America’s love-hate affair with England in films

When  you go to the cinema think of how often English legends  such  as  Robin  Hood are used by Americans. Reflect on how,  until  recently  at  least,   American  universities  would  give  as  a  matter  of  course  considerable time to the study of writers such as Shakespeare and  Jane  Austen.   These things happen naturally and without  self-consciousness because  English culture and history is part of American history.

Despite  the recent US appetite for Englishness on film  they  have  a  schizophrenic  relationship  with  this  country.   They produce  Anglophobe  abortions such as Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot”  –  a film   set in the American War of Independence which depicted the  18th Century  British  as  Nazis –  are  vestigially  paranoid  about  “King George”  and constantly use the English in films as stage villains.

Overtly,   Americans  ignore  their English origins.  The  most  absurd example  of  this  on celluloid I have come  across   occurred  in  the feature film  length cartoon Pocohontas which dealt with the  Jamestown settlement  of 1607,  the first permanent English settlement  in  North America.    The  leader of the expedition,  John Smith,  was  given  an American  accent  while the rest of the crew had English  ones  ranging from  stage cockney  to upper class cad.

The  consequence of this denial of their origins makes America  a  very peculiar  country in that it lacks a coherent foundation  story.   King  George  and  the British are the villains and  American  colonists  the  heroes … and that’s about it. There is a great blank hole in American history,  namely,  where did they and their dominant culture come from?  The answer of course is England.

Ultimately  the  USA is the child of England:  no  England,  no  United States.   The nonexistence  of the United States  alone would have made a  colossal difference to the history of the past two centuries and  to the present day,  not least because it is and has been for a century or more  responsible  for a tremendous proportion  of  global   scientific discovery  and  technological development.  If the  English   had  done nothing more than lay the foundation of the United States it would have done a mighty thing.

At  this  point I can hear the cry of many:  why the  English  not  the British?  Was  not the United States formed as much by  the  Scots  and Irish  as by the English?  There will even be those who will press  the claims of the Germans.   A little careful thought will show that no one but the English could have been responsible,  although many peoples and cultures   have   subsequently  added to the  considerable  variety  of American life

The  English were the numerically dominant settlers from the  Jamestown settlement  in 1607 until the Revolution.  Moreover,  and this  is  the vital  matter,  they were overwhelmingly the dominant settlers for  the first  one  hundred years.  Even  in 1776  English  descended  settlers formed,  according to the historical section of the American Bureau  of Census,  nearly sixty percent of the population and the majority of the rest of the white population was from the non-English parts of Britain.

This  English  predominance  may not seem  important  at  first  glance because of the immense non-Anglo-Saxon immigration which occurred from the eighteenth century onwards.  Would not, a reasonable man might ask, would not the later immigration swamp the earlier simply because of its greater  scale?  The answer is no – at least until  the  relaxation  of immigration  rules  in the sixties – because the numbers  of  non-Anglo Saxons  coming into America were always  very small compared  with  the existing population of the USA.

When immigrants enter a country their descendents will generally  adopt the  social and cultural colouring of the native population.  The  only general  exception  to  this well attested sociological fact  is  in  a situation of conquest, although even there the invader if few in number will  become integrated through intermarriage and the general  pressure of  the  culture  of  the  majority  population  working  through   the generations.    Thus at any time in the development of the USA the bulk of  the population were practisers of a general culture which  strongly reflected  that  of  the  original  colonisers,   namely  the  English.

Immigrants were therefore inclined to adopt the same culture.  America’s  English origins spread throughout her culture.  Her  law  is  founded on English common law. The most famous of American law officers  is  the English office of  sheriff.  Congress imitates  the  eighteenth century British Constitution (President = King;  Senate = Lords;  House of  Representatives  =  The  House of Commons)  with,  of  course,  the difference  of  a  codified constitution.   (It would  incidentally  be truer  to describe the British Constitution as uncodified  rather  than unwritten).  It  is  an  irony that their   system  of  government  has retained   a  large  degree  of  the   monarchical   and   aristocratic principles   whilst  that of Britain has  removed  power  remorselessly from  King  and aristocracy and placed it resolutely in  the  hands  of elected   representatives  who  have  no  formal  mandate  beyond   the representation of their constituents.

The  Declaration  of  Independence is full of  phrases  and  sentiments redolent of English liberty.  The prime political texts of the American revolution  were those of the Englishmen John Locke and Tom Paine.  The American  Constitution is designed to alleviate faults in  the  British Constitution not to abrogate it utterly. The first ten amendments which form  the  American  Bill of Rights draw  their  inspiration  from  the English  Bill  of Rights granted by William of  Orange.   The  American Revolution was conducted by men whose whole thought was in the English political tradition.

The  English influence is written deeply into the American   landscape. Take  a  map  of the States and see how many of  the  place  names  are English,  even outside the original thirteen colonies which formed  the USA. Note that they are divided into parishes and counties.

Above  all  other  cultural influences  stands  the  English  language. Bismarck thought that the fact that America spoke English was the  most significant  political  fact of his time. I am inclined to  agree  with him.  But at a more  fundamental level, the simple fact that English is spoken  by Americans as their first language  means that their  thought processes will be broadly similar to that of the English.  Language  is the ultimate colonisation of a people.

Moreover,  the  English spoken by the majority of Americans   is  still very much the English of their forebears. It is, for example,  far less mutated  than  the English spoken in India.   The English  have  little difficulty  in understanding Americans whatever their regional  origin. Indeed,  it may come as a surprise to many Americans that  the  average Englishman  probably finds it easier to understand most American  forms of  speech  than some  British accents and  dialects.  Americans  often affect  not to understand English accents, but it is amazing  how  well they can understand them when they need something.  Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that  “America  and  England  are two countries  divided  by  a  common language”  was witty but,  as with so much of what he said,  utterly at variance with reality.

The English heritage in America  is far from spent,  not merely in  its  language  and institutions,  but also in the fact that  more  Americans  have some form of English lineage than any other group and even if  the  do  not  think of themselves as English by descent,    the  personality traits of the English in as far as they are genetically determined  are passed   on  and   reinforced  by  those  extant  cultural  relics   of Englishness.

There  is a special relationship between England and America but it  is not the one beloved of politicians. The special relationship is one  of history and culture.  American culture is an evolved Englishness,  much added to superficially but still remarkably and recognisably English.

What applies to the USA, broadly applies  also to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Even American actors go English . Those  old enough to remember the classic age of Hollywood will  recall the habit of American stars appearing in films with an English  context to resolutely refuse to make any attempt to adopt an English accent. In recent years there has been a complete reversal of this. To list just a few  big names:  Johnny Depp (The Libertine, From Hell,  Pirates of the Caribbean and Corpse Bride),  Julianne Moore (The End of the  Affair), John  Malkhovitch (The Libertine),  Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma  and  Sliding Doors),  Reese Witherspoon (Vanity Fair),   Danny Huston (The  Constant Gardener), Liv Ulman,  Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood and  Sam Astin (all Lord of the Rings), Natalie Portman (V for Vendetta) . Non-American  foreign  actors have also been doing their  bit.  Russell Crowe (Master and Commander), Brendan Gleeson (Troy), Eric Bana (Troy), Cate Blanchett (The End of the Affair), Nicole Kidman (The Others), Natalie Portman (V for Vendetta).

The  success  of English films in  America also gives the  lie  to  the American’s frequent claim that they cannot understand what the  English say because they “kinda talk funny”.  This fantasy is mercilessly guyed in the film The Limey where Terrence Stamp plays a cockney gangster  in America  and  the  American  characters  constantly  say  they   cannot understand him.  In fact, as anyone who has had dealings with Americans will know they can all understand very well – when they want something.

It  is  perhaps not so surprising that films with  RP  speakers  in  it should  be understood by Americans,  but  it is noteworthy  that   they also  watched  in large numbers the two Guy  Ritchie  mockney  gangster films which were full of the cockney vernacular.  They watched in  even greater numbers Johnny Depp’s hilarious take off of Rolling Stone Keith Richard in Pirates of the Caribbean.

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7 Responses to America’s love-hate affair with England in films

  1. efgd says:

    Very informative. Thanks for that.

    I think you are spot on when you say it is not so much a political closeness we have with America but a cultural and historical closeness; especially with your analysis that, “When immigrants enter a country their descendants will generally adopt the social and cultural colouring of the native population”. Though America is having problems within its cultural diversity of peoples – Hispanics failure to adapt to ‘US’ culture, as it has been argued that “the persistent flow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the US into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. As unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream US culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream”.
    That reminds me of somewhere else…

  2. Phil says:

    Mark Steyn had a great piece on your theme, although not focused on film. His point is that any place touched by the English empire had been the better for it. This includes more than the U.S. and Canada, but also India and any of the colonies in the Caribbean (even though they may disagree). He says something like “its why Haitii is Haitii and Barbados is Barbados,” Barbados having the obvious advantage as a result of the initial infusion from England.

    At any rate, thanks for the jumpstart back in the 17th century. Sadly, there are many here who still look to England as a role model, but she is now a very poor role model. I pray for a resurgence of revolutionary spirit to again divorce us from the ideology of [now] Europe, but I think we’re following you quickly into permanent twighlight.

  3. Fay Calhoun says:

    …they understand “when they want something. Sounds ugly.

  4. mickeycool34 says:

    Totally agree but with so many ethnic minorities in england shouting louder English identity claims have gone down not that nearly80m Americans have some English ancestor even Mel Gibson. The problem too is Americans like other foreigners fail to understand England plus the struggles of the vast majority of working classes who fought harder than any group to be heard. Most Americans think the English are all upper class toffs.

  5. mickeycool34 says:

    Although Downton Abbey is a huge hit in America, theres a lot of historical inaccuracies too e.g. the idea the English (as a whole apparently?) Hated other races when class kept people down and caused most of the issues e.g. how everyone in Britain (which then included Ireland) was subjected to rich rulers who saw anyone who was poor and sub human, race rarely came into it. Catholics in Ireland were poor but poor English in workhouses were equally treated appaulingly.

  6. Gismo Fly says:

    Thank you. An intelligent, brave and honest article. I have been fortunate in my life to have visited a large part of the British empire as it folded and member nations gained their independance. Many of them prematurely but it was the fashion of the time in the 1960’s. Just a few years ago, ‘Puntland’, a part of Somalia, applied to London to rejoin the British empire after nearly sixty years of independance. The irony nearly broke my heart.

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