The English Free Cinema was a film movement which emerged in Britain in the second half of the 1950s and lasted until the mid-1960s. It was a response to conventional and commercialized British filmmaking, which predominantly focused on middle-class stories and traditional narrative conventions. Free Cinema has influenced the film history in the following decades.
Free Cinema was characterized by a vision of cinema as a personal and experimental art form, which sought to explore the British reality through independent and innovative documentary and drama films. Free Cinema artists sought to bring their personal vision and experience to British cinema.
The movement consisted mainly of three directors: Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. In 1956, they organized a series of short film screenings, called “Free Cinema”, at the National Film Theater in London. The series consisted of short films made by young British filmmakers seeking to explore the daily lives of working class and post-war youth.
Notable Free Cinema films include Karel Reisz’s 1960 ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 ‘This Sporting Life’ and Tony Richardson’s 1961 ‘A Taste of Honey’. These films focused about working class life, poverty, loneliness, sexuality and disillusionment.
Free Cinema greatly influenced the new wave of British cinema of the 1960s, also known as the British New Wave. The movement led to the creation of a new generation of filmmakers, such as Ken Loach, who continued to explore the same themes through social cinema.
How Free Cinema Was Born
English Free Cinema arose in the late 1950s as a response to the conventional and commercialized British film production of the time. Filmmakers of the movement, including Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, were dissatisfied with the creative limitations imposed by the British film system and sought to explore new forms of expression through cinema.
In particular, the movement sought to create documentary and drama films that reflected contemporary British reality, with a particular focus on the lives of the working class and post-war youth. These filmmakers believed that cinema should be a personal and experimental art form, capable of expressing the worldview and individual experience of the artists.
The Free Cinema took its name from a series of independent short film screenings organized in 1956 by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson at the National Film Theater in London. These short films were characterized by an innovative and personal style, and addressed themes such as loneliness, poverty, sexuality and disillusionment.
The movement had a major impact on British film culture, influencing the new wave of 1960s cinema and giving birth to a new generation of independent filmmakers and innovative.
The Directors of Free Cinema
The main exponents of English Free Cinema were three directors: Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. These filmmakers worked together to organize the independent short film screening series that started the movement.
Lindsay Anderson was one of the most representative directors of Free Cinema. He directed some of the most important films of the movement, such as “This Sporting Life” (1963) and “If….” (1968), which addressed social and political issues through an innovative and experimental style.
Karel Reisz was another important director of Free Cinema. His film “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1960) is considered one of the masterpieces of the movement. The film tells the story of a young worker who tries to escape the monotony of factory life and weekends spent in pubs.
Finally, Tony Richardson was the director of “A Taste of Honey” (1961), another important Free Cinema film. The film tells the story of a young girl trying to survive in post-war Manchester, dealing with issues such as poverty, sexuality and homosexuality.
In addition to these three directors, other notable exponents of Free Cinema include John Schlesinger, who directed the film “Billy Liar” (1963), and Ken Loach, who directed the film “Kes” (1969). These filmmakers continued to explore the social and political issues of the movement through the social cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.
Why Did Free Cinema End?
English Free Cinema had a relatively short life, lasting only a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The movement began to decline in the late 1960s as many of its leading exponents began working abroad or leaving the cinema.
There were several reasons for the demise of Free Cinema. First, the movement had difficulty finding a wider audience outside the intellectual and cinephile circles, due in part to the experimental and non-commercial nature of the movement’s films.
Secondly, many of the Free Cinema filmmakers have been drawn to new challenges and opportunities abroad, especially in the United States, where they have had the opportunity to work with bigger budgets and reach larger audiences.
Thirdly, British film culture underwent a transformation in the 1960s with the advent of new wave cinema and the growing popularity of commercial genre films. These changes have led to an increased focus on entertainment cinema and a reduced interest in the experimental and social cinema of Free Cinema.
The Films of the Free Cinema to Watch
There are several Free Cinema films that are considered masterpieces of the movement and are absolutely worth watching. Here are some examples:
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
It’s a drama movie British 1960 directed by Karel Reisz and based on the novel of the same name by Alan Sillitoe. The film is regarded as one of the masterpieces of 1960s British cinema and is notable for launching the career of actor Albert Finney.
The plot follows the life of Arthur Seaton, a young factory worker in the industrial city of Nottingham. Arthur is a tough and rebellious man who can’t stand the idea of being trapped in a monotonous and alienating life. His only escape from reality is alcohol and women, and so he begins an affair with his boss’s wife, Brenda, who ends up becoming pregnant.
The film explores the themes of the working class, alienation, rebellion and individualism. Arthur represents the voice of working class youth who want to break free from the shackles of society, but his desire for freedom is thwarted by the consequences of his actions. Ultimately, Arthur must come to terms with the consequences of his choices and try to find a balance between his private life and his position in society.
The film had a great impact on 1960s British culture and was lauded for its realistic depiction of working class life. Albert Finney’s performance as Arthur Seaton was critically acclaimed and helped establish him as one of the UK’s most respected actors. The film is considered a classic of British cinema and is still widely studied and appreciated by film scholars today.
A Taste of Honey (1961)
It is a 1961 British film, directed by Tony Richardson and based on Shelagh Delaney’s play of the same name. The film had a major impact on British popular culture at the time and is still regarded as a classic of British cinema today.
The plot of the film follows the young teenager Jo (played by Rita Tushingham), who lives with her mother Helen (played by Dora Bryan), an irresponsible woman and an alcoholic. When Helen marries a new man and goes on a honeymoon, Jo is left alone and decides to look for work to support herself. During her search, she meets a black sailor, Jimmy (played by Paul Danquah), with whom she begins a relationship. When Jo finds out she’s pregnant, she decides to keep the baby and deal with the situation on her own.
The film explores themes important to the time, such as poverty, racism and sexuality. In particular, the character of Jo is considered to be an important representation of the cultural shift that was taking place in 1960s UK, where young people began to rebel against traditional social conventions.
The film was critically acclaimed and won several awards, including the BAFTA for Best British Film and the Golden Globe for Best Debut Actress for Rita Tushingham. The film also had a great impact on popular culture, inspiring later songs and plays.
This Sporting Life (1963)
It is a 1963 British film directed by Lindsay Anderson and written by David Storey, based on Storey’s novel of the same name.
The film tells the story of Frank Machin, played by Richard Harris, a rugby player from the north of England who dreams of making it big in the sporting world. However, his aggressive personality and violent behavior cause him problems both in his private life and in his sporting career.
Frank falls in love with a widow, played by Rachel Roberts, but their relationship is plagued by her callousness and lack of communication skills. Meanwhile, the owner of the rugby team, played by Alan Badel, exploits Frank’s ability for his own personal gain, questioning his integrity as an athlete.
The film was critically acclaimed for its realistic depiction of the world of rugby and the performances of Harris and Roberts. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Richard Harris.
The film is regarded as one of the masterpieces of British cinema of the 1960s and inspired many subsequent sports films.
Billy Liar (1963)
It is a 1963 British film directed by John Schlesinger and based on the novel of the same name by Keith Waterhouse. The movie is one black comedy which tells the story of Billy Fisher, a young funeral home employee in a small town in the north of England, who dreams of escaping the boredom of his daily life and becoming a writer.
Billy is a serial liar who lives in an imaginary world of his own, where he is a successful man and where women vie for his love. His real life, however, is very different: he still lives with his parents, his mother is oppressive and his father is an alcoholic. Billy also has a girlfriend, Barbara, who proposes that they run away together to a new life in London.
The film explores the tensions between Billy’s desire to escape and the reality of his life. Billy constantly finds himself having to choose between dream and reality, between his imagination and his daily life, between love and responsibility.
The film is known for its realistic depiction of life in 1960s working class Britain, as well as its iconic portrayal of Tom Courtenay as Billy. The film received positive reviews from critics and became a classic of British cinema.
It is a 1968 film directed by Lindsay Anderson. The film was written by David Sherwin and John Howlett and is set in an English boarding school where students are rebelling against authority and the oppressive system around them.
The film follows the story of three students: Mick (played by Malcolm McDowell), a rebellious boy who doesn’t conform to boarding school rules; Johnny (played by David Wood), a boy who tries to fit into the system, but is constantly humiliated by teachers; and Wallace (played by Richard Warwick), a younger boy trying to find his way in the world.
The film is known for its bold depiction of youth violence and rebellion. As the students rebel against the boarding school authorities, the film explores themes of anarchy, anti-authoritarianism, violence and individual freedom.
The film was a great critical success and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969. It was also nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
It was a groundbreaking film for its time and inspired many other films about youth rebellion and criticism of the system. The film was an important landmark for the 1970s punk movement and influenced a number of directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
Kes is a 1969 British film directed by Ken Loach and written by Barry Hines. The film is based on the novel by Hines, titled “A Kestrel for a Knave”. The plot follows a young boy named Billy Casper (played by David Bradley), who lives in a small mining town in South Yorkshire during the 1960s. Billy has a difficult life, has no friends and is bullied at school. But his life changes when he finds a young kestrel and decides to train it.
The film deals with several themes, including poverty, social oppression, unemployment, lack of opportunities and the struggle for independence. In particular, Kes explores Billy’s relationship with the kestrel, showing how the boy’s passion for training birds gives him a sense of purpose and control over his life.
The film was critically acclaimed for its ability to show the reality of British working-class life in the 1960s in a gritty and realistic way. In particular, David Bradley’s performance as Billy was highly praised. Kes is considered one of Ken Loach’s best films and a classic of British cinema.
Momma Don’t Allow (1956)
It is a 1956 British film directed by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. The movie is one musical comedy which follows a group of young musicians trying to make their way in the British music industry of the 1950s.
The plot of the film focuses on the character of Jeannie (played by Sylvia Syms), a young singer who dreams of becoming a music star. Jeannie meets a group of musicians playing at a local club, including guitarist Paddy (played by Melvyn Hayes) and saxophonist Bert (played by Cliff Richard). The group is noticed by a record producer, but in order to sign a contract, they must overcome a series of obstacles and rivalries.
The title of the film, “Momma Don’t Allow”, is taken from a traditional jazz song that appears in the film. The song is played at various times throughout the film and is used as a recurring theme to tie the different scenes together.
The film was one of the first films to address 1950s British youth culture and the nascent rock and roll music scene. The film received positive reviews upon its release and helped launch the career of Cliff Richard, who achieved great success as a singer and actor in the following decades.
We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959)
It’s a documentary film British 1959, directed by Karel Reisz. The film was produced by Free Cinema, a 1950s British film movement that sought to bring real-life experience to the screen.
The documentary follows a group of teenagers from the London district of Lambeth as they spend their free time. The boys were selected by a local youth organisation, ‘Alford House’, and the film explores their daily lives, their aspirations, challenges and dreams.
The documentary mainly focuses on boys, but there are also some girls who appear sporadically in the film. Young people are portrayed as intelligent, charming and full of energy, but also as people living in difficult conditions and struggling with the social and economic limitations of their social class.
The film was critically acclaimed for its authentic depiction of young people’s life in 1950s London, and for the way it captured the vitality and spontaneity of its protagonists. The film was also a box office success, especially among young audiences.
The film is an important historical document of working-class London life in the 1950s, and has inspired many other documentaries on British youth culture, including Franc Roddam’s “Quadrophenia”.
The Singing Street (1952)
The Singing Street (1952) is a musical film directed by Jean Negulesco, starring the famous singer and actress Doris Day. The film is set in 1920s Dublin and focuses on the life of a working class Irish family.
The young protagonist of the film is Donal (played by Gordon MacRae), a boy who wishes to become a successful musician and songwriter. His family, however, doesn’t approve of his passion for music and forces him to work in a brick factory.
Despite this, Donal meets a young and talented dancer, played by Doris Day, and together they decide to form a band. Their music is well received by the public and the two lovers are able to achieve their dream.
The film is best known for its many songs, including “I Love the Way You Say Goodnight”, “Just One of Those Things”, and “The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!)”. The cast also includes other film celebrities of the time, including Gene Nelson, Anne Triola and James Barton.
The Singing Street was well received by critics and audiences, becoming one of the most popular musical films of the 1950s. The film received three Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Original Score.
March to Aldermaston (1959)
It is a 1959 British documentary directed by Lindsay Anderson, with the screenplay by Colin MacInnes and the participation of many peace activists.
The film follows the 1958 four-day peace march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, where the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons manufacturing facility was located. The march was organized by the British Movement for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and attracted over 10,000 participants from across the UK.
The film is known for its documentary style which includes images of anti-war demonstrations, speeches by CND leaders and speeches by famous people including actor Michael Redgrave and poet laureate John Masefield.
The film received critical acclaim and helped raise awareness of nuclear disarmament in the UK. The film became a classic of British documentary cinema and was screened at a number of film festivals, including the 1959 Cannes Film Festival.
The Knack …and How to Get It (1965)
It is a 1965 British film directed by Richard Lester. The plot follows a young man, Tolen (played by Ray Brooks), who seems to have a “magic touch” with women, and his nerdy roommate, Colin (Michael Crawford), who tries to learn the art of seduction.
The film is known for its quirky and innovative visual style, with contrast photography and fast editing making it an example of 1960s British cinema. In addition, the film contains a very successful soundtrack, with the song “The Knack” by The Knack giving the film its title.
The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Palme d’Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The film was also an important influence for the English Free Cinema movement and inspired many of the British comedies of the 1960s 60s and 70s, like “Alfie” and “If….”.
The film is a social and sexual satire of 1960s England, with a message of sexual liberation and a challenge to the social conventions of the time. While some of its jokes may seem a little dated or politically incorrect today, the film remains a cornerstone of British cinema and an entertaining and entertaining comedy.
Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)
It is a 1966 British film directed by Karel Reisz and starring David Warner, Vanessa Redgrave and Robert Stephens. The film was written by David Mercer, based on his stage play of the same name.
The plot follows Morgan Delt (David Warner), an eccentric and borderline artist, divorced by his wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave) who is awarded custody of their son. Morgan, unable to accept the situation, tries in every way to win Leonie back, creating absurd and destabilizing situations for his family and for himself.
The film deals with issues such as alienation, madness, personal freedom and the desire for redemption. David Warner’s performance in the title role was critically acclaimed and he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
It was a very innovative film for its time, with a satirical and surreal approach to the subject of mental illness, which was still very stigmatized in those years. The film has become a cult movie and inspired many later artists and filmmakers.