- What are the best British films ever made? According to critics polled by Total Film magazine, the Ten Best British Films are all male-centered titles, seven of which released after 1960 and four of which made with partial U.S. backing.
- The no. 1 title is the violent 1971 thriller Get Carter, directed by Mike Hodges, starring Michael Caine as a gangster, and produced by the British arm of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
What are the best British films ever made? And how exactly does one define ‘best’ and ‘British’?
What are the very best British films ever made?
That, of course, is a question that could never be objectively answered. It all depends on personal tastes/moods, current trends (yesterday’s dud could be today’s favorite and tomorrow’s unremembered), and the clarity of one’s recollections.
Not to mention the fact that you would also have to wrestle with the meaning of the label “British film” – as in, what exactly is a “British cinema production”?
Case in point: Set in shadowy postwar Vienna, director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene’s labyrinthine The Third Man is almost invariably found on critics’ and historians’ lists of the Ten Best British Films ever. Yet this iconic 1949 thriller was partly financed by an American company: Selznick International Pictures, the indie outlet belonging to Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun producer David O. Selznick.
So, what about Best Picture and/or Best Director Academy Award winners/nominees The African Queen, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India, The English Patient, and Shakespeare in Love? How “British” are these well-regarded – and decidedly Anglo-American – collaborations?
And what’s the “British-ness” level of United Artists’ James Bond franchise (the latter titles, via MGM/UA) and Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter franchise-in-the-making?
From William Shakespeare to Monty Python
Once the Union Jack certification is determined – if ever – you must then be able to compare all sorts of cinematic genres and perspectives.
After all, going all the way back to the early silent era and works by the likes of Maurice Elvey and Cecil M. Hepworth, what’s known as “British cinema” encompasses a large and eclectic array of movies ranging from Alfred Hitchcock thrillers to Ealing comedies, from breezy Jessie Matthews musicals to grimy kitchen-sink dramas, from Laurence Olivier’s reverential Shakespearean adaptations to Monty Python’s puerile satires, from staid Anna Neagle star vehicles to gassy Carry On romps, from stiff-upper-lip David Lean dramas to grandiose David Lean epics.
So, again, what are the very best British films ever?
Eyebrow-raisers among U.K. movie critics’ Top Ten
According to 25 British critics polled by Total Film magazine (October 2004), among the Ten Best British Films ever produced are, unsurprisingly, works by Carol Reed, David Lean, Mike Leigh, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – even if not necessarily the expected ones.
Missing from the Top Ten list are works by Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Asquith, Laurence Olivier, Tony Richardson, Alexander Mackendrick, and James Ivory – the latter two U.S.-born filmmakers who made their mark on U.K. cinema. British-(co-)made Best Picture Oscar winners and nominees were mostly left out, and so was just about every major international festival favorite.
Most startling of all, however, is the polled British critics’ no. 1 choice.
Violent Michael Caine thriller Get Carter is surprising no. 1 pick
The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer-backed Get Carter, a largely forgotten – in all fairness, some would call it a “cult classic” – 1971 thriller is the United Kingdom’s best movie ever according to the Total Film poll. (See further below the list of Ten Best British Films.)
Directed by Mike Hodges, who also penned this adaptation of Ted Lewis’ 1970 novel Jack’s Return Home, and starring a youngish and stylish Michael Caine, Get Carter follows a London gangster as he travels to Newcastle for his brother’s funeral. Bloody murder and kinky phone sex are part of the grieving process.
Also in the Get Carter cast: The film’s sole British Academy Award (BAFTA) nominee, Ian Hendry (in the Best Supporting Actor category); phone-sex aficionada Britt Ekland; playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer); and some heavy-duty, mass-murder-ready weaponry (what U.S. journalists and pundits coyly refer to as “guns”).
Nine Mike Hodges movies in three decades
Unlike Michael Caine, who has enjoyed a long, prolific, and – ignoring trash like The Swarm, Victory, The Island, Blame It on Rio, etc. – prestigious big-screen career, Mike Hodges never quite became an A-list filmmaker.
One apparent reason is his sporadic – and generally not all that well-received – output: Nine features over the course of three decades. Among them are the thriller Pulp (1972), also starring Caine, alongside veterans Mickey Rooney, Lizabeth Scott, and Lionel Stander; the sci-fier The Terminal Man (1974), with George Segal and Joan Hackett; and the costly box office dud Flash Gordon (1980), with Sam J. Jones in the title role and Max von Sydow as the Emperor Ming.
As for Get Carter, it did get an American makeover in 2000. Directed by Stephen Kay, starring Sylvester Stallone as the traveling gangster, and featuring a Caine cameo, the critically lambasted $64 million production bombed at the box office, collecting a paltry $19.4 million worldwide ($15 million of which in the U.S. and Canada).
More ‘Ten Best British Films’ surprises + Hollywood influence
Back to Total Film’s Best British Films: Besides the 1971 Get Carter, the list features a quartet of notable surprises. Here they are:
- Terence Young’s James Bond thrill ride From Russia with Love (1963), whose highlight is not a youngish Sean Connery but a lesbianish Lotte Lenya.
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), a satirical – and, however juvenile, subversive – take on the life of Jesus Christ.
- Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), a psychological comedy-drama starring Cannes Film Festival Best Actor winner David Thewlis in (what amounts to) the title role: An unwashed, unpleasant, unhinged Londoner. (Not among the Top Ten: Leigh’s Oscar-nominated Secrets & Lies.)
- Danny Boyle’s (partly) Edinburgh-set black comedy Trainspotting (1996), featuring drug use, urban squalor, and hard-to-decipher (for non-locals) Scottish accents and lingo.
In addition to Get Carter, Hollywood’s influence on the Top Ten can be attested via the United Artists-released From Russia with Love, the Selznick-coproduced The Third Man, and the Columbia-backed 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.
Older classics mostly bypassed, female-centered stories ignored
Also worth noting, no pre-1945 movie made it onto Total Film’s Ten Best British Films list.
In fact, only three titles came out before 1960: The Third Man, Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 romantic/political fantasy A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (instead of the duo’s better-known Black Narcissus and the Oscar-nominated The Red Shoes), and Robert Hamer’s 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Moreover, not a single Top Ten Best British Films title features a woman in a central – or even “co-central” – role. For instance:
- In The Third Man, Alida Valli’s mysterious and mysteriously accented character is subordinate to that of Joseph Cotten’s nosy American.
- In A Matter of Life and Death, romantic interest Kim Hunter is a charming part of the decor.
- In Kind Hearts and Coronets, the two female “leads,” Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood, play second fiddle to Dennis Price and to the myriad Alec Guinnesses.
Adding insult to injury, two of the movies on the list, Lawrence of Arabia and Life of Brian, are all but female-free.
Ten Best British Films list
And here are Total Film’s Ten Best British Films, in descending order:
- Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971)
Cast: Michael Caine, Britt Ekland, Ian Hendry.
- Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (1946)
Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey.
- Danny Boyle’s BAFTA (Best British Film category) nominee Trainspotting (1996)
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Kelly Macdonald.
- Carol Reed’s BAFTA (British) & Cannes winner The Third Man (1949)
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles.
- Terry Jones’ Life of Brian (1979)
Cast: Monty Python (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin).
- Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973)
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt.
- Robert Hamer’s BAFTA (British) nominee Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Cast: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood.
- David Lean’s Oscar/BAFTA (British and Any Source) winner Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy.
- Terence Young’s From Russia with Love (1963)
Cast: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendáriz, Robert Shaw, Lotte Lenya.
- Mike Leigh’s BAFTA (British) nominee Naked (1993)
Cast: David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge.
As can be seen above, only two “name” performers have more than one movie among the Top Ten: Oscar winner Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957) and Britt Ekland, who, as it happens, is a Swede not a Brit.
Lastly, as mentioned further up a mere three pre-1960 British (or part-British) productions were included on Total Film’s Ten Best British Films list.
In addition to the omissions found elsewhere in this article, among the dozens of pre-1960 British cinema classics left out were:
- Alexander Korda’s Oscar nominee The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Cast: Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935)
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll.
- Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard’s Oscar nominee Pygmalion (1938)
Cast: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller.
- Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight (1940)
Cast: Diana Wynyard, Anton Walbrook.
- Clive Brook’s On Approval (1944)
Cast: Clive Brook, Googie Withers.
- David Lean’s Cannes Grand Prize co-winner* Brief Encounter (1945)
Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard.
- Carol Reed’s BAFTA (Best British Film) winner The Fallen Idol (1948)
Cast: Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan.
- Laurence Olivier’s Oscar, BAFTA (Best Film from Any Source), and Venice (Golden Lion) winner Hamlet (1948)
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons.
- Alexander Mackendrick’s BAFTA (British and Any Source) nominee The Man in the White Suit (1951)
Cast: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood.
- Tony Richardson’s BAFTA (British and Any Source) nominee Look Back in Anger (1959)
Cast: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Mary Ure.
* Along with several other titles.
“Best British Films Poll: Violent Caine Thriller Is #1” notes
Update: In Total Film’s 2014 poll of the Best British Films ever made, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia replaced Mike Hodges’ Get Carter in the no. 1 spot.
Michael Caine Get Carter image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Joseph Cotten The Third Man movie image: Selznick Releasing Organization.
“Best British Films Poll: Violent Caine Thriller Is #1” last updated in September 2023.