Period Fashions

In this piece I take a look at an esteemed critic's appraisal of Lance Comfort's Silent Dust. Too often, perhaps, we see the past through the sentimentalities of our parents.


Brian Macfarlane has the advantage of knowing a period well.

Comfort’s films have their value, not merely as entertainments, but as chronicles of their age.  A sense of postwar malaise also hangs over the film, in the image of the scruffy deserter on the run (thus allying it with such films as Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive, 1948, and Lawrence Huntington’s Man on the Run, 1949), in the notion voiced by Simon, ‘If I’d had the guts, I’d have been a conchie’. And in Lord Clandon’s remark, ‘The peace hasn’t turned out as we’d hoped’. There is a whole sub-genre of films which address the idea of ex-servicemen (very few women) coming to terms with the demands of peace. This note is lightly struck in Silent Dust, but it is there and it helps to give the film a richer texture, anchoring it firmly in its period.  (BFI Notes)

Though not too well. Those strange creatures he puts between brackets - a fashionable nod which males writers are required to make nowadays - either an irrelevancy, tokenism, or a poor grasp of the times. Given that few women actually fought in the war it would be unlikely that this genre would include them; though Frieda gives a powerful, if oblique, comment on a woman’s hard reckoning with peace. So why the mention? Surely he’s not apologising for the genre!1

The actual female experience of the Second World War - all that illicit sex - would have upset the period’s atmosphere of peace and reconciliation, nicely conveyed by Silent Dust and brilliantly established in Frieda. Always we have to understand the limits of social convention in a given period. The world portrayed by Elizabeth Bowen, Penelope Lively, and, on a far lower level, by Marghanita Laski, would be too licentious (and too raw) for those cinematic audiences.2 We are in the theatre, sitting behind an ex-serviceman, out, like us, for a night’s entertainment, when he discovers that the woman holding his hand was ecstatically happy and promiscuously free while he was… What! Betty didn’t want him back? No. Surely… He was better dead! “You weren’t like… You didn’t… You…you… You f***ing tart….”

Macfarlane makes a good if debatable point: the pavilion “may be a way…of announcing his own arrival in the upper classes.” This might be true, although this is to downplay the obsessive nature of his interest, which in excluding the community actually defeats this arriviste objective. That exclusive dedication to his son highlighting his lack of decorum, an essential attribute of the aristocrat. A cooler and therefore more calculating Rowley would know this. 

On one issue I disagree. Macfarlane, although he acknowledges the complexities of Lord Clandon and Sir Rowley, underplays the tensions between them, and so sidesteps that conflict between old and new money which I described in a previous post. Our interpretations of the ending are therefore very different. Where I see the New acquiring the sensibility of the Old, Macfarlane thinks of “a less class-divided future.” It is an odd way of describing what is a rapprochement within an elite circle. The propaganda of the period has been taken too seriously. This film reveals a more interesting picture: the old lot still rule, but they are making adjustments, letting in the new rich, while also paying their respects to the fashionable shibboleth: the dignity of the common man. Words and beliefs are important. But we mustn't mix up culture with structure, mistaking what is said on the surface for what is going on underneath. It will be at least a decade before Britain sees its ancien r√©gime crack and fall.


1.  Should a female critic apologise for a lack of males in a lesbian coming out movie…?

2.  See my pieces on The Heat of the Day and Moon Tiger. Laski’s novel is To Bed With Grand Music.