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Thursday, August 23, 2007


Posted by Adam Roberts on 08/23/07 at 11:19 AM

I’m English.  I daresay for that reason, ‘Englishness’ as a cultural category or construction interests me; although I’m not so conceited as to assume that non-English people (which is to say, the overwhelming majority of the global population) are going to be particularly or indeed even remotely interested in the topic.  Recently I’ve been flipping through Albion: the Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd’s strange, slightly fusty and small-c conservative volume, a book that captures very nicely a version of ‘Englishness’ from c.1910 and misses almost entirely what it is to be English today.  So I’ve been pondering exactly what the semiotic of Englishness entails nowadays.

Then, pursuant to something else entirely, I found myself looking at this list: the fifty highest grossing films of all time.  That’s an interesting list.

First, a few caveats.  The list, despite its ‘all time’ nomenclature, actually snapshots a particular moment in Western culture, a period when cinema receipts (swollen by DVD and other tie-in sales) have hit an ‘event-picture’-fuelled high.  If we take just the top 20 titles listed there: with the exception of number 19, E.T. (1982), they’re all films released in the last ten years.  The list as a whole is unadjusted for inflation, but I don’t want to get into that question here.  For those who are interested, here is the list adjusted for box-office inflation.  The five highest-grossing titles on that list, from the top down are: Gone with the Wind (1939), Star Wars (1977), The Sound of Music (1965), E.T. (1982), The Ten Commandments (1956).  But I’m interested in the unadjusted, raw-takings list as a snapshot of global cultural fascinations in the last decade.  And the snapshot suggests that the world has recently been frankly fascinated with Englishness.  Which might make us go: why on earth …?

Three of the five big cinematic series that dominate the list are in a direct way ‘about’ England:  the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the 2nd, 7th and 14th highest grossing films ever), Professor Tolkien’s invention of a ‘mythology for England’ projected vastly across the big screen; the Harry Potter films (occupying numbers 4, 10, 12, 13, 20), a cinematic portrayal of an idealised English boarding school experience; and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (3rd and 5th highest grossing; the first film in the series is at number 31).  In this last series Johnny Depp Englishes up his accent to play the lead pirate; the two romantic leads are both English, as are most of the villains.  There’s a degree of local colour from the Caribbean, of course, as well as other fancy locations; but the dream that’s being sold to audiences is essentially that of an Anglo eighteenth-century, an invented old-worlde English messing-about-in-boats-ishness.

Now, half of the places in the top twenty chart are occupied by those three series alone.  Of the remaining titles, there’s Titanic, concerning the romance between Kate Winslett’s English rose and DiCaprio’s ‘Jack’ who is … well, I’m not sure what nationality he’s supposed to be (American? Irish?).  But I would argue that much of the film’s appeal depends upon the sumptuous recreation of the English environment of the titular ship, which is to say, of the visual representation of a luxury associated with the upper-class English mode of living, and which depends upon (for instance) knowing which piece of cutlery goes with which course of your dinner.  Then there’s Mike Myer’s peculiar Scottish accent in Shrek 2 (number 8), a picture whose mis-en-scene is, I guess, more European than English (I assume its landscape is a sort of pre-Revolutionary France, although crossed of course with some parodic Americanisms: Disneyland, Hollywood and so on); but which seems to me to tap into a similar nostalgia-idealised yearning.

Not all the films share this fascination of course.  The English have several but no leading roles in Jurassic Park (no 9); and Finding Nemo (number 15) has a lot to do with Australia and nothing at all to do with England.  And then there’s Spider-Man I (number 17) and III (number 11), a franchise which is solidly New York in its cultural focus and is entirely uninterested in Englishness.  Independence Day (number 18) and E.T (number 19) are both evidently about America.  Then there’s Star Wars (6 and 16).  But it is Star Wars that really got me thinking on this matter.  So, originally, Lucas wanted to cast Toshiro Mifune in the role of Obi Wan.  That casting would certainly have made sense in terms of the logic of the film—the Jedi as sort-of Samurai, the ‘force’ as a version of eastern spiritualism, the character of Obi Wan as a form of Nihonjinron.  But Lucas didn’t cast Mifune.  He cast that most English of Englishmen, Alec Guinness.  In the two Star Wars films that make the list (Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith), this becomes Scot Ewan McGregor doing a stiffly over-English impression of Guinness; and since in these films Obi Wan is kind-of the hero of the piece, that inflects the otherwise all-American action-adventure atmosphere of the films with a curiously Anglo flavour.

I don’t want to overstate the case, but it seems to me that we can at the very least say: of the top twenty grossing films of all time, over half (and heavily weighted to the upper reaches of the league table) achieved their enormous success either by peddling versions of England, or Englishness, to the world; or at least by inflecting their generic Americanness through an idealised English value of spirituality or aesthetics.  To return to my earlier question.  Why on earth …?

I can see that this is probably a localised thing; pick another decade (1957-1967; or, who knows, 2017-2027) and the fascination with Englishness probably won’t be present--but it’s a very pronounced localised thing; these are the biggest grossing films ever, after all.  Then again, it’s also obvious that there’s no actual representation of Englishness anywhere on this list; these films are all variants of a one-to-three-centuries-ago (or more) fantasy-historical version of England.  Nor, rather oddly, is it the sort of Englishness I might previously have guessed would be the one to appeal to a global audience--for instance, the highest grossing James Bond film of all time, Casino Royale, only makes number 37 on the list; and none of these films give us a mock-London, Houses of Parliament, cheeky-cockney chimney sweeps, policemen-with-funny-helmets version of Englishness (although Mary Poppins makes number 21 in the adjusted-for-inflation list).

But something interesting is happening here, I think.  It is as if the world, for the last ten years, has been disproportionately fascinated with the culture of a small portion of the British Isles.  So … what is it about Englishness in particular (not Irishness, or—Shrek aside—Scottishness, or, save my mother, Welshness, but Englishness) that has so captured the imagination of the world recently?

1 Titanic (1997) - 20th Century Fox / Paramount
2 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) - New Line Cinema
3 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) - Buena Vista/Walt Disney
4 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) - Warner Bros
5 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) - Buena Vista/Walt Disney
6 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) - 20th Century Fox
7 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) - New Line Cinema
8 Shrek 2 (2004) - DreamWorks SKG
9 Jurassic Park (1993) - Universal
10 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) - Warner Bros
11 Spider-Man 3 (2007) - Sony/Columbia
12 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) - Warner Bros
13 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) - Warner Bros
14 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) - New Line Cinema
15 Finding Nemo (2003) - Buena Vista/Walt Disney
16 Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) - 20th Century Fox
17 Spider-Man (2002) - Sony/Columbia
18 Independence Day (1996) - 20th Century Fox
19 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) - Universal
20 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) - Warner Bros


"I can see that this is probably a localised thing; pick another decade (1957-1967; or, who knows, 2017-2027) and the fascination with Englishness probably won’t be present”

No, actually, it probably will be. I’m sure you know that the British colony in Hollywood was massively influential: Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, James Mason, James Whale, Laughton, Ray Milland, Richard Burton, Ida Lupino, Boris Karloff, Jean Simmons..... the list goes on into nearly infinity. More importantly, Hollywood into the 1960s heavily favored English / British locations, plots, themes and actors with English / British accents.

In 1967, the list would be:
The Sound of Music
The Ten Commandments
Dr. Zhivago
101 Dalmatians
Mary Poppins
Sleeping Beauty

Obviously, the Bond movies and Mary Poppins.  The Sound of Music is, of course, set in Austria but mostly has a British cast (and replays Julie Andrews’ role as a governess from the very English Mary Poppins). Dr. Zhivago was a David Lean film with a mostly British cast.  Without Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, I don’t think there’s that much difference.

By on 08/23/07 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Englishness globally codes as nostalgia, because the sun set on that empire.  I might argue that we’re fundamentally in a nostalgic age, but I don’t have to—for the kind of comfort viewing that people want in a popular movie, nostalgia is usually a part of it.

By on 08/23/07 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And speaking of Everything Studies—isn’t the question of why so much pop music is/was English be related?  The nostalgia for, say, the punk rock era, is one that you’ve left out.

By on 08/23/07 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Both Jack and Rose are supposed to be American.  Rose is nostalgia for Henry James’ America, which is probably not that far from England in the popular imagination.  Jack is supposed to be from Chippawa Falls, which as a place name is pure Americana.

By on 08/23/07 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

burritoboy, don’t forget on that list of yours that 101 Dalmatians, although a Disney production, takes place in England, after all.  I don’t know about “Sleeping Beauty,” and though it’s fairy tale medievalism is probably more continental, it’s not the sort of distinction that most Americans, at any rate, would notice.  That makes 7 of those 10 English to some degree.

The point being, I suppose, that at least for Americans (who are the only people I’m speaking for here), there is something about Englishness that taps into a sense of nostalgia and prestige in a very direct way.  (This is why films that take place historically and geographically distant from England, like “Gladiator,” will still have all-British casts.)

By on 08/24/07 at 12:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

All of this fascinates me. Here are some notes on why Americans (these are Hollywood movies, after all, and ones that made most of their money in America) find the English so interesting.

First of all, you have the gradual change from an epic series celebrating the Revolutionary War (Star Wars, where “the Empire” is overthrown, menacing English accents and all) to something like Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean, where America is free to imagine itself (as England once did) as a beneficient empire.

In some cases, the fact that the film is high-grossing may be the result of a convergence; for example, to the best of my knowledge, most Americans are not nostalgic for private boarding-schools in the same way as the English. So Harry Potter was attractive for other reasons, including the lost-heir plot and the darker-than-thou millenialism.

In fact, the way Americans (as well as the English and others) respond to disaster and apocalypse scenarios is important throughout, though not specifically English.

Lastly, the secret service and class warfare are two uncomfortable subjects for Americans, since working for the CIA is a little sinister, and since we don’t like to imagine that America has a class structure. So it’s better when those plots can be projected onto an English scene—hence Bond and 101 Dalmatians.


Certainly, any discussion of Englishness in pop music would have to untie the knot of mutual influence: the Beatles, for example, were fascinated by Motown and Elvis, just as the Sex Pistols were fascinated by the Ramones and the Stooges.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/24/07 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wasn’t Kate Winslett’s Titanic character American?  I’m pretty sure she was . . . .

By on 08/24/07 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt, cd, you’re both right: I was reluctant to disturb the savingly hazy memory of the movie, but a moment’s thought would have stopped me making the mistake.

I’m persuaded by your ‘nostalgia’ argument, Rich; although “Englishness globally codes as nostalgia, because the sun set on that empire“ would also apply to lots of other empires also, surely?

Joe: interesting points.  I’m happy to take it as axiomatic that this mode of cinema is basically an American form of art, so any fascination with Englishness is essentially an American fascination with Englishness.  It still surprises me, though, that it’s Englishness: since it was the Irish and Scottish diaspora that had a bigger cultural impact upon the US, surely?

By Adam Roberts on 08/24/07 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It still surprises me, though, that it’s Englishness: since it was the Irish and Scottish diaspora that had a bigger cultural impact upon the US, surely?

Well, yes, in terms of immigrant populations; but at this point in American history, Americans do not identify with immigrants (unfortunately)—they identify with what they take to be the English experience of Imperial England and the colonies.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/24/07 at 04:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, the sun has set on many empires, but not many with a) at their peak, global civilizational reach, b) that have fallen within the lifetime of living people, c) with fairly good propaganda, as empires go, d) with a language that persists as the global lingua franca.  I also see a mini-boomlet in USSR nostalgia, but outside the former USSR, the fact that the total number of Russian-speakers is low tends to limit it.  Outside the former USSR, it mostly comes in as fads for items with Cyrillic lettering on them, and as nostalgia for missed chances among (especially) British leftists, always complicated by the fact that it is really an attachment to an apparent high point of socialism in world influence if not in doctrine, coupled with an aversion to the USSR as such.  I don’t think that you can understand the writings of e.g. Iain Banks and China Mieville without socialist nostalgia.

I also don’t think that Englishness as nostalgia is purely an American phenomenon.  I get the impression that it exists in some form throughout the former British colonial area, at least, and that was fairly extensive.  If you’re trying to make a movie for a global audience, an American movie with English actors seems like your best bet.

By on 08/24/07 at 05:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A quick filmstudies quibble ---- Hollywood does not publish nor allow to be published attendance records for any movies, instead giving box-office grosses and profits. This skews any popularity lists by a lot, in addition to inflation, as movie ticket prices are constantly going up (and they go up at different rates in different parts of the country too). This preserves the effect that people are constantly watching more movies and Hollywood films are constantly becoming more and more popular, which helps create a metanarrative of triumphal cinematic progress.

Film articles are always referencing this problem and doing various arithmetical or archival work-arounds to get at vague ideas of how many people actually watched said “blockbuster,” and I don’t remember any actual titles off the top of my head, but quite a few of the old classics were seen by way more people, on more screens, than a lot of the more recent big films.

PS I think that Americans’ desire for an idealized “Englishness” is from a long association of “Englishness” with classy-ness and cultural capital, plus our school civics classes present us as a kind of “we are the English, but we had to revolt from under them to become even better than them” narrative.

By Sisyphus on 08/24/07 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I dont know why I wrote my first paragraph above and didn’t mention defenses of social realist art, but that should have been there as well.

By on 08/24/07 at 06:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Uh oh, triple-commenting—but this topic made me think about which empires still have the most currency as mental objects.  Not knowing of any surveys on the matter, I just looked through a list of empires and guessed.  Clearly my guess is going to have Western/U.S. bias: the myths surrounding e.g. the Chinese Empire I would expect to have a good deal of currency in China.

So here is a chronological list of what I think is the top ten (top by whether I think that people are likely to have associations with them, not by historical importance):

1. Babylonian Empire
2. Roman Empire
3. Byzantine Empire
4. Ottoman Empire
5. Spanish Empire
6. British Empire
7. French Empire(s)
9. Nazi Germany
10. American Empire

Maybe the Egyptian Empire should be in there instead of the Babylonian, but Babylon’s bad press in the Bible (and concomitant re-use in reggae) gives it the edge, or maybe the Portuguese Empire should be there in addition to the Spanish, but as a source of associations, I’d guess that people generally mix them up.

That’s really not too many empires, or, more precisely, by the time you’ve listed ten, you’ve already reached some that would be pretty obscure to most people.  “Byzantine”, for instance, survives mostly as an adjective and a vague association with the group of Orthodox churches.  I don’t think the British Empire has too many competitors in the defunct glory of empire area.

By on 08/24/07 at 10:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always wondered why British accents are always used to indicated baddies in Hollywood movies.  Maybe the Brits should all take accent reduction classes.

By on 11/26/09 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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