Stephen Arnell

10 patriotic films to watch this weekend

10 patriotic films to watch this weekend
Gary Oldman, The Darkest Hour (Image: Shutterstock)
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines patriotism as ‘the quality of being patriotic; devotion to and vigorous support for one's country.’ Which is fine as far as it goes, but (at least to me), there is a uniquely ‘English’ kind of patriotism, one which I like to believe is not overtly jingoistic or nationalist in tone.

This expanded characterisation of the word in relation to the Land of the Angles represents what may be thought as typically 'English' values, those of fair play, decency, hope, eccentricity, collegiality, individuality, humour, grace under pressure, courage and standing up for the persecuted.

Whether we always conform to or live up to these ideals is another matter, but the England football team are certainly giving it a try.

Before Sunday's England vs Italy UEFA European Championship final, here are ten films that reflect the many shades of English patriotism.

As you will notice, war movies are included in the list, but despite their eligibility, there would be no room for other titles if the likes of The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Dunkirk (2017) were included.

Likewise, motion pictures such as The Bridge on the river Kwai (1957) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), which, despite their superficial support of the concept of patriotism, in reality subvert the notion.

The Darkest Hour (2017) Amazon Rent/Buy

Although Gary Oldman’s role as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s drama won him numerous Best Actor awards (including the Academy, BAFTA, Golden Globes and SAG gongs), the picture is curiously old-fashioned, wearing its patriotic heart very much on its sleeve.

This is especially noticeable in the fictional (and very manipulative) London Underground scene, where Churchill’s wavering resolution to carry on the fight is bolstered by the reaction of his plucky fellow passengers.

The appeasement faction, as represented by Neville Chamberlain (the late Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) naturally come across as pusillanimous and self-deluded in equal measure.

I must admit, after watching The Darkest Hour and other Churchill dramas such as The Gathering Storm (2002) I tend to feel pangs of hunger watching Winston tucking into his signature hearty breakfast.

This included poached eggs, toast, jam, butter, bacon, sausage, coffee with milk, cold chicken, grapefruit, iced orange juice and a whisky soda/half bottle of champagne.  And a cigar.  Now that’s the way to start the day.

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show) condensed three of Patrick O’Brien’s popular Jack Aubrey novels for this handsomely made epic of high seas derring-do during the Napoleonic Wars.

Forget ITV’s Hornblower, Master & Commander really delivers on the authenticity front, with storms and the French navy failing to diminish the inspiring leadership of the HMS Surprise’s Captain Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his cultured friend/ship's surgeon, Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).

The picture was a critical success and made its money back at the box office, but apparently not enough to prompt a sequel starring Crowe, despite the actor’s enthusiasm for another Aubrey yarn.

The most recent news was that a reboot is in the works, casting younger leading men.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Cast your mind back to 1997, the year when (amongst other events), ‘Cool Britannia’ was at its zenith - just before the inevitable decline, as the tedious Oasis/Blur rivalry and attendant antics began to bore even the participants themselves.

It was fortuitous for Mike Myers to launch his spoof spy series at the time, when interest in all things British was at a peak. In terms of Austin Powers, this passion for Britishness should actually read Englishness, especially given the villainy of later series entrant, the very Scottish Fat Bastard (also played by Myers).

Defrosted 60s Jason King-style spy (Myers) battles his old nemesis Dr Evil (Myers again) in the present day, aided by quintessential Englishman Michael York as his boss Basil Exposition and agent Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley) the daughter of a former sidekick Mrs Kensington (Mimi Rogers).

The fact that 1999’s follow-up The Spy Who Shagged Me depicts Hurley as a ‘fembot’ may well be a not-so-subtle dig at her lack of thespian chops.

The first movie in the series only became a huge hit after its release on DVD and pay per view. The picture has a good few laughs, but I personally preferred both sequels, the aforementioned AP: TSHSM and 2002s pièce de resistance Goldmember, which co-starred Michael Caine as Austin’s cheeky old man Nigel Powers.

A 4th Austin Powers picture has been mooted, a rare non-Shrek related project for Myers since the failure of The Cat in the Hat (2003) and The Love Guru (2008).

An Ungentlemanly Act (1992)

Stuart Urban (brother of Newsnight’s Mark) directed this excellent dramatization of the first 36 hours of the Falkland War of 1982, when the government and tiny resident military force of the British territory were confronted by an overwhelming Argentine invasion.

The film has aged well, with its combination of military heroics, wry humour and geo-politics providing an entertaining reminder of the era,

Sadly, no longer with us, both Ian Richardson (Falklands governor Rex Hunt) and Bob Peck (Royal Marines commander Major Mike Norman) are exceptionally fine in their roles; Richardson was nominated for a BAFTA Best Actor award.

As a testament to its veracity, An Ungentlemanly Act was shown on Argentine television sometime after the collapse of the military regime.

Perhaps there will be a timely repeat next year to mark the 40th anniversary of the failed Argentine attempt to wrest the South Atlantic archipelago from UK control.

Hope & Glory (1987) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

John Boorman (Excalibur) strayed from his usual magic realist territory in directing the comedy drama Hope & Glory, an autobiographical portrait of a suburban family in London enduring the Blitz. Don’t mistake the premise of the film as a downer though, as there’s plenty of humour.

After returning to the suburbs from a Thameside rural idyll at his grandparents home, young Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) is delighted to find that the Luftwaffe has destroyed his (empty) school. 'Thank you Adolf!' shouts one his schoolmates.

Hope & Glory was followed by the well-received Queen & Country in 2014, a sequel which saw Billy as a conscript at the time of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Boorman’s movie gave early starring roles to Vanessa Kirkby (Princess Margaret - The Crown) and Callum Turner (Frank Churchill - Emma).

Chariots of Fire (1981) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Possibly more famous for Vangelis’s trite theme tune and Academy Award winning screenwriter Colin Welland’s hubristic exclamation 'the British are coming' at the Oscars in 1982, Chariots of Fire is far from the jingoistic celebration non-viewers may presume.

The picture seeks to depict the true-life events surrounding two British athletes in the 1924 Olympics: the English Jew (and later Father of British Athletics) Harold Abrahams, and Eric Liddell: the pious Scot who regards competitive running as way of paying tribute to The Almighty.

Although the snobbery of the English upper classes comes in for some stick, Chariots of Fire is even-handed enough to portray some of the toffs as rather good eggs, who aren’t blinded by the prejudices of some of their Cambridge college Masters (namely John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson).

Director Hugh Hudson failed to capitalise on the success of his debut picture; his other best-known movie was the American War of Independence epic Revolution. The poor reception this film received was part of the reason that miscast star Al Pacino took a year-long break from the Big Screen.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Generally credited as the best of Roger Moore’s long run as 007, the movie sets out its patriotic stall at the very beginning, as Bond evades ski pursuit by Soviet agents with the aid of a Union Jack parachute.

I know we are looking primarily at Englishness, but Moore is as Home Counties as you can get, and it's difficult to see Q issuing him a Cross of St George parachute (but you never know).

Moore's chief antagonist in TSWLM is Curt Jürgens as Karl Stromberg. The web-handed Stromberg is a would-be world conqueror seeking to set up an undersea empire. The aquatic wannabe dictator is aided by chief henchman, the towering metal-toothed assassin Jaws, memorably played by 7ft 2’ Richard Kiel.

Young Winston (1972) – Amazon Rent/Buy

After his first movie as a director (WWI musical Oh, What a Lovely War! 1969), Richard Attenborough was on safer territory with the Churchill early years biopic Young Winston.

Simon Ward is exceptionally good in the role and doesn’t overdo the famous Churchill drawl too much. There are plenty of stirring battle scenes (Omdurman, The Boer War) to keep any boredom at bay, together with some well-drawn portraits of The Great Man’s friends and family. These include Anne Bancroft as his flirtatious American mother Jennie, Robert ‘Quint’ Shaw as his overbearing (and apparently non-syphilitic) father Lord Randolph and Anthony Hopkins as up and coming Welsh Liberal politician Lloyd George.

The Railway Children (1970) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

E. Nesbit’s evergreen favourite captures a special kind of English stoicism, childhood innocence, appreciation of the pleasures of countryside and love of family life.

I defy any viewer not to sob (secretly or otherwise) at the end of the movie, when wrongly accused and now freed Charles Waterbury (Iain Cuthbertson, shame about the combover) returns to his adoring wife and family.

Star and perennial English Rose Jenny Agutter (American Werewolf in London, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Call the Midwife) played the same role (Roberta 'Bobbie' Waterbury) in the BBC dramatization of the book in 1968, and went onto play Mother (the Dinah Sheridan part in the 1972 movie) in ITV’s rather redundant 2000 remake.

Agutter is filming The Railway Children Return for a 2022 release, where she returns to the character of Bobbie.

The great Lionel Jeffries proved his ability to both write and direct (especially children) with his first feature. The Railway Children’s box office success led onto another movie in vaguely similar territory, 1972’s The Amazing Mr. Blunden.

Genevieve (1953) – Full film available to watch free on YouTube, BritBox

Like The Railway Children, the London to Brighton classic comedy Genevieve evokes a perhaps lost feeling of ‘Englishness’, where humour, kindness and basic goodness will always, if not actually win the day, at least make it more bearable.

Larry Adler’s harmonic score can grate in an ear-worm fashion after a while, but that aside Genevieve remains a pleasurable watch. The film is aided greatly by the performances of the leading quartet, John Gregson, Dinah Sheridan, Kenneth More and especially the vivacious Kay Kendall. Kendall died tragically young at 32.