nothing compared to the impact of TV shows. The Comey Rule is a recently released American political drama television miniseries, based on the book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by the former FBI director James Comey. The miniseries has Jeff Daniels playing Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. The remarkable aspect of this series is that it depicted a sitting President in recent events. For Comey’s book, the gap was barely two years.

Mank will shape the reputation of Herman Mankiewicz.

The impact of these shows is profound. The author of the highly regarded dual biography of Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz,  The Brothers Mankiewicz, Sydney Ladensohn Stern noted when watching the newly released film about Herman Mankiewicz: “Movies are so much more evocative than books that I knew no matter how accurate my research, how convincing my writing, and even how widely my book might be read, Mank’s Herman was going to be the Herman Mankiewicz for the ages.”[1]

The same process can be seen in other political figures. For example, the rumour of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover being in a closeted homosexual relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson and engaging in cross dressing is widespread. Rumours about Hoover’s homosexuality had circulated for many years as he had lived and worked closely with Clyde Tolson and neither were married. Based on a verbal account, one biographer argued that Hoover was a cross dresser. The account was almost immediately attacked by investigative journalist and Hoover critic Peter Maas soon after the biography was published. He re-interviewed the sources and demonstrated that every piece of evidence to support the case was flawed.[2]Maas believed the stories were nothing more than hearsay.[3]Maas’s conclusions were backed by FBI historian Athan Theoharis, who is also a strident critic of Hoover, and has demonstrated the evidence is particularly weak and it seems unlikely that Hoover was in a homosexual relationship with Tolson.[4] Another Hoover biographer Ronald Kessler has concluded the FBI director simply could not have engaged in homosexual activity at the Plaza with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out. “The cross-dressing allegations were as credible as McCarthy’s claim that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department, yet the press widely circulated the claim without further investigation. That Hoover was a cross-dresser is now largely presumed to be fact even by sophisticated people”.[5]  

J. Edgar shaped Hoover’s reputation as a cross dresser. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

So, you would assume that the rumour would be dismissed. However, films trounce books in setting agendas. When J. Edgar Hoover was represented in the 2001 Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, wearing a dress, historians of the period rolled their eyes. Hoover’s cross dressing and supposed homosexuality had hit the silver screen, and no amount of detailed academic research was going to erase a discredited claim. The image had been set in stone by a film.

The Crown is helping to define the image of future King: Prince Charles.

The impact of movies and TV shows on reputations can have wide ranging consequences. The Crown is a retelling of the rule of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II and it is now colouring the perception of the royal family. Camilla and Prince Charles have spent many decades slowly building their reputation, since their divorces and eventual remarriage. The pair have worked hard to gain public trust. The most recent season of the TV series follows the relationship of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, outlining their failing marriage. The creators of the show have declared that the show is historical fiction. This statement may be their intention, but the show is seen as a historical record. Prince Charles is often depicted as being uncaring in the face of Diana’s suffering. The show has created endless debate on the fairness of the depiction, but it is now the version of history against which all must negotiate. More than any other source, a TV series is now shaping Charles’s reputation, who will be King, assuming he lives longer than his mother: Queen Elizabeth II. King Charles III – as he will possibly be called – and Trump’s eventual reputation may not be decided by the political historians and journalists, it may well be decided by the audience response to TV shows such as The Comey Rule and The Crown along with the other series that are sure to follow.


[1] Sydney Ladensohn Stern, “The Mankiewicz Brothers’ Biographer Weighs in on David Fincher’s Mank,” Literary Hub, 4 December 2020 accessed at https://lithub.com/the-mankiewicz-brothers-biographer-weighs-in-on-david-finchers-mank/ on 7 December 2020.

[2] Peter Maas, “Setting the Record Straight”. Esquire, May 1993, 119(5), pp. 56 – 59.

[3] May 1993, Esquire  and for a broader perspective see Gerry O’Sullivan “G-Wo/Man – homosexuality of J. Edgar Hoover – Against the Grain – Column,”.Humanist. retrieved from  FindArticles.com on 4 June 2010.

[4] Athan G. Theoharis, J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime: An Historical Antidote, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1995 [2009]. p. 39.

The sad predictions of The Last Hurrah (1958)

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Skeffington begins his last campaign in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The recent United States election has certainly been a memorable one. Asthe dust settles, it is an absolute certainty that films and TV shows will be produced on the Presidency of Donald Trump – if they are not already in production. Whatever people think of Trump, it is undeniable that he generates interest in whatever he does – and will continue to do so for many years. The TV network Showtime has already shown The Comey Rule depicting the relationship between Trump and FBI director Comey. Based on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, it focusses on their relationship, leading to his sacking by Trump. The political drama stars Jeff Daniels as Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. Trump has such an over the top persona that actors will undoubtedly be queuing to do their intrepretation of him. Brendan Gleeson has had the first serious crack, but the mini-series highlighted that political drama done well could be engaging and popular. [1]

In the TV series, the FBI is depicted as an organisation that has to constantly balance out political pressure, while investigating crimes. Founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would barely recongise what his successors at the FBI were even doing. Hoover highlighted the Bureau’s role in catching gangsters, or identifying communists. The focus was on crime and treason. In the social media age, the FBI director’s working life seems consumed with emails from politician’s computers, along with the antics of Russian social media trolls. As well as dealing with tweets from the President, the media dominates all communication and Comey is even advised that he had been sacked by television.

The days of the FBI hunting criminals such as Dillinger are clearly over in The Comey Rule.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While not predicting the future of media and politics, one film that certainly made some prescient observations about American politics was The Last Hurrah (1958). The film was adapted from the 1956 novel of the same name by Edwin O’Connor. The prestigious director John Ford and the actor Spencer Tracy joined forces to depict a long term Irish-American mayor preparing for a final election campaign. Mayor Frank Skeffington and his campaign are followed by his nephew and journalist, Adam Caulfield, who covers American politics at close range.

Skeffington – a mayor of a New England city which appears to be Boston – delivers one of the novel’s finest political speeches when talking to his nephew about politics, saying it is the greatest spectator sport in the United States. Everyone knows ‘who is up and who is down’, according to Skeffington. He wants to run one more campaign the old fashioned way, knowing his time is up, as Skeffington realises that radio and television were becoming the dominant force, reducing politics to a televised sport.[2]

The election contains a scathing vision of American politics with a dolt of a candidate opposing Skeffington. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times , would call him “a farcical nitwit.” [3] Backed by the town’s moneyed interests, the only advantage he seems to have over Skeffington is the use of new technology, which in 1958 was television. The book was written after Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson’s disastrous drive to solicit votes through speeches, where the more media savvy President Dwight Eisenhower used advertising and television to promote his political profile.  Eisenhower slaughtered Stevenson in both the 1952 and 1956 campaigns. The Democrats would take note of the lessons of campaigning against Eisenhower, and use them to full effect when they worked for the future President John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election campaign.

While a supporter of Kennedy, John Ford was not a fan of television politics at which JFK would prove to be a superb practitioner. Ford was concerned with the rise of media politicians, and he could see that the days of Skeffington were numbered with their low-level corruption, but with a focus on distributing goods to their lower income neighborhoods. The new politicians had a commitment to nothing. The film highlights the impact that television would make on American politics for the next 60 years. In more recent times, television has been supplanted largely by social media, of which US President Donald Trump has shown some mastery. In the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson could still attempt to campaign with beautifully written speeches.[4] Ford would never have imagined that a reality TV star could use the medium for a political base. It is inconceivable that Ford could not even envisage reality TV, but he understood that image was now as important as substance in the 1950s.

Ford’s film is lament for a political past where politicians were elected on character and policies. The warnings from 1958 in O’Connor’s novel and Ford’s film are clear for all to see. Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction of his political campaigns in Young Mr Lincoln (1939). Lincoln commands through use of language, logic and force of personality. In Lincoln’s time, two hour speeches were recorded in full in newspapers and people rode or walked miles to hear them. Lincoln would later develop the precursor to the grab with the Gettyburg address, which was a ridiculously short speech by the standards of the time. Today, neither side would even bother with a speech of any length in the age of twitter. Our society has election campaigns with all image and no substance, having reached the bottom of the slippery slide identified by O’Connor in 1956.

Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction in Young Mr Lincoln, who commands through simple persuasion, logic and force of personality – and the occasional use of his fists.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film also has one remote link back to Trump. At the end of the film and the book, Skeffington lies dying, having lost the campaign, and one of his detractors says if he were alive, he would regret what he did in his political life. The comatose figure comes back to life and says: “Like hell, I would.” I cannot imagine Donald Trump saying anything else much different in similar circumstances. Despite the massive impact of television and social media, over the preceeding seven decades, it seems politicians do not change all that much.


[1] Rick Porter, ‘The Comey Rule’ Draws Solid Initial Ratings for Showtime,’ Hollywood Reporter, 30 September 2020.

[2] The clip from The Last Hurrah (1958) can be seen at:

https://www.tcm.com/video/480786/last-hurrah-the-1958-spectator-sport

[3] Bosley Crowther, “Spencer Tracy in “The Last Hurrah;” Portrays Skeffington, John Ford directs,” The New York Times, 24 October 1958, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/1958/10/24/archives/spencer-tracy-in-the-last-hurrah-portrays-skeffington-john-ford.html on 12 November 2020.

[4] Jill Lepore,  If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, London: John Murray, 2020 has an excellent discussion of the election and the links between advertising and politics.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946): The Post War Good Place

THE GOOD PLACE — The TV show is part of a long tradition of after-worlds that link back to the Second World War.
Colleen Hayes/NBC | 2019 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Aside from some deplorable Australian accents, the TV series The Good Place has been a highly inventive and entertaining show on the afterlife.[1] It features four pretty ordinary and flawed people who die and are sent to the Good place – a type of heaven. They know they do not deserve the good place, and the place becomes a type of hell for them – a bad place. The Good Place has developed its theological setting with no real mention of a Christian or any other religion. The after-world contains an overarching bureaucracy that processes people with points for good deeds and negative results for bad deeds.

A management vision of the afterlife is nothing new. The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. After a Second World war bombing raid, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, played by David Niven, falls from a burning aircraft, but it is not picked up by the angels sent to catch him and escapes death – or at least heaven for a time. His unplanned release back to earth becomes more complex when he falls in love with Kim Hunter. The theological, medical, legalistic and managerial worlds collide to decide the fate of the couple.

The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The context for A Matter of Life and Death was the Second World War when death was a constant partner in people’s lives. It contained a reassuring images of healthy soldiers going to heaven. Of course, it is only Allied soldiers who can make the journey as the picture certainly aimed to console British and American audiences. German and Japanese soldiers are notably absent as the post-war audience would have bristled at the suggestion that enemy soldiers would have gone to heaven as well.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) was released before the United States entered the Second World War. It reflected the growing fear that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Those fears had eased a little when A Matter of Life and Death was released shortly after the war’s close, but the emotions concerning many people’s deaths were still raw.[2] The idea of a bungled celestial bureaucracy almost certainly has its roots in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941),directed by Alexander Hall, where an angel rescues a boxer before he dies in a plane crash. The records show that he still had 50 years to live, and he was retrieved by accident. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released before the United States entered the Second World War, but it reflected the growing sense that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time was due. In a different way, Heaven Can Wait (1943) reassured on a different level showing a man who thought he was bad, knocking on the door of hell demanding entry – to find out he should really be in heaven. Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times.

Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The story about the pilot In A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. The political message that drove the film’s production is now redundant – particularly after 70 years of the special relationship – the afterlife’s central message is now the film’s underlying strength.

The story about the pilot in A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The most recognised film which looked into the afterlife was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, facing ruin and humiliation in his small hometown of Bedford Falls, feels his existence is meaningless and contemplates suicide. Again an angel is involved; Clarence, played by Henry Travers, comes down to demonstrate to a suicidal Bailey the profound difference he made to the town and people of Bedford Falls throughout his life. Again it is benign after-world, looking after the interests of an individual in distress. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Down to Earth (1947) also have similar benign after-worlds. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death is a releases and it revitalises her and people continue on.

Another example of a benign post war afterworld is The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death revitalises her soul and people continue on. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The after worlds of The Good Place and A Matter of Life and Death have some similarities – even a judge. In A Matter of Life and Death, it is a serious British judge, while in the American TV show, it is a goofball American woman who binge-watches TV. God is not seen or even hinted at. Indeed, all these after-worlds contain ideas from various religions, but none suggests that any formal religion is correct. Each of these after-worlds is a relatively benign place, as the films were created to ease tensions in wartime audiences.  

Made 70 years later and for a vastly different medium, The Good Place has a darker edge, saying that bad people will be brutally punished for eternity – not a comfortable thought. The Second World War was not place for such thoughts. The Good Place had four seasons, and its final show was on 20 January 2020, just before the COVID-19 virus devastated the United States and has killed more than 200,000 people over eight months. The impact of COVID is more than comparable to the Second World War’s death rates when the United States suffered 416,000 casualties over five years. It is entirely likely that deaths from the disease will surpass those of the Second World War. While the program was well-received on its release, it will be interesting to see how The Good Place is considered in the COVID period and after, when the prospect of death is far more immediate. It may be that future programs of its kind are more like A Matter of Life and Death, with reassuring messages, similar to the films from the Second World War. [3]


[1] Actors from the United States struggle with the Australia accent. For Australian viewers, their attempts are just painful. When Ted Danson’s character announces he nailed the accent, I wanted to throw a brick at him. His accent is so poor, I can only assume the line was a joke. Danson is by no means the worst offender in cinematic history- but he is now on the honour roll. As bad as Danson projects his Australian accent, Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the same program is just abysmal. It is possible that the accents are just jokes, but that does not let the actors off the hook. Many Australian actors work in the United States and the United Kingdom and manage to cope with American accents. See https://www.eonline.com/au/news/983011/the-good-place-creator-michael-schur-debunks-all-those-australian-accent-theories.[3]

[2] Some ideas are contained in Jim McDonald, Maybe angels: glimpses of spirituality in popular culture, 199 – 209. In G Mazza, J Srampickal, et al. Cross Connections: Interdisciplinary Communications Studies At The Gregorian University 2006.

[3] For a broader discussion see Christie, Ian, and British Film Institute. A Matter of Life and Death. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI Pub., 2000, . Brian McFarlane reviews the book well “Ian Christie A Matter of Life and Death.” Metro Magazine, no. 139 (2004): 194.

Chariots of Fire (1981) and Thatcher

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. [1]

Chariots of Fire was a commercial hit across the world. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With such a biblical reference for the title, you may think the film Chariots of Fire was a religious film. The film’s title was inspired by the line, “Bring me my Chariot of fire!” from the William Blake  poem, which derived from the above biblical quote from the second book of kings (above). This poem was also adapted into the British hymn Jerusalem which is heard at the end of the film, when people walk away from the funeral. 

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrows of desire;

Bring me my spear; O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire I will not cease from mental fight;

 Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand;

 Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.

William Blake

The film certainly does mention religion, but that is not its central focus. Chariots of Fire (1981) has come to represent the Thatcher era for many commentators.[2] One critic placed in a set of films that defined the Thatcher era. Andrew Pulver of The Guardian believed: “All the optimism of the early years of Thatcher’s premiership can be found in this unashamedly patriotic, and undeniably stirring, epic. By connecting the experiences of Jewish sprinter Harold Abrahams and Scottish flier Eric Liddell, Chariots rather brilliantly manages to position itself as an outsider-against-the-establishment story – the real villain here is the complacent Prince of Wales (Edward VIII to be): the film’s anti-aristocrat sentiment was right up Thatcher’s street.” [3] The film would be used as a fundraiser by conservatives.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. It is not a particularly accurate account of the two men’s participation in the games. The errors are for all to see. To name a few: Harold Abrahams did not court the singer court Sybil Evers until well after the Olympics, and he did not win the college dash, it was Lord Burghley. Abrahams was also known for his long jumping, and this is not mentioned. Liddell also introduced Abrahams to the professional sports coach Sam Mussabini.[4] The list of errors is quite extensive, but it simply does not matter. Like all good historical fiction, the underlying events are only a platform for an engaging story. The two characters are quite sympathetic. Both are outsiders. Liddell is the son of missionaries in China, as well as being a Scot, and Abrahams is a Jew whose father is an immigrant from Lithuania. Abrahams is trying to break into the establishment by doing brilliantly in the Olympics. Liddell runs for God’s pleasure and as a vehicle to deliver sermons to people. Abrahams is intense and driven, but he has a gift for friendship, as well as enjoying Gilbert and Sullivan. In contrast, Liddell likes people’s company and has a modest nature.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was based on two athletes who participated in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Christian and runs for God’s glory; and Harold Abrahams, who wants to break into the Christian English hierarchy. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The message of competition between these fine athletes was one that resonated with the times. Thatcher was elected in 1979, with a strong commitment to private enterprise. Chariots of Fire, like many other films about sport, extolled competition as bringing out the best in people. Losing was a shattering event, but it made all who participate stronger. The messages of the benefits of the competition were certainly topical at the time. The first term of the Thatcher Government was not a pleasant one, and her government was deeply unpopular. The privatisation, deregulation of the commercial sector and austerity measures had caused the economy to stall. The success of the Falklands invasion in 1982 pulled the government out of a slump, and it rode an economic recovery to become one of the most successful in the United Kingdom’s history. In doing so, Thatcher reversed reforms that dated back to the Attlee Government in 1948. It caused massive upheaval and disruption as the public sector was wound back.

The second theme in the film was patriotism or less kindly, nationalism. The film is filled with English flags, and it is literally – and metaphorically – a flag-waver. Yet it is not competition or nationalism at its heart, but ambivalence about British history and class system. The film is set in the run-up to the 1924 Olympics, the shadow of the First World War looms over this film. A scene in the University where the lecturer looks at the names on the wall, and laments that they all had promise. A generation had been lost, and now the United Kingdom had to stagger into the future. The slaughter caused by nationalism is in the background of this film – it is not exalted. It does praise a benign form of patriotism exemplified by supporting your team at the Olympics by – well – waving flags.

Abrahams works with a profession coach to win, putting hi mat odds with the amateur ideal of the upper classes. Image courtesy of EMoviePoster.

When the director Lindsay Anderson was asked about his role in the film, he said it was fine to bask in the past, provided it was sentimental. Lindsay’s film about the London class system was the fire breathing If (1968).  Lindsay would later say that he enjoyed the sentimentalism of Chariots of Fire. While Anderson’s actors in his cinema want to break down the class system, in Chariots of Fire, one man, Norman Abrahams, wants to break into the establishment and feels hampered by his Jewish background – although he remains proud of it. The other, a Scottish missionary, has no interest in the establishment or its rules, and only wishes to serve God. He runs to feel God’s pleasure.

Directly or indirectly, the film represented some of the Thatcher era’s values, with its themes of careers open to talent, individual effort, and strong competition. Abrahams uses sport to break into British society, by excelling at running. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In this new class system, talent will provide entry to the upper echelons.While not as flexible as American or Australian society, the British establishment was not rigid.  The British could always absorb talent into its hierarchy, regardless of origins. Benjamin Disraeli, who became a Prime Minister twice, was from a Jewish family. The current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a tobacconist, and a woman and the system absorbed her talent, and she rose to the top. Such flexibility has always been an aspect of the British system. When it is announced at the end of the film that Abrahams became the elder statesman of British athletics, it should have come as no surprise.

Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period where the message is– there is no such thing as society. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But the figure of Liddell is a counterweight against these Thatcherite messages. Liddell feels “God’s pleasure” when he runs. He does not run for some “tin cups” and gains more joy from distributing prices at a charity race to children. Liddell is passionately connected to the community, and when the Olympics are over, he returns to his missionary work in China. He is not a figure of the Thatcherite period – with its message of “there is no such thing as society.” Most of the film’s political critics focus on Abrahams, but a counter message is there. This film is also about a man who will stare down the British establishment to address his moral concerns. By only examining one part of the film, critics have overlooked some strong messages about working for the community and less fortunate. Chariots of Fire is a complex and multifaceted film. Just looking at it with a political lens limits the appreciation of it.

[1] 2 Kings 2:11 King James Edition.

[2] Ellis Cashmore (2008) Chariots of Fire: bigotry, manhood and moral certitude in an age of individualism, Sport in Society, 11:2-3, 159-173, DOI: 10.1080/17430430701823406. Other views are contained in Claire Monk. “The British ‘heritage Film’ and Its Critics.” Critical Survey 7, no. 2 (1995): 116-24. Accessed October 2, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555905.

[3] Andrew Pulver, “The films that defined the Thatcher era,” The Guardian, 9 April 2013, accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/08/margaret-thatcher-films-defined-era on 2 October 2020.

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/sportscotland/asportingnation/article/0019/