Best British Films of All Time

It's true that most of us love a full blown Hollywood blockbuster. But over the years, British film makers have had an undeniable impact on the global cinematic scene. Here, in no particular order, is a list of the greatest British films ever made. Many of you will know most of them. But some of you, especially younger film buffs, might have missed one or two. And even if you have seen all the films on the list, then each and every one is always well worth another viewing.

                                                                                                                     

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This true epic from Director David Lean won both the BAFTA and the Oscar for Best Picture and is still today a treat for the eyes. The sheer scope of the film, which deals with one man's mission to obtain Arabian support for British troops fighting against the Turks during the First World war, is simply breathtaking. Director Lean teamed up with writers Michael Wilson and Robert Bolt to create a screenplay that depicts Lawrence, played by a superb Peter O'Toole, pitted against not only hostile locals but also against the very sands of the Arabian desert itself. Photographed in truly gorgeous 70mm by cinematographer Freddie Young, the film is a treasure trove of excellent performances and unforgettable scenes. Anyone who has seen it will remember the famous long, slow shot of Omar Sharif appearing from out of the shimmering distance. A must-watch if ever there was one.

 

The 39 Steps (1935)

Considered by many to be Hitchcock's finest work, his version of the 1915 John Buchan novel staring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol is a rollercoaster of suspense and intrigue. The director was quoted at the time as saying that, “I am out to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups.” And the tense story of an oblivious engineer who through no fault of his own, gets dragged into a vicious game of hide and seek involving a dead female spy, a desperate chase through the Scottish Highlands and back to London before the mystery is finally solved, certainly keeps his promise. Considerably enhanced by the sexual tension between the two main characters, 39 Steps belongs in every serious film fans collection.

 

The Third Man (1949)

Time has done nothing to diminish the impact of this true British Classic. Superbly shot by cinematographer Robert Krasker, the story of an innocent American (played by Joseph Cotten) in post-war Vienna is a fascinating tale of corrupt decadence and unravelling truths. Orson Welles' portrayal of the infamous Harry Lime is about as extraordinary and evil as it comes. The script was born out of a collaboration between director Carol Reed and novelist Graham Greene and to this day contains scenes once watched will stay in the mind for a long time after the end of the film. And of course, no review of The Third Man would be complete without a mention of the haunting zither rendition of the Harry Lime theme, performed by Anton Karas and which intensifies the film's atmosphere to a degree rarely experienced in cinemas then or since.

 

Brief Encounter (1946)

Not just for the ladies, this real tear-jerker is rightly credited with being one of the most moving films in British cinematic history. Director David Lean's story of two respectable and decent, archetypal English strangers meeting on a railway platform, is an adaption from a Noel Coward play and shows Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson finding true love and then, for fear of causing 'a social fuss', choosing not to follow up on the once-in-a-lifetime event. The film admirably depicts how even the socially restrained, stiff-upper-lip British can get (almost) swept away by emotion. Don't forget to take a pack of paper tissues. You'll need 'em.

 

Kes (1969)

This much-loved film from director Ken Loach tells the heart-warming story of a young boy who finds escape from his drab, Northern life by raising and training a Kestrel. Filmed in and around Barnsley and based on the novel, A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, Kes is a vehicle for Loach's poignant commentary on the lack of opportunities for the working classes. A serious film dealing with a serious subject, Loach nevertheless manages to add the odd hilarious moment and a special mention has to go to Brian Glover's spectacular performance as the manic sports teacher. A great British film for adults and children alike.

 

Don't Look Now (1973)

Directed by Nic Roeg, this deeply disturbing story staring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as parents of a daughter who is trying to contact them from beyond the grave marks a milestone in British horror history. Almost every scene is a thin veil of terror waiting to pounce. Roeg's use of the labyrinthine-like back streets of Venice takes us into a world of warped visions, suggestive imagery and fills us with a sense of absolute dread. For the faint of heart, this one certainly is not.

 

The Red Shoes (1948)

An often overlooked gem of British cinema, this film from directors Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell is known to have had a deep affect on some members of its viewing audience. The story, which centres around a beautifully choreographed 14-minute ballet is based on a fairy tale of the same name from Hans Christian Andersen and depicts the strained relationship between an aspiring ballerina (Moira Shearer) and her obsessed impresario (Anton Walbrook). With an original music score by Brian Easdale and Jack Cardiff responsible for the cinematography, the film is a self-confessed favourite of renowned film makers Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma.

 

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Director Robert Hamer's Ealing comedy is a deliciously dark story is one of those rare opportunities for the audience to side with the killer and still be able to laugh about it. Alec Guiness puts in a remarkable performance as no less than 8 (yes, eight) different characters, hell bent on knocking off all the members of his family standing between him and his inheritance. Joan Greenwood deserves a special mention for her portrayal of the wonderfully evil Sybilla. Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on a book by Roy Horniman and Israel Rank and still a firm favourite of family audiences all over the world.

 

Trainspotting (1996)

Director Danny Boyle's darkly ironic tale of madcap Scottish junkies really rattled the Hollywood cage and gave British cinema a much needed boost. The film became an unexpected springboard for actors Johnny Lee Miller, Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle amongst others, and writer John Hodge's adaption of the Irvine Welsh novel garnished a well-deserved Oscar. Cleverly marketed with an amazing soundtrack, Trainspotting went a long way to placing the British (and Scottish) film industries back on the global map.

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Another classic offering from director David Lean, this film is a thrilling study of both the physical and psychological battles played out in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp during WW2. Alec Guinness gives a brilliant performance as the British Officer tasked with building the infamous bridge and who gradually loses his grip on reality during the construction process. The winner of seven Oscars, (screenplay included), The Bridge on the River Kwai is a gritty and vivid portrayal of the tragedy of war and examines closely the insanity of misdirected loyalty and false pride when taken to the very brink.

 

Get Carter (1971)

Starring a superbly enigmatic Michael Caine and under the no-nonsense direction of Mike Hodges, Get Carter is a compulsive, powerful thriller which offers a merciless insight into gritty gangland crime in the non glamorous world of industrial Northern England. Caine plays a villain who returns to his home town to bury his murdered brother and, of course, find out who killed him in order to then extract the appropriate retribution. Caine's performance is sexy, suave and completely sadistic. Writer John Osbourne appears in a gay cameo and so does the late ex-Coronation Street star, Bryan Mosley (Alf Roberts). A down to earth crime film which works because of its complete lack of pretentious Hollywood gloss.

 

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Winner of four Oscars, this heart-wrenching drama directed by Hugh Hudson tells the story of Harold Adams, a Jewish Cambridge student and his fellow competitor, the devout Scottish missionary, Eric Liddel who take part in the 1924 Olympics. The cinematography is truly astounding and the whole, remarkable masterpiece is topped off by a breathtaking score by Vangelis. A must see. Again and again.

 

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Possibly one of David Niven's best ever roles, this romantic fantasy under the reigns of director team Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, tells a passionate yet intelligent story of an RAF pilot who should have died but due to a mistake from 'up above' survives and falls in love with an American radio operator. The film is great fun to watch, but be prepared for a tear or three.

 

Henry V (1944)

Not just for Shakespeare fans, this epic, filmed during the second World War and directed by RSC stalwart, Laurence Olivier, is a perfect example of a what a moral boosting piece of propaganda can do to an audience. The film boasts an impressive cast of Harcourt Williams as Charles VI, Robert Newton as Ancient Pistol and George Robey as Falstaff is a spectacular account of the Battle of Agincourt. Olivier excels as director and in his role as Henry the Plantagenet and rightly received a Special Academy Award for this true viewing treat.

 

The Ladykillers (1955)

One of the most famous films ever to come out of the world renowned Ealing Studios, The Ladykillers directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring the effervescent Alec Guinness, a rotund Peter Sellers and a purely evil Herbert Lom (both of whom would reunite in the later Pink Panther films) tells the story of a band of dastardly criminals hiding out in the home of a sweet old lady played superbly by Katie Johnston. The ensuing chaos leads to bickering rivalry and eventually amazingly extravagant means of demise. Simply brilliant and so funny you are guaranteed to cry.

If… (1968)

Complex and sometimes cruel, this damning expose of the English Public School system caused quite a stir amongst its British audience, many of whom thought the story came a little too close for comfort. The first of three films made by director Lindsay Anderson in partnership with writer David Sherwin and actor Malcolm McDowell, If remains to this day a much acclaimed example of how cinema made in the UK could even back then rock the British establishment to the core.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Directed by Karel Reisz, this gritty drama is accredited to be one of the earliest in the ‘angry young man’ genre. Set in Nottingham and starring Albert Finney as a factory worker/hero, the film’s uncompromising attitude can sometimes be a little too uncomfortable, but the superb jazz soundtrack by Johnny Dankworth and Finney’s in-your-face performance makes this a must-see for any serious fans of British cinema.

Brighton Rock (1947)

Based on a 1938 novel by Graham Greene, a very young Richard Attenborough stars as the vicious and ice cold teenager Pinkie Brown. Directed by John Boulting and produced by the brothers Roy and John Bolting, Brighton Rock is a thriller that pulls no punches and boasts equally excellent performances from Hermione Baddeley and Harcourt Williams as a singer and a lawyer.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Another superb offering from the famous Ealing Studios, this hilarious comedy starring a truly wonderful Alec Guinness is the story of a ‘plain ordinary’ civil servant who plots to steal 3 million in gold bullion from the Bank of England. There are marvellous supporting performances from the likes of Sid James, Alfie Bass and Stanley Holloway, and even a cameo from upcoming starlet Audrey Hepburn, but it is Guinness who makes this classic a treat to watch over and over again.

Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean’s adaption of this Charles Dickens classic is filled to the brim by first class performances from stars like John Mills as Pip the elder, Jean Simmons as Estella, Francis L. Sullivan as Jaggers the lawyer and a superb Martita Hunt as the almost decrepit Miss Havisham. Lean’s excellent tradecraft captures perfectly the subtle balance of Dicken’s original story and manages the seamless transition from dark drama to uplifting comedy with such ease the film won an Oscar for the best camera work (Guy Green) and for Set Decoration and Art Direction (Wilfred Shingleton and John Bryan).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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