Unlike us, the US believes in itself

Spielberg's 'Lincoln' encourages national pride, so such a film could never be made here – unless, of course, it was about Clare Balding

Share
Related Topics

To watch Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was to experience the odd sensation of wanting to burst out laughing at moments when, from the director's point of view, even a wry smile would perhaps have been a step too far. This feeling was particularly strong in the opening scene, which finds the president in conversation with two suspiciously voluble black northern soldiers, one of whom harangues him so animatedly on the subject of civil rights, racial destiny and the post-bellum future that you almost expected him to conclude with the words "Yes sir, and in a hundred and fifty years time my great-great-great-grandson sure will be voting for Mr Obama."

Here, clearly, is a film that for all its carnage, its duplicity and its constant reminders that principle invariably gets shouldered out of the way by expedience, practically falls over itself in its anxiety to make Americans feel good about themselves. All this offers a neat little reminder of the profound psychological differences that still separate the British and American outlooks on life, especially in the field of the creative arts. No home-grown talent could make a film like Lincoln, not because there is no comparable event in recent British history, but because, as Max Hastings entertainingly pointed out last week, making the native citizenry feel good about their historical selves is not a trick that most British artists ever feel like bringing off.

Thus, should any British film director attempt to make a film about – say – the Crimean war he or she would inevitably concentrate on military mismanagement, bureaucratic incompetence and the cholera wards at Scutari. In much the same way, any British film set in the 1930s assumes as a matter of course that the real subjects are appeasement and social division rather than the slow swell of bourgeois entitlement of which revisionist historians now imagine the decade to have consisted.

Even when an artist sets out on a feelgood mission, there is usually a worm uncoiling in the bud. Zadie Smith's novel NW, for example, notwithstanding the violent death of one of its principal characters, was widely commended as a celebration of vibrant, multicultural north-west London. I put it down feeling rather glad that I didn't live in a place where every trip to the park seemed to involve taking your life in your hands and where the reek of marijuana rose to befuddle each thronged and teeming street corner.

...

Last week's Tatler poll on the nation's "most fascinating people" threw up what, to the disinterested observer, must have seemed some very curious results. The top spot was occupied by Clare Balding, with Pippa Middleton a whisker behind, and the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in third. The Queen languished in fourth, and there was also space in the top 10 for her grandson Prince Harry.

A first thought was that the sample must have been fairly limited: the cast of Made in Chelsea, perhaps, or some similar coven of celebrity-besotted light-mindedness. But this is sheer snobbery. Miss Middleton, for instance, with her frenzied attempts to establish a career in the slipstream of her even more distinguished sister, is a version of a long-running historical archetype – the great person's dependant, whose aspirations have to be calibrated to the example of what has gone before.

The only mystery of the Tatler list is why the Queen made such a comparatively poor showing. For Her Majesty is one of the great enigmas of her age, a powerful and enduring woman who is constantly in the public eye, yet of whom almost nothing is known, and whose occasional interventions always strike one as remarkably shrewd. I was particularly amused by the revelation that she disapproved so much of the award of a knighthood to Mick Jagger that she contrived to get the investiture done by Prince Charles. Never mind what we think about the Queen. What does the Queen think of us? If there is one unwritten book whose absence diminishes the Waterstones shelf, it is "Elizabeth R: My Story".

...

What with Lord Fellowes's Great Houses currently ornamenting the schedules on ITV and Chatsworth aristocratically proceeding on BBC1, a whiff of what might be called stately-home chic hangs once more in the media air. As to where this pious absorption in the gracious living of a bygone age originates, Lord Fellowes has democratically opined that great houses "were not put there for posh people to live in. Their history belongs to all of us".

Well intentioned and properly egalitarian as all this is, I was irresistibly reminded of a scene in Simon Raven's novel Friends in Low Places (1965) in which the wily Lord Canteloupe, who has recently opened his own house to the public, explains the scheme's philosophical underpinning: "Emphasise the luxury, the social injustice, the immorality of it all – and then invite them to join in. Encourage them to feel like lords and ladies living in the lap and grinding the faces of the poor."

Can it be that Lord Fellowes, rather than encouraging a sense of communal feeling, is unwittingly playing a kind of confidence trick on his viewers? It is all very well Chatsworth "belonging" to us in the way that the Tower of London or the Houses of Parliament do, but surely the title deeds are still safely in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick
 

I’ll support England’s women, but it’s not like men’s football – and that’s a good thing

Matthew Norman
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue