France forgets giants of British cinema

No wonder Peter O'Toole looks shocked: the prestigious <i>Cahiers du Cinema</i> has revealed its list of the 100 greatest films of all time &ndash; and not one of them was made here. John Lichfield reports

Friday 21 November 2008 01:00

A prestigious French cinema magazine, arguably the most influential of all cinema magazines, has drawn up a list of the best 100 movies made. Most are American. Many of them are French. None are British. There are German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Indian and Japanese films on the list established by Les Cahiers du Cinema but not a single film made in Britain since the cinema industry began just more than a century ago.

There are several mentions for Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin but only for the movies that the two British-born masters made in Hollywood. The nearest the British cinema industry comes to a mention is the 17th (equal) place given to 2001: A Space Odyssey, made in 1968, by the American director, Stanley Kubrick, partly with British money and with British technicians.

There is no mention for David Lean, whose Lawrence of Arabia (1962) came seventh in a recent list of the best 100 movies drawn up by the American Film Institute in Hollywood. There is no mention for Peter Greenaway or Ken Loach, even though both are very popular with cinema-goers in France.

Cahiers du Cinema is the most intellectual of film publications. Two of its most celebrated writers and critics – Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut – went on to become celebrated film directors. The magazine's list, published this month in an explanatory and illustrated book, was established from the choices of 76 French film directors, critics and industry executives. All 100 movies will be shown, not in list order, at a cinema in the fifth arrondissement of Paris from yesterday until July.

Some of the choices are obscure, but the list, as a whole, cannot be dismissed as over-parochial or merely academic. Eleven movies in the French top 20 are American. The French jury decided – without much originality – that the best film of all is Citizen Kane by Orson Welles (1941), which has also topped a recent top-100 list from the American movie industry.

The French jury did pick four French movies in its top 20 (compared with none in the Hollywood all-time rankings). But the list also gives top 20 places to the most classic of American musicals, Singin' in the Rain (1952) and two celebrated westerns, The Searchers (1956) by John Ford and Rio Bravo (1959) by Howard Hawks. Why no British movies in the top 100?

"It's a little surprising for sure," said John Baxter, a Paris-based, Australian writer, film critic and cinema biographer. "But the French film industry, and especially Cahiers du Cinema, has long had a rather suspicious view of British movie-making. A couple of years ago someone wrote in Cahiers that there was no such thing as a "British" film. They were all metis, in other words mixed-blood, hybrid or mongrel films, influenced by other cultures and especially by Hollywood."

Mr Baxter said that the list, although commendably global and not francocentric, was a touch recherché. "If you look at these choices, they are not the choices of film fans but of film specialists, and French film specialists at that," he said.

"You can imagine the jury competing with each other to make statements to one another with the most obscure selections. "

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The editor of Les Cahiers du Cinema, Jean-Michel Frodon, said that the absence of British-made movies was "striking" but not deliberate. "It does not reflect an anti-British bias. It is simply the result of the individual choices of 76 people in the French industry. Each was asked to name their 100 best films and this was the result. Yes, it is surprising, maybe, that there is no Lawrence of Arabia, or no film by Ken Loach or Stephen Frears (The Queen). But there are many other national film industries which are also missing. There are no Brazilian films, for instance."

It was true, Frodon said, that the British film industry had found it difficult, from the beginning, to distinguish itself from Hollywood. He pointed out that the writer in Cahiers du Cinema who described the British movie industry as "hybrid" or "mongrel" was quoting the British film pioneer and director, William Friese Greene, who died in 1921. "There were good Hitchcock movies made in Britain in the 1930s but any film buff in the world, asked to choose their favourite Hitchcock, would go for Vertigo or another of the films that he made in Hollywood in the 1950s," Frodon said.

Certainly there is no reason to accuse the French jury assembled by Les Cahiers du Cinema of parochialism. The list of 100 best movies drawn up recently by the American Film Institute included a modest 98 Hollywood movies. The only foreign choices were Lawrence of Arabia and another David Lean movie, Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The French Top 20

From Les Cahiers du Cinema:

1. Citizen Kane, 1941, Orson Welles

2= The Night of the Hunter, 1955, Charles Laughton

2= The Rules of the Game, 1939 (La Règle du jeu), Jean Renoir

4. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

5. L'Atalante, 1934, Jean Vigo

6. M, 1931, Fritz Lang

7. Singin' in the Rain, 1952, Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen

8. Vertigo, 1958, Alfred Hitchcock

9= Children of Paradise, 1945 (Les Enfants du Paradis), Marcel Carné

9= The Searchers, 1956, John Ford

9= Greed, 1924, Erich von Stroheim

12= Rio Bravo, 1959, Howard Hawkes

12= To Be or Not to Be, 1942, Ernst Lubitsch

14. Tokyo Story, 1953, Yasujiro Ozu 15 Contempt, (Le Mépris) 1963, Jean-Luc Godard

16= Tales of Ugetsu, 1953, Kenji Mizoguchi

16= City Lights, 1931, Charlie Chaplin

16= The General, 1927, Buster Keaton

16= Nosferatu the Vampire, 1922, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

16= The Music Room, 1958, Satyajit Ray

The American Top 20

From The American Film Institute:

1. Citizen Kane, 1941, Orson Welles

2. The Godfather, 1972, Francis Ford Coppola

3. Casablanca, 1942, Michael Curtiz

4. Raging Bull, 1980, Martin Scorsese

5. Singin' in the Rain, 1952, Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen

6. Gone With the Wind, 1939, Victor Fleming

7. Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, David Lean

8. Schindler's List, 1993, Steven Spielberg

9. Vertigo, 1958, Alfred Hitchcock

10. Wizard of Oz, 1939, Victor Fleming

11. City Lights, 1931, Charlie Chaplin

12. The Searchers, 1956, John Ford

13. Star Wars, 1977, George Lucas

14. Psycho, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock

15. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, Stanley Kubrick

16. Sunset Boulevard, 1950, Billy Wilder

17. The Graduate, 1967, Mike Nichols

18. The General, 1927, Buster Keaton

19. On the Waterfront, 1954, Elia Kazan

20. It's a Wonderful Life, 1946, Frank Capra

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