Watching War Films With My Dad

Source: Al Murray, Watching War Films With My Dad (London: Random House, 2013), pp. 12-15

Text: War films were a mainstay of British male popular culture when I was growing up in the Seventies. To some the Seventies is all about flares and disco, or Mohican haircuts and punk or, worst of all, ABBA – but to me the Seventies is war films on the telly. I was blissfully ignorant of the idea that the movies were a way of British culture processing what had happened to it during World War Two: the nine-year-old me had little sensitivity (or even an atom of it) to what my grandmother who had lost her husband and brother in the war might make of my enthusiasm for war films. Or my mum, who’d never known her father or uncle. They were made for men, about men, with men in them. That’s certainly how I saw them when I was a boy – though I know I didn’t think about it too hard, either.

[…]

I have a clear memory of being taken to see A Bridge Too Far at the cinema when I was nine. It was a really big deal – we didn’t go to the cinema much, and this was a major dad-and-lad event. I think we went to Bletchley but I could be wrong. It might have been the bright lights of Aylesbury, possibly Luton. These were the days of the B-feature, huge cinemas that you could stay in of an afternoon and watch the whole programme all the way round again. I remember seeing The Eagle Has Landed like this: we’d missed the start so stayed and caught the painfully slow first half of exposition and plotting. That was definitely in Luton. And the B-feature was a short about trains.

Now a Sunday-afternoon teatime staple, A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden. Every male human of my ilk has seen this star-studded war epic, a tale of British pluck and tea, American guts and glory, immaculate German uniforms and ruthlessness, lofty failure, etc., etc. And when I say star-studded I mean star-studded: Connery, Redford, Hackman, Bogarde, Caine, Hopkins, Caan, Olivier – and loads of other people you need the first names for. And Cliff from Cheers in a cameo that irresistibly draws the eye away from Robert Redford, proving that a spud-faced bloke is better than any handsome git any day. Directed epically in an epic style by Dickie Attenborough, with an epic script by William Goldman, it tells the epic tale of the failed Operation Market Garden at a personal as well as, um, epic level. It has tons of guts, tons of glory and stars vying for screen time. It ends poignantly, asking us to ask: why? And it is, like all historical films, shot through with inaccuracies, riddled like a machine-gunned evil Nazi’s corpse. Some of them proper howlers.

And A Bridge Too Far was a big cinematic event for my father, too; living, as we did, in a village in Buckinghamshire with one bus a week. It also wasn’t dad’s thing much – he has always had a restless energy and concetration that didn’t suit the essential passivity of sitting in a cinema seat.

My Dad was an airborne sapper (engineer) officer from the 1950s through to the 1970s and the battle at Arnhem is probably the central event in British airborne culture and history. He knew many of the men who had been there – he did his National Service in the 1950s and then stayed on in the TA. So how Arnhem was represented on the big screen was a properly big deal. He also knew and still knows the battle backwards. An essential truth, how the men fought at Arnhem – bravely and against increasingly overwhelming odds – is in the film, no doubt about it. But it has to be right. Aged nine, I was a willingly thirsty sponge for all of this. But old habits die hard. When I first broached with my father that I’d be writing this book he muttered about how he’d seen War Horse the night before and how most of that was wrong. So watch a war film with me or my dad, or, worse still, me and my dad – at your peril …

Comments: Al Murray (born 1968) is a British comedian, best known for his ‘The Pub Landlord’ character. His memoir Watching Films With My Dad is predominantly about watching war films on television, and their relationship to true history. The chapter goes on to detail the historical inaccuracies in A Bridge Too Far and several other war films of its period.

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