Before the Free Cinema movement was founded, the world of post-World War II, British cinema was, as a rule, very literary. It relied heavily on the adaptation of classics rather than the creation of original screenplays. This can be seen in the work of such directors as Laurence Olivier, David Lean and Anthony Asquith.
Even the less-conventional films made at this time had literary sources, for example Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands (1951), or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951).
The only real exception to this 'rule' came in the form of a series of witty and irreverent comedies made at Ealing Studios, such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Many of them starred the excellent actor Alec Guinness, but on the whole, British postwar cinema was very elitist and culturally conservative.
The Creation of the Free Cinema Movement
But this 'stick-in-the-mud' culture sparked a strong reaction from the younger generation of filmmakers, which led to the foundation of the 'Free Cinema' movement in the mid-1950s. The movement was founded by Lindsay Anderson, the Czechoslovak-born Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, and was soon followed by Lorenza Mazzetti, Walter Lassally and John Fletcher. Its purpose was to produce short, low-budget documentaries describing and highlighting the problems of contemporary life, such as O Dreamland! (1953) and Richardson's Momma Don't Allow (1955). Founded on the ideology and practice of Neorealism, the Free Cinema movement emerged alongside a larger social movement, assailing the British class structure and calling for the replacement of bourgeois elitism with liberal working-class values. In the cinema world, this anti-establishment agitation resulted in the New Cinema, or 'social realist' movement, which was signalled by Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), the first British post-war film to have a working-class protagonist and proletarian themes.
Stylistically influenced by the New Wave, with which it was concurrent, the 'social realist' film was generally shot in black and white, on location in the industrial Midlands and cast with relatively unknown young actors and actresses. Like the New Wave films, social realist films were independently produced on low budgets (many of them for Woodfall Film Productions, the company Richardson and playwright John Osborne founded in 1958, principally to adapt the latter's Look Back in Anger), but their freshness of both content and form attracted an international audience. Some of the most famous were Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), John Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963), Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963), and Reisz's Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966).
Such films, and others like them, brought such prestige to the British film industry that London briefly became the production capital of the Western world, delivering such homegrown international hits as Richardson's Tom Jones (1963), Schlesinger's Darling (1965), Richard Lester's two Beatles films, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), and Anderson's If.. (1968). This in turn brought in foreign film-makers such as Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966), Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) (in fact, Kubrick so much preferred Britain to the US, he relocated to England and continued to make his films exclusively in Britain). In turn, this more-than-welcome activity and interest in Britain inspired a new and more visually oriented generation of British filmmakers such as Peter Yates, John Boorman, Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg. These directors really made their mark in the 1970s, but as Britain's economy began its precipitous slide into depression during that decade, the film industry unavoidably followed. Many British directors and performers crossed the Atlantic to start anew in Hollywood, while the English language film market experienced a new, vigorous and unprecedented challenge from Australian film-makers, long left in the cold. In the 1980s, amid widespread speculation about the collapse of the film industry, the annual production of British films fell to an all-time low, although such works as Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) and Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) demonstrated that film-makers wouldn't go down without a fight, and uniquely individual films continued to be made there.
The Usual Suspects of the Free Cinema Movement
The leader, co-founder and theoretician of Free Cinema became a director in his own right with his own 'socio-realist' films, but as a critic, he showed a huge enthusiasm for directors like John Ford, Humphrey Jennings, and Jean Vigo. Lindsay also showed several of his documentaries in the Free Cinema programmes at the National Film Theatre in London (O Dreamland!, Wakefield Express, and Every Day Except Christmas).
Along with Walter Lassally, John Fletcher was the technician behind the Free Cinema films, working on both image and sound for Together and Nice Time, and sound on Momma Don't Allow. Fletcher remained in the film business after the Free Cinema movement, shooting both films and television commercials, and working as sound editor on The White Bus. He was also appointed Director of Studies at the London International Film School, where he stayed until 1982.
Born into the film business, Walter Lassally's father was an industrial filmmaker in Berlin. When the family fled to London from the Nazis in 1939, Lassally's father set up a film unit there; Lassally subsequently became a clapper boy for Riverside Studios. In 1956, he teamed up with Lindsay, Karel and Gavin Lambert, and became the principal photographer for the Free Cinema Movement. In 1964, he won an Oscar for his camera work on Zorba the Greek. He has since worked with a number of directors, including Tony Richardson, Michael Cacoyannis, James Ivory and Arthur Penn. Lassally now lives between his homes in Greece and England.
Orphaned at a very young age, Lorenza Mazzetti was brought up by her aunt and uncle, along with their two daughters, but in August 1944, her aunt and cousins were killed by the SS. Unfortunately, her uncle committed suicide a year later.
In the early 1950s, Mazzetti moved to London, where she studied at the Slade School of Arts. On the reputation of a short film she made at college, in 1956 the British Film Institute's Experimental Film Fund awarded her the opportunity to make Together, the story of two deaf-mutes in East London. After its debut at the NFT Free Cinema Evening, Together went on to be screened at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Mazzetti moved to Rome in 1959, where she continued to make TV programmes for RAI TV. In 1961, she published a novel, Il Cielo Cade ('The Sky Falls'), based on her tragic childhood. Last year, the movie version of her book was released in Italy to wide popular acclaim.
Reisz came to England as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938. In the late 1940s, Reisz was a regular contributor as a film critic to Sequence, which he co-founded, and Sight and Sound. He then went on to be the first programmer at the National Film Theatre in 1952 as part of the Free Cinema movement. As a member of the original Free Cinema Event, Reisz co-directed the nightclub scene from Momma Don't Allow with Tony Richardson. He then later made We are the Lambeth Boys for the Free Cinema Event 'Look At Britain' in 1957. By the time of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Reisz, along with Lindsay, had become one of the leaders of the New Wave in British film-making. He has continued making critically acclaimed films throughout the years.