I don’t think that there is one nation more wholly self-conscious than Britain. This is not a criticism, but the whole country–or at least its literature and film in the last fifty years seems wholly wrapped up in its myths, its self-identity, and its fate. Not hard to understand given that the last hundred years have seen England scarred by two wars and a failing empire that forces many of its most liberals to confront a country built upon a racist, imperial past.
As Orwell noted, when it comes to the arts, England succeeds only in literature –literature being the most self-aware of artistic art forms, ignoring abstraction and dealing with the painfully real psychologies of conflicted characters fighting their memories, their identities. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (notably revamped as one of England’s myths by Steven Moffat in 2007), to Kingsley Amis and Orwell himself, to Martin Amis, to Ian McEwan (just read Atonement), English literature has a proud history contemplating its own identity and the effect of such contemplation on its characters.
This is true on the British screen, too–a form born more out of the literature of theater, too–shows like Moffat’s Jekyll and Sherlock seem to be part of the great British tradition of re-affirming Britain’s myths, and movies like Children of Men seem as much focused on the future of the planet as they do in questioning how Britain as an elderly and retired empire deals with its unwanted immigrant children: Is there something to lose in British identity? Does being British mean being white? Or born on the Isle? Anglican?
Taking a different path, League of Gentleman focuses on the particular identity of soldiers who have returned to a war-weary nation after fighting. A particularly touchy subject–soldiers returning home are often crushed between the reality of fighting and the seeming ingratitude of civilians for whom war is not the eclipsing reality. Take one look at American soldiers coming home now, and you’ll find this especially true when soldiers are as much tools of empire as anything else.
On the surface, League of Gentleman is a great bank caper film, focused around a disgruntled Colonel forced into early retirement, who gathers about him various veterans who he selected for their criminal records. The films undercurrent becomes clear when the Colonel quickly organizes the men into a deranged sort of criminal military unit, using his house as barracks, setting up a duty roster, and expecting the men to call him Colonel.
The films satire of military bureacracy–especially in peacetime, continues, when on a raid on a military base to gather weapons, they distract the guards by pretending to be higher-ups concerned with the quality of the food. It is a mundane complaint inflated by professional ego and the fear of the chain of command to an utmost degree. Pointedly, they doubly cover their escape by using irish accents so that the raid is blamed on the IRA.
The question in the film is one that pokes at what an army is supposed to during peace time, when it serves as a vestigial organ, flaring up like an inflamed appendix. On a grander scale, what is an army–the principal way an empire is built–supposed to do when the empire starts to contract rather than expand.
The film doesn’t have any good answers, but manages to provide a highly entertaining film, while still examining the nihilism and desperate serach for meaning that comes when you are a man trained to kill during peacetime.
Wars and empires demand a certain level of patriotism, national pride, and confidence–what do these chemicals become when there is no war and no empires–do they slowly go inert, or do they linger like nuclear radiation, ghostly and poisonous. This is not a question that is unique to England, though England, to its credit, seems more willing to focus on this on a national level than other countries, and as for the answer, it is sadly, films like Children of Men may provide it.