The People's War in cinema: how was the home front portrayed in film?

23 Oct 2019

In the first of a short blog series featuring student research which appears in the 2019 issue of the Alfred Journal, BA (Hons) History student Sam Jenkins explores how life on the home front in WW2 was portrayed in the films of the era.

The Second World War has always been one of my favourite historical topics. It sometimes seems hard to believe that such a massive conflict, that costed millions of lives, took place less than one hundred years ago.

It's easy to see how the ramifications of the war are still with us today, with organisations like the United Nations being set up to uphold human rights and promote peaceful, diplomatic cooperation when different nations disagree. I've also always really enjoyed cinema-going as a hobby, especially when I was younger. I have many happy memories of going to the cinema with my family as a child, watching action films with classic heroes, and stories where characters start out disliking each other, before coming together in unity for a common cause by the end of the film.

Halfway through my case studies module on 'The People's War', I had to select a particular aspect of life on the home front, to research how this area supported or contradicted the notion of common solidarity between British citizens against the Nazi threat.

Wartime cinema was the perfect option. According to the historian Angus Calder, around twenty-five to thirty million cinema seats were sold in Britain every week during the Second World War. This meant that cinema was a highly important medium for government propagandists to communicate to a massive portion of the general public.

From a historian's point of view, wartime films are a great source for analysing how 'The People's War' narrative was communicated, and whether the messages portrayed by these films reflected home front realities.

Did British cinema conform to 'The People's War' narrative?

On the one hand, it can be argued that through its use of class and gender issues, some wartime films did support The People's War narrative. Indeed, there are many films which show people of different backgrounds coming together and helping one another in spite of their differences.

One of the best examples can be found in Millions Like Us (1943), where a hostile and slightly uppity character called Jennifer shows resentment towards working in a factory with girls who are of a lesser social standing than her. As the film progresses however, we see Jennifer gradually blend in more with her colleagues: she even offers another girl the use of her underwear for a date. These scenes imply that while those contributing to the war effort came from different classes and backgrounds, people were able to come together in spite of traditional social barriers.

However, there are many other films that reinforced traditional class or gender narratives, undermining 'The People's War' idea by exposing tensions based on people's differences. Some films even recognised the resentments of some individuals. In This Happy Breed (1944) for example, one character remarks at a Christmas dinner that millions of homes were suffering from a lack of warmth and food. Such a scene acknowledges that wider problems still existed over the conditions of the poor, despite 'The People's War' narrative encouraging an equality of sacrifice to the war effort.

I argue that, while some wartime British cinema attempted to explore and challenge barriers between different class and gender narratives, others simply reinforced traditional attitudes, limiting the effectiveness of how 'The People's War' concept was portrayed in cinema.

Writing for Alfred

About a year after submitting my essay, I found out that students can apply to have their work published in the Alfred journal, which is published once a year in May. Given the social importance of cinema and film, and because there are still people alive who lived through the war years, I wanted to share my findings to a general audience, and Alfred seemed like an accessible way to achieve this. The process of submitting my application and receiving comments from a peer-review panel was very straightforward and the launch event allowed all the authors and their families to come together, share knowledge and celebrate the incredible work of students in Winchester.

About the Author

I am currently in my final year of the Modern History course and I'm loving every minute of it! Having my first-year essay published in Alfred was also a real confidence booster as I now begin the process of writing up my dissertation. This will be on the work of Save the Children in the 1960s and how their work contributed to the debate on family values at that time. Other topics that I am studying include British culture and society during the inter-war period, the Holocaust, as well as the Victorian era.

Alfred 2020 submissions

Interested in submitting your work to be considered for Alfred 2020? We would love to hear from you!
Alfred welcomes submissions in various forms: essays, original works, creative pieces, critical commentaries or any other written form. If you would like to make a submission, please email, so we may send you the formatting guidelines and a range of FAQs. The deadline to submit your work for consideration is 24 January 2020.

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