Category: Essays

Films from the British Satire Boom

The “satire boom” of the early 1960s refers to the plays, television shows and literature of a group of connected individuals. Figures such as Peter Cook, John Bird, Jonathan Miller and David Frost were among a collection of mainly upper-middle-class men active in the early years of the decade and responsible for work such as the TV programme That Was the Week that Was and the theatrical review Beyond the Fringe, which poked fun at the institutions, public figures and morality of British life. Hugely successful and seen as part of a general renaissance in the cultural life of the country, this loose movement is now seen as an integral part of the so-called “swinging London” scene and a component of the anti-authority reaction to conservatism, which lead to the Wilson government of the mid to late 60s. It is interesting to note, however, both the class backgrounds of the major figures and the extent to which their work draws on established British cultural forms, such as the comedy of the musical hall. Such a perspective suggests a less radical departure from the culture of the preceding years and may perhaps hint at an in-built conservatism at the heart of the movement itself. Michael Frayn, an integral figure in the satire movement describes the conservative nature of the audience and describes the appeal of satire as a kind of expiation:

Conceivably, after ten years of stable Conservative governement, with no prospect in 1961 of its ever ending, the middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or mad, or old. Conceivably, they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.[1]

This posits a view of the satirical movement as, less a clarion call for change, rather a kind of cultural pressure valve – suppressing true rebellion through a toleration of limited and measured criticism.

Many of the figures of the “satire boom” and the individuals who began their careers in its wake (including future ‘Pythons’ such as Graham Chapman and John Cleese) gravitated to the cinema in the mid-60s, where they joined established British comedic talents such as Norman Wisdom, Terry-Thomas and the cast members of the Carry On film series and the Goons radio show. The rise of UK cinema in this period, as American studios clamoured to set up British offices and money poured into film production[2], gave ample opportunity for performers attracted to the money, cache and international exposure that film work could provide. At the same time, as a mainstream art-form, film was seen as an area to develop and exploit counter-cultural and satirical strands which had emerged in the UK in other artistic spheres such as music, fashion, theatre, photography and literature. The films which emerged in the period from 1967 to 1973 would, then, include some of the most ambitious, controversial, eclectic and excoriating works in British cinema history. The extent to which this brief flowering of experimentation would successfully satirise the institutions and people of the time, would depend on a number of factors.

            In order to focus on some key themes and suggest where these films succeed in their particular aims, this essay will focus on a number of films which are broadly representative of the species of comedic, satirical film which developed from the movements sketched above. These films are: Lindsay Anderson’s If (1968) and its loose sequel O Lucky Man! (1973); Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967); Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972); Kevin Billington’s The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970); Ralph Thomas’ Percy (1971); Philip Saville’s The Best House in London (1969) and Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969). These are films with casts drawn from the satire boom, Monty Python and the Goons, but also the long-running TV and film comedies of the day. Each of them in some way targets one or more aspects of British life, whether an institution, or a social or moral issue of the day. These are films which embrace the look and sound of the period, employing artists from other disciplines in front of and behind the camera[3], sometimes in a way which badly dates them. Each of them is a blend of pop-art and traditional art, which dramatizes the cultural clash of period and illustrates ultimately, I will argue, the innately conservative nature of British life and the self-destructive and doomed nature of swinging 60s and a number of its key players.

            Adapted from Peter Barnes’ satirical play, first performed in 1968, Peter Medak’s film of The Ruling Class follows the events in a aristocratic family when the death of a patriarch leads to the return of his heir from a home for the mentally ill, where he has been treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The 14th Earl of Gurney, as he becomes, is convinced that he is in fact God and a number of plots are put in place by his conniving relatives to ensure control of the estate. The film dramatises, in a baroque, anti-naturalistic style, the emerging disdain for the upper classes in 1960s Britain. A number of political crises, culminating in the Suez affair of 1956, had led to a lessening of respect for the ruling class, in particular the aristocratic, upper-class from which most politicians (especially within the Conservative party) emerged. The ridicule heaped on the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home (the hereditary Earl of Home) was largely focussed on perceived upper-class aloofness and his failure to communicate on television was contrasted sharply with the studied down-to-earth, middle-class affectations of Labour’s Harold Wilson: “Although Home disclaimed his peerage and took office as Sir Alec Douglas-Home, it was hard for him to shake off the label of ‘the fourteenth Earl of Home’”[4]. The film opens with a scene which exploits the long-held perception of the sexual perversion of the upper-classes, as the 13th Earl of Gurney is accidentally killed while engaging in an act of self-hanging while wearing a tutu. The paraphernalia of the act is assembled by the Earl’s butler, Tucker, with a nonchalance that suggests not only an acceptance of the act but deference due between the classes and between master and servant. This is later undercut as Tucker presents himself as the only ally to the paranoid Jack Gurney, warning him that the family is out to get him. The butler is revealed as a Communist party member who drunkenly sings The Red Flag in the basement of the manor house. This attitude of rebellion is contrasted with Tucker’s seeming inability to leave his position, even when he is given financial independence under the terms of the Earl’s will. He remains in position, serving the family, although in an increasingly drunken and abusive manner.

            The position of the Church is also attacked, as the Bishop – another family relative who has been disadvantaged by the return of Jack and the terms of the will – is persuaded, against his convictions, to marry Jack and the mistress of his uncle, Grace Shelley. Grace has been introduced by the family to engineer an heir which will allow them to have Jack committed. The Bishop’s motive is the funding he has been promised by the dead Earl for missionary work, but Alistair Sim’s seedy portrayal hints and at a more personal gain. The established church is contrasted with the personal belief in the form of Jack’s delusion, as his belief that he is God is manifested in a number of largely-positive ways. Jack’s God is a God of love. He presents flowers to Grace with a comment that they “agreed to be picked” and his affection for her, although based on a deception, appears genuine. Grace herself, later in the film, seems to have fallen in love with Jack and is turned against the rest of the family, although it could be argued that she is merely protecting her position as the Earl’s wife and mother of the heir. Jack professes himself uninterested in “worldly goods”, argues for the protection of “all God’s creatures” and generally behaves in the manner of the more liberal clergy who were emerging at the end of the 1960s. The Ruling Class does not, then, argue against religion per se, but merely a kind of established church, yoked to the state and the ruling classes, of the type in place until the beginning of the 1960s in Britain.

            In the 1960s, faced with falling church attendances and a wide-ranging questioning of religious belief and traditional forms of worship, figures with the Church of England took steps to reconnect with the people, especially the young:

In the popular press much publicity was given to “go-ahead” young vicars who thought to win themselves larger congregations by experiments with “rock ‘n’ roll masses” or coffee bars in the crypt, and in the East End, a Rev. Shergold set up a youth club for “Rockers,” under the auspices of the Eton College mission, joining his members in wearing black leather jackets and riding powerful motorcycles.[5]

The willingness of liberal clergy to abandon traditional aspects of the church is mocked in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer when the Bishop of Cowley is advised by the popular polling expert how the church can improve attendances:

Priest: Have you been able to find time for the survey in regard to the declining attendance in England’s churches?

Michael Rimmer: Yes, we have.

Priest: We’ve tried everything, you know… cutthroat bingo, hallucinogens in the wafers, neon lights for the graveyards, chapels on wheels, fifty-fifty drawings after communion…

Michael Rimmer: Really?

Priest: [grabbing hold of his vestments] And these clothes are a bit out-of-date for the 1960s.

Michael Rimmer: Yes, well, we’ve done a great deal of research on the results of our religious polls and I believe we have discovered the true root of the problem.

Priest: What would that be?

Michael Rimmer: God.

Priest: I had a nasty suspicion it was that.

Michael Rimmer: It’s just that people have a hard time believing in Him. So, get rid of the God and you’ll do just fine.

Priest: Interesting. Sort of an “Our Father who might be in heaven”…

Michael Rimmer: Yes, very good.

The “church on wheels” is seen elsewhere in the film – a kind of mobile library with a ridiculous steeple on top. Scenes such as this, which satirise attempts by institutions to change with the tastes and attitudes of new generations, point to one aspect of the satire of the period – that it is only interested in mocking the establishment to certain point. Long-held beliefs, behaviours and institutions are seen as fair game for comedy, but so are attempts to modernise. This is one aspect of what I refer to as the inherently conservative nature of satire and satirical works of the period.

            The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is a cautionary tale on the subject of media influence in politics. Michael Rimmer is a time-and-motion consultant who inveigles himself into a run-down polling company and rapidly rises through society to become Prime Minister. Rimmer’s primary method is to exploit other people’s fears, particularly of their self-image and how they appear to others. Rimmer is presented as amoral, unethical and ruthless – he murders the prime minister, takes a wife as a necessary part of entering politics and then keeps her locked-up at home and sabotages appearances by his political opponents. The film could be seen as prescient of later developments in the media presentation of and influence on politics (particularly in the modern activities of political “spin doctors”) but it is also of its time. The incumbent prime minister is a barely-disguised caricature of Howard Wilson, down to his pipe and obsession with self-image and public and press perception. The film was produced as Wilson’s government was preparing for the 1970 general election defeat to the Conservatives – something which was blamed to a very large part on the public’s personal dissatisfaction with Wilson – and the film accurately portrays his paranoia and how political decisions were directly influenced by coverage in the media. Though there was widespread unease regarding the impact media was having on politics, the film’s almost satanic portrayal of Rimmer[6] could be argued to be somewhat Luddite in its suspicion of the effects of a new self-awareness and media sophistication into the traditionally class-based and patrician world of politics.

            If Rimmer’s rise is seen as the result of exploitation and amorality then the system that rewards it can only be corrupt and unjust. In Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, Michael Travis is young man who has several attempts to find success and advancement in a world which subjects him to cruel and, often, arbitrary justice. Business is presented as corrupt, with politicians and policemen abetting malpractice for money, or through murky association. When the fraud squad descend on the home of a corrupt industrialist Sir James Burgess celebrating a deal with an African dictator, he comments, “Don’t worry, I know Superintendent Barlow, he won’t hurt us.” It is his assistant, Travis, who is arrested and blamed for the deal to send a napalm-style substance to the brutal African regime. Burgess’ comment to Travis that he will “be taken care of” as he is lead away is misinterpreted as implying an interjection on his behalf. In fact, he is expendable – another exploited employee sacrificed in the pursuit of profit. Travis’ eager enthusiasm and honesty as he faces several such situations –  Anderson stresses the repetitive nature of these encounters by casting the same actors in a number of roles – and his continued lack of success present a highly cynical view of the operation of business and, by extension, the system of government and legislation in which it operates. This was becoming a fashionable view in late 60s Britain as the earlier optimism of the “white heat” of technological revolution gave way to a number of high-profile industrial and medical accidents, examples of business exploitation and economic decline: “Fears of technological idealism had always been present in British popular culture, but they gathered momentum from the mid-sixties onwards.”[7]

             Anderson’s approach to recasting actors in multiple parts also extends to retaining them from film-to-film and roles in his films often gain resonance through the casting of an actor playing similar roles in earlier films:

They are Brechtian ‘social types’ or ‘humours’ as Anderson himself preferred to call them. The style is caricature rather than psychological realism. Peter Jeffrey’s director and prison warden are clearly reminiscent of his headmaster in If…, and Mary McLeod’s lovesick landlady is similarly based on the matron in that film.[8]

Arthur Lowe, an actor now most famous for playing Captain Mainwaring in the television sitcom Dad’s Army, plays so many roles in the satirical comedies of this period that it is easy to confuse parts and films. In O Lucky Man! he plays the factory trainer who first prepares Travis for his career as a coffee salesman, the hotel manager he meets (and who introduces him to the club where the local great and good meet to party and arrange mutually-beneficial deals) and – most controversially, in black face – an African dictator. His character’s have a trajectory from well-meaning teacher to corrupt and corrupting to outright venality. It’s likely that one aspect of Lowe’s casting is the resonance of his association with Mainwaring and the aspects of self-importance, class-consciousness and deference to authority that the role carries. In If…, Rowe plays a house master in a private boy’s boarding school (perhaps the one which his Dr Munda character mentions in O Lucky Man!) where the pupils are taught amidst a highly regimented and structured hierarchy of masters, head boys and whips. Anderson intended his film to be a comment on the state of British society as a whole at the time and the school can therefore be viewed as a microcosm. As the headmaster says near the film’s beginning, “Britain today is a powerhouse”, before going on to describe the coming technological revolution and the needs this will place on the education of the young. In the film itself the lessons are shown to be dry and meaningless, with the boys responding in apathetic silence to the history master’s questions regarding the individual’s place in history. The implication must be that the education system is unsuited to preparing young boys for the demands of the country and, by extension, that the country is unprepared for the demands of the age – a fact that was keenly felt in the late 60s as the government frantically tried to encourage exports to prop up sterling. The film ends in a small-scale revolution as Travis and a number of the boys (and, tellingly, one young girl) open fire on a school service. This act and the other references to revolution (the photos on the wall of the common room) pertain to the spirit of the times, but it is noticeable that the large-scale student-led revolts of the year of the film’s release happened elsewhere (Paris, Prague, the United States). In Britain, as so often, consensus and conformity remained.

            That cultural and political change had greater impact in other parts of the world could perhaps be attributed to the rigidity of the British class system. In The Magic Christian, Sir Guy Grand plays a number of elaborate practical jokes on people, usually on the theme of what people will do for money. The title is taken for a state-of-the-art cruise liner, a technological wonder whose maiden voyage is pitched as the hottest ticket in town, advertised as £5000 per-person with the management reserving the right to refuse persons at their own discretion – “those denied passage on The Magic Christian need not take offence – remember our criteria may not be yours”. This caveat is explained by one upper-class character as protecting against people who are not “quite top drawer”. In fact, the ship is a mock-up which doesn’t actually go anywhere. Although sporadically amusing, many of the film’s jokes fall flat and the film is fatally hamstrung by one detail of its relocation from the United States in Terry Southern’s source novel to the UK. In Southern’s novel Grand is a billionaire industrialist; in McGrath’s film, Grand is a knight of the realm and a conspicuously aristocratic figure. This has the effect of making scenes where Grand exploits the greed of middle or lower-class people seem like exploitation and mean-mindedness. For example, in the scene where Grand buys a hot dog from a vendor on a train platform and hands him a five pound note as the train is departing, we are encouraged to laugh at the desperate attempt by the vendor to catch up with the train and give Grand his change (Grand subsequently gives him a ten pound note instead). This scene may be intended to mock the deference of the lower classes to the moneyed classes and question their sense of fairness towards those who exploit their labour, but as Grand is a wealthy upper-class industrialist, the wheeze seems cruel rather than cutting. This is also the case in the scene where Grand receives a parking ticket and bribes the attendant into eating the ticket for one hundred pounds. The film does pick targets among the aristocracy and upper class which mock their sense of entitlement but as the focus is on money and what people will do to obtain it, these targets are often the nouveau riche or foreigners, such as the Americans who Grand tries to outbid at the auction in Sotheby’s. The landed, hereditary classes escape much of the satire because they are not traditionally associated with consumerism and obsession with money and materialism. In this sense, as a parody on class, The Ruling Class is more successful as it focuses on succession, inheritance and land rights – concepts at the root of the British aristocracy.

            The Magic Christian ends with its most notorious scene, as Grand encourages a group of city workers to wade into a vat of slaughterhouse effluent to fish out money he has placed there. The general sense of futility and purposelessness seems to have had an effect on him, however, and he ends the film sleeping in the park in which he found his adopted son sleeping rough in the opening scene. “You’re right Youngman”, he declares, “There must be a simpler way.” In common with many British films of the period, there is no resolution and in the end there is a sense of resignation to events. In Bedazzled, a film made towards the end of the “swinging sixties”, Dudley Moore’s Wimpy Bar cook, Stanley Moon, is granted seven wishes by the devil and uses them to try to realise his fantasy of a life with waitress Margaret. Moon imagines alternate lives where he is variously a sophisticated aesthete, a rich industrialist and a rock star, but at each stage is frustrated by the devil’s use of loop-holes in his scenarios. In the end, Moon returns to his previous existence and rebuffs a further attempt by the devil to help him woo Margaret, instead simply asking her to dinner himself. The dream of the sixties: that a wave of opportunity would allow individuals to succeed regardless of their background appears to be over. Indeed, the film seems to be ultimately celebrating a lowering of sights and parodying figures, such as pop stars, which had been deified throughout the decade.

            Similarly, O Lucky Man! ends with Travis a broken man – his various attempts to “get on in life” have failed, he has been jailed in place of the corrupt industrialist he served and even his conversion to religion and love for his fellow man has lead to him being assaulted by a group of homeless people. In the final scene he wanders of the streets into an audition where he is berated by the director – Anderson himself – for his inability to smile. As he says, “What is there to smile about?”, Anderson hits him over the head with the script. There is an abrupt cut, followed by a brief period of black screen – a device used at several points in the film – and then Travis looks at the camera and smiles. Alexander Walker quotes from a “serial version of the story prepared for a newspaper”:

… For a second there was a blackout. And in that second a state of waking alertness seized me… And I saw that the world I travelled through was incomprehensible, that I would never understand it, that I wouldn’t ever understand its secrets, that things people did in it or had done to them would never be more important than the fact of the world … it was wrong to think of changing the forces of the world. One must use them to re-direct oneself, to bend to their bidding.[9]

Anderson’s viewpoint seems to have changed markedly since the revolutionary ending of If… In its place the concept of rebellion has been replaced with a form of Zen Bhuddism – that successfully navigating the world involves a submission of the self. Earlier in the film, as Travis waits outside the secret military installation, his car radio plays a radio programmer discussing Zen and the concept of “living now” or living in the present. The Marxist concept of the individual’s place in a historical struggle for control of destiny and resources seems to have been abandoned, perhaps as the idealism of the sixties gave way to the narcissism of the seventies.

            If the abandonment of the concept of rebellion and societal change seems to leave the individual exposed to the whim of church and state, the pace of technological change in the 1960s in Britain had significant impact on moral and sexual issues: particularly the development of the Pill and greater availability of other forms of contraception (often through government-sponsored agencies)[10]. In tandem with technological changes, reform of the law, including the relaxation of the laws on homosexuality and the legalization of abortion, led to a significant alteration of traditional concepts such as the family and women’s place within it. The British film industry’s reaction to such developments has to be seen as, at best, as tentative. For example, The Best House in London, written by That Was the Week that Was and The Frost Report veteran Dennis Norden, is set in Victorian London and focuses on the rise of the women’s movement and the government’s attempts to respond to the problem of street prostitution by establishing the first state-sponsored brothel. Given a cast including several figures from the British satire boom movement, such as John Bird and Willie Rushton, the viewer would be justified in expecting an incisive critique of the women’s movement or conservative society’s response to it. The film instead, functions more like a traditional sex farce – of the kind popular in the British theatre of the same period. The film dramatizes the conflict between Josephine Pacefoot – a kind of suffragette figure, who leads a movement to establish a house to prepare working girls for actual work in industry – and Babette, a high-class Parisian prostitute and mistress to the government minister responsible for establishing the titular house. There may have been some scope for drawing parallels between the suffragette movement and contemporary movements to emancipate women from enforced childbirth, but the film is content to trade in the racial stereotypes, double entendres, mistaken identity and innocuous titillation common to the form. The film, in this way, illustrates the tension in the work of figures from the “satire boom” and other comedians of the time, between earnest targeting of hypocrisy and prejudice and a cozy reliance on the conventions of variety and music hall from which much of British theatrical comedy is drawn.

            The tepid response to issues of female emancipation could perhaps be attributed to male dominance of the film industry. One film which does, at least, touch on male fears regarding the realignment of the sexes and the technological basis of this change is Percy, where Edwin Anthony, recently abandoned by his wife, is hit by a man falling from an adulterous escape in a high-rise flat and is recipient of the dead man’s penis in a worlds-first operation. That Anthony’s operation is part of the overall technological miracle of the age is emphasised by the continual shots of the phallic Post Office tower, which can be seen through the window of his hospital room. Completed in 1965, the tower was emblematic of Wilson’s “white heat” of technological revolution, although it was commissioned by the Macmillan government:

At more than six hundred feet tall, the narrow, piercing cylinder of glass and steel was at once the capital’s tallest building, the centrepiece of Britain’s brand-new telecommunications network, and an uncompromising statement of technological optimism. [11]

Once Anthony’s operation has been declared a success he becomes a reluctant celebrity and has to go into hiding, while Denholm Elliott’s smooth surgeon exploits the publicity and demand for his own gain. The technological achievement is equated with the sky-piercing P.O. Tower but it’s ironic that the cause of the accident – the high-rise flat – was as much as technological development of the time and had a poorer reputation as a number of failures and the lonely, alienating experience of tenants rapidly took the gloss from the notorious slum-clearing initiative. Anthony has inherited what is described as “an impressive specimen” from his donor, who turns out to have a notorious ladies man, whose various lovers attest to his prowess, but Percy does not follow the expected sex-comedy path that such a scenario suggests. Instead the film centers on the dead man’s wife, who he could never be faithful to, and Anthony’s emerging relationship with her. In the end the film is a touching, rather conservative story and not one would expect of a penis-transplant sex comedy from the 60s. If anything it perhaps reflects an in-built dishonesty and reticence when discussing sex in British film and, by extension, society that had not been fully exorcised by the sexual revolution of the “swinging” sixties.

            Though it’s difficult to argue that the myriad changes of the 1960s did not have an impact on British society and that the “satire boom” did not reflect this and contribute to the way that individuals felt about issues and institutions, an examination of the filmic output of many of the major figures in the late 60s and early 70s reveals a gradual retrenchment to a cultural conservatism. There are a number of factors which may explain this: a general sense of decline as the nation experienced a reduction in world status and economic turmoil; a sense of disappointment with the, perhaps inevitably over-stated, aims of the mid-60s cultural and artistic revolution; the withdrawal of American finance from the British film industry; an in-built conservatism in British comedy film, drawn from the music-hall and variety traditions. It’s conspicuous to note that, following the departure of American film studios and finance the British comedy film became dominated by low-farce and nudity. Although some would argue that the rise of the sex comedy in the 1970s could be seen as the result of sexual frankness and permissiveness of the 1960s, any examination of the films themselves reveals them to be culturally conservative, highly derivative of earlier theatrical forms and, ultimately, extremely parochial. The ambitious, international, progressive film movement heralded by the successes of the British new wave seems to have, at least in the comedy genre, have reverted to the archetypes of the seaside postcard and the conventions of the British class system.


Bedazzled (1967), dir. Stanley Donen

If (1968), dir. Lindsay Anderson

The Best House in London (1969), dir. Philip Saville

The Magic Christian (1969), dir. Joseph McGrath

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), dir. Kevin Billington

Percy (1971), dir. Ralph Thomas

The Ruling Class (1972), dir. Peter Medak

O Lucky Man! (1973), dir. Lindsay Anderson


Beyond the Fringe, ed. Roger Wilmut (London: Methuen, 2003)

Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England (London: Harrap 1974)

Alexander Walker, National Heroes (London: Harrap 1985)

Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat (London: Abacus, 2007)

Christopher Brooker, The Neophiliacs (Boston: Gambit 1970)

Julian Upton, Fallen Stars (London: Headpress, 2004)

Robert Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2009)

[1] Michael Frayn, in Introduction to Beyond the Fringe, ed. Roger Wilmut (London: Methuen, 2003), p. 1

[2] Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England (London: Harrap 1974), p. 287

[3] Principally musicians – Ringo Starr stars in The Magic Christian, for which Paul McCartney wrote the theme song, The Kinks scored Percy and Alan Price wrote and performed the songs in O Lucky Man!

[4] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat (London: Abacus, 2007), p. 8

[5] Christopher Brooker, The Neophiliacs (Boston: Gambit 1970), p.144

[6] Some critics argue that Rimmer is an extension of Cook’s devil character from Bedazzled, while Cook’s limitations as a dramatic lead actor has been cited as the root cause of the film’s lack of box office success. See, Julian Upton, Fallen Stars (London: Headpress, 2004), p. 91

[7] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, p. 636

[8] Erik Hedling, ‘Lindsay Anderson and the Development of British Art Cinema’ in Robert Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2009), p. 42

[9] Alexander Walker, National Heroes (London: Harrap 1985), p. 51

[10] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, p.489

[11] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, p.44

Jean Rollin (1938-2010)

It’s been reported by various web sites that French film director Jean Rollin died within the last week. This is very sad news as not only was Rollin a major figure in European fantastic cinema, but he was still working and had only recently completed a new feature – as yet unreleased – The Mask of the Medusa.

My first contact with the cinema of Jean Rollin was through the editions of his films released in the UK via cult video company Salvation, who released a number of early efforts such as La Vampire Nue and Requiem pour un Vampire in the early 90s, alongside contemporary efforts from Jess Franco and Mario Bava. What impressed me in these films was the poetry of the imagery and the consistency and uniqueness of the world Rollin had created. Though there are stylistic differences in the early vampire cycle, there is a consistency of tone and an obsessive quality to the mise-en-scene which, combined with Rollin’s recurring cast, results in a blurring of the boundaries between individual features. I often find it difficult to remember which films contain certain scenes, though I have watched each of his films dozens of times. What is memorable is a certain longing, a sense that Rollin was continually striving to impress on us the experience of a under appreciated, idealistic artist who had glimpsed a beauty and a peace that was destined to remain just out of reach.

Rollin’s films are constantly staged on the boundaries – the recurring use of the beach at Dieppe, as characters rise out of or sink into the sea; the graveyards which give up their dead; the hours of dusk and dawn where vampires can emerge from grandfather clocks or slink back to their crypts. They use generic tropes to populate cast and setting and then abandon or subvert expectation. The vampires, dead girls, pirates and corrupt industrialists are often as hunted and haunted as the lost girls and boys they prey upon, their ends as tragic and gruesome. Death is often seen as something to be embraced – a means of crossing the boundary from the staid material world to the world of the eternal and the beautific. Other recurring themes such as the fragility of identity and memory reinforce this impatience and sense of frustration with the limitations of mortality.

Though Rollin was often crticised for his direction of actors, or at least for the ‘somnambulant’ performances to be found in his films, it cannot be doubted that some of his casting was inspired. Though many of his regular cast were drawn from a group of close friends and relatives, the contribution of female performers such as Brigitte Lahaie, Sandra Julien, Joelle Coeur, Francoise Blanchard, Francoise Pascal, Caroline Cartier and the Castel twins is immense and makes a real contribution to the success of films which are, often refreshingly, female-centric. The mischeviousness of the Castels, the icy beauty of Lahaie, the cruelty of Coeur or the vulnerability of Blanchard – all fit the parts they were chosen to play as if born for them – and for this credit must be given equally to Rollin’s eye, given the relative lack of success these actresses achieved.

Also contributing to the success of Rollin’s films were impeccable technicians such as DoP Jean-Jacques Renon, who gave many of Rollin’s films an extraordinarily colourful and vibrant look. The use of coloured gels in Les Frissons des Vampires approaches the intensity of Dario Argento’s supernatural work. Rollin’s films have often had soundtracks which matched the beauty of their visuals, with the incredible prog-rock score for Frissons an early example and later efforts from Phillipe d’Aram admirably enhancing the emotional impact of what might otherwise have proven overwhelmingly static visual tableau. The constant presence of Rollin regulars such as Lionel Wallmann and Sam Selsky undoubtedly also contributed to the consistency and sucess of the productions, from behind the scenes.

Ultimately though, these films are the true work of one man and his undiluted vision. As has been said of many an auteur, one knows from a handful of frames that a film is his. Despite the efforts of a few admirers and contemporaries (see Girls Slaves of Morgana le Fay for a alternative Rollinade) there has been truly nothing like the work of Jean Rollin and I imagine that the current cinematic climate means that we will sadly not see his like again.

We are left with his work. And, for that, merci beaucoup, Monsieur Rollin.

US Summer Camp Movies


Summer camps are an American institution, originating in the late 19th century as a new generation of educators, social welfare professionals, organisations and motivated independents sought to create an environment for children’s development away from the corrupting influence of the growing cities of the north-eastern states. From those earliest days, a number of themes can be traced which have remained central to the summer camp project:

  • The provision of a rural environment to bring children closer to nature, which is deemed beneficial both to health and to appreciation of the natural world.
  • The fostering of a sense of independence in children and group dynamics such as teamwork, sociability and empathy for others.
  • Gender-specific activity which reinforce social roles and an early environment for contact between the sexes in the form of co-education camps and arranged evenings between single-sex camps.
  • A forum where inter-generational relationships can be established and tested, outside of the parental home and school environment. Most summer camps have a carefully structured hierarchy from campers of different ages, counsellors-in-training (CITs), counsellors, staff members and directors/owners.


Each of these themes are present in the large number of films set at summer camps, especially in the commercial films made popular in the horror genre, by the success of Friday the 13th (1980), and the comedy genre, by the success of Meatballs (1979)1. This essay will attempt to delineate the themes described above as they are developed in these films and comment on why films were made in these genres.

Leslie Paris, in her history of the American Summer Camp – Children’s Nature – places the start of the movement in 1881, with Ernest Balch’s foundation of a camp for older boys on an island on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. The motives she describes are illustrative of the way that themes central to the American Summer Camp movement were present from these first steps:

To discover and take possession of an island … was to lay claim to one of the central parables of American history: the story of virtuous pioneers, guided by manifest destiny, who forged new communities on virgin soil … Many wilderness enthusiasts had grown up on farms or in small towns and they bemoaned the gradual loss of a farming culture … camping beckoned as a means of recapturing, however briefly, the early pioneers’ bravery and independence. 2

The pioneer spirit is raised as the model for virtue, bravery, independence and Godliness. The act of conquering “virgin soil” is seen as the testing ground for manliness and this was presented by early practitioners as an antidote to the over-civilising, feminising effect of city life. The role that exposure to camping could play in the adolescent years of children, especially boys, was seen as crucial by early figures such as Balch:

the founders of the first children’s summer camps translated these antimodern anxieties into youth-specific terms. Camp Chocorua, one of the first American summer camps, represented the early industry’s key themes: a manufactured peer group of older boys gathered under men’s guidance for outdoor recreation, health and physical activity, and character development … designed to make better citizens of boys.3

That summer camps were seen both as a means to extract children from “unhealthy” urban environments and prepare them to become “better citizens” illustrates the paradoxical way that camp founders viewed the civilised, industrial society developing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Long-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, in his autobiographical book on his summer camp experiences, wrote that ‘[c]amp taught me a lot of little things, and the experiences accumulated into some big “stuff,” stuff that builds backbone and teaches lessons that keep popping up in adulthood.’4 So while camp is seen as a healthy escape from the pressures of modern, urban life it simultaneously develops the characteristics which allow one to succeed in just that milieu. Camp activities such as team sports, overnight camping expeditions and creative activities like putting on a parent’s show are central in fostering social skills, independence and leadership seen as crucial for success in adulthood, particularly in the workplace.

Similarly, the steady introduction of girls to the camp movement – through dedicated girls’ camps and co-educational establishments – meant that camp also taught children how to behave with the opposite sex, through adult-supervised dances and other events. These activities could be a source of joyful experiences – author Josh Wolk remembers, ‘I … had my first kiss at a dance with a neighbouring girls’ camp. Everything I couldn’t get during the school year, I got at Eastwind.”5 Alternatively, they could be a source of extreme pain and embarrassment, as recorded by Eric Simonoff: ‘My wife … has heard many many stories from my Camp Harlam days and now refers to it only as Jewish Sex Camp, as its all but stated purpose was to acclimate young Jews to the idea of marrying other Jews, by means of coed campouts, enforced Saturday socials, and a heavy emphasis on pairing off.’6 Aside from the awkwardness of these proscribed events, the risk of being trapped all summer in an unrequited relationship was a concern for young campers such as Mindy Schneider, who dedicated one whole summer to discovering ‘a way to make Kenny notice me’.7

Helping young campers navigate these opportunities for pleasure or pain was a highly-structured hierarchy of authority, with CITs, counsellors, adult staff members and the camp directors tasked with protecting, guiding and educating children for up to eight weeks of summer vacation. Many of the senior staff would have attended the same camp as children and, as such, were sources of stories, traditions and behaviours which provided a sense of continuity and tradition which encouraged a sense of ownership between campers and the camp itself. Directors often tried to extend this sense of place and history beyond the formation of the camp by co-opting names and rituals evoking Native Americans. In seeking to recreate a pioneer past and co-opting the nomenclature and ritual of the natives the summer camp project has some inherent moral and historical paradoxes.

Released in 1979, Meatballs is set in a typical co-educational summer camp of the period: campers of a variety of ages living in wooden cabins surrounding a lake, a hierarchy of counsellors and staff members, daily sports and craft activities, etc. The film focuses on two figures – an early teenage camper called Rudy and the head staff member, Tripper, played by former Saturday Night Live comic Bill Murray, in his first film role. The film contrasts Tripper’s easy-going, comic but authoritative personality with Rudy’s shy, insecure and withdrawn persona. Rudy is shown arriving at the camp buses, saying goodbye to his father and is obviously reluctant to spend summer at camp. When the buses arrive, Rudy is seen sitting alone on his suitcase and it is Tripper who begins to draw the boy out of his shell, greeting him with, ‘Ah, you must be that small, depressed boy we ordered!’ Though the film sets a template for the many summer camp films which followed by being largely made up of a serious of loosely-connected sketches8, the relationship between Tripper and Rudy remains central. Despite Tripper taking the time to personally introduce him to his cabin mates – ‘Watch this one – he’s done time for car theft!’ he jokes with the cabin counsellor – he is bullied and ignored by his peers and later has to be prevented from leaving camp by Tripper, who offers him a personal guarantee of protection. In an illustration of the central camp philosophy that physical activity leads not just to health but self-esteem and independence, it’s through encouraging Rudy’s natural talent for cross-country running that Tripper begins to draw him out of his shell. This sets up the film’s finale as Rudy defeats a bigger, stronger and older member of a rival camp to win the end-of-season ‘Camp Olympics’. Again, the somewhat paradoxical camp creed that success is achieved through a rejection of modern, urban ideals – the rival camp has a strict, regimented dress code, exhibit ultra-competitive behaviour and is more expensive – but remains measured by them. In the end, though taking part is seen as good, winning is important – even to the geeky underdogs of Camp North Star.

Meatballs is fairly typical for a summer camp film (regardless of genre) in including a scene where a senior member of staff recounts a traditional horror tale at night around the camp fire – in this case, the common urban legend concerning a hook-handed killer and a young couple in a car on “lover’s lane”. These stories perform a narrative function in the horror genre – they provide back-story and foreshadow later events – but their function in an actual summer camp setting points to other levels of interpretation. The stories operate as a “cautionary tale”, usually advising young adults to stay away from vices such as drugs, alcohol and – especially – sex; it’s a much commented-on feature of horror genres such as the slasher film that sex equals death9. However, when we pay closer attention to the status of the teller and the audience a reading of the campfire story with greater relevance to the summer camp project emerges. The tale is told by either the camp director – see Madman (1982) or Happy Campers (2001) – or a senior counsellor or staff member – for example, in The Burning (1980) or Meatballs. The audience is made up of groups lower in the camp hierarchy – counsellors, CITs and campers. These stories, told on the threshold of night, between civilisation and the wild, to an audience in an established stratum of responsibility, act to reinforce the rules and structure of the community. They tell campers what can go wrong if they don’t respect nature and obey the camp rules; they tell those tasked with the care of the flock what can go wrong if they neglect their roles. In this sense they act like the classic tale of the boy who cried wolf10; they stress that, no matter how the camp project works to encourage a sense of play and fun, its placement on the edge of civilisation requires a sense of responsibility.

Friday the 13th (1980), an enormously successful independent production riding the coattails of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1979), begins with such a cautionary tale. Two camp counsellors, who should be overseeing a group of swimming campers, sneak off to make out in one of the camp buildings. A child drowns and they are attacked and killed by an unseen assailant. Twenty-two years later a group of counsellors who are preparing the camp to reopen fall prey to something or somebody in the woods. The film’s core idea has the brevity and simplicity of a cautionary folk tale, which may explain its success in the face of justified criticism concerning the paucity of its script and production values. The events of the opening scene are repeated within the narrative in the form of a cautionary tale, with several of the counsellors warned-off from approaching the camp by members of the surrounding community. This has parallels with the kind of real-world summer camp legends which function to keep campers in line, such as the one told to Thomas Adler when homesick on his first trip to summer camp:

My mind was telling me that I could probably plan an escape, and no one would find out I was missing for a couple of hours – except the Bulk. I mentioned it to him and he said, “Last year two boys decided they were Lewis and Clark and tried to get away. They blazed a trail through the camp woods and ended up at the fire circle on the far west side of camp. They were way past frightened when their counsellor finally found them, and that was the end of it” … At that point I realised it was too complicated to try to escape.11

Simple tales like this, whether factual or not, become legendary in the telling, both over time and through the authority of the teller and the setting, and are effective in reinforcing rules and behaviours in a non-dogmatic manner. The lesson from Friday the 13th, that two kids abdicated their responsibility to do something prohibited, that someone vulnerable suffered as a result, and that now everyone in the same position is fair game for vengeance, would have played well to a target audience of teens, many of whom would have attended summer camp and may have been counsellors-in-training themselves. Similarly, Madman begins with an act of irresponsibility which has devastating consequences. Beside the traditional evening camp fire, owner Max tells the story of a local farmer by the name of Marz who killed his family and is rumoured to still wander the woods. He recounts that anyone calling the name of “Madman Marz” will bring the farmer hunting, with predictable results, as a young counsellor does just that. What is intended as a cautionary tale to keep kids out of the woods instead prompts actions which bring the wrath of untamed nature down on all. It’s also interesting to note that the female counsellors also criticise Max over the story as some of the younger campers are frightened and upset by the story. There is a fine line between warning children away from potential threats and traumatising them, and the camp fireside story ritual treads this as carefully as horror films do in the culture at large – performing a function, yet inspiring criticism and censure.

Camp legends, in the form of stories, are reinforced by nomenclature and ritual which are designed to give the camp historical continuity. It is striking how the camp movement appropriated Native American Indian names for camp grounds and rituals for adaptation into activities. This was a feature of early camps such as the girl’s camp established by Mary Jobe in 1916, where the end of the summer season was marked by “The Passing of the Pequots”, an Indian pageant, with the girls dressed as Indian squaws. The alignment with Native peoples and rituals is seen as marking the summer camp project as external to the civilised, urban world and part of the “natural” world:

a degree of “primitive” cross-racial play, albeit temporary and contained, was at many white-only camps central to the community experience. Having effected a retreat from heterogeneous and increasingly multiracial urban centres, camp communities turned back with desire to images of darkness. Like the jokes, songs, nicknames and special colors that were central to camp life, racial “outsiders” helped to create a sense of being inside.12

The contact with Native American people and ritual has remained to the present day: Thomas Adler describes how an Indian chief called Dea Quay visited his summer camp and led the campers in “a tribal chant”13. Interestingly, Adler comments how he would have been “bitter had [he] been Dea Quay”14, as he reflects on the Indian’s stories of his ancestors, who lived on the land surrounding the camp for hundreds of years. Again, there is a tension in the camp project between civilisation and nature and the notions of what is good or appropriate in either. The ideological clash is played out in several summer camp comedies in the form of a threat to an established camp, usually codified as underdog by un-athletic, “nerdy” campers or camp owners approaching financial ruin.

In Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) – part of the long-running series based on the character created by comic Jim Varney – camp handyman Ernest is given the chance to become a counsellor if he looks after a group of kids on release from a juvenile centre. The children are largely Hispanic and black in what appears to be otherwise an all-white camp and they are further codified as “urban” by their language and defensive “streetwise” attitude to the other campers. The boys are initially dismissive of the camp and Ernest’s attempts to involve them in camp activities fail until they are involved in a craft competition where the group builds an Indian tepee. The boys are then central in an attempt to fight off the attempts of an unscrupulous developer to bulldoze the camp – having outsmarted Ernest to obtain a signature from the camp’s owner, an indian chief. It is through this battle – which references classic “cowboy-and-indian” battles involving flaming arrows and improvised tomahawks – that the boys integrate with the rest of the campers; the boys are unified in their defence of the natural world against the unchecked progress of urbanisation. This kind of drama which co-opts and reinforces themes central to the summer camp project would seem heavy-handed in a non-comic context. Ernest Goes to Camp can deliver a subtle message about integration and the importance of tradition while amusing its audience with slapstick.

In much the same manner, Oddballs (1984) features a group of teenage boy campers working to uncover an attempt by the owner of the neighbouring upscale girls’ camp to force the owner to sell, while planning to turn the land over to developers of a shopping mall. Much of the running time, however, is spent on the comic potential of the boys’ attempts to get to the girls’ camp, with one attempt to row across the lake separating the camps ending in disaster. An arranged evening provides a better opportunity, but is met with a similar comic lack of success, with one character’s attempt to appear sophisticated with pidgin French exposed by a fluently Francophone girl camper15. As previously noted, these kinds of awkward moments between the sexes would have resonated with an audience with experience of actual summer camps, and it is in the comedy genre that this theme is exploited most strongly. However, in the horror film Sleepaway Camp (1983), the issues surrounding gender are foreground in an extraordinary manner. The film begins with a tragic event where a man and his two children are hit by a speedboat – the father and his son are killed and his daughter, Angela, is sent to live with an aunt. Eight years later, Angela is sent to the same summer camp as her aunt’s son, Ricky, and a series of deaths take place, with Angela revealed as the killer. This setup is fairly consistent with the slasher film template, but the film is given a further psycho-sexual twist by the revelation that Angela is actually Peter, her brother, presumed killed in the opening scene, and has been raised as a girl by her mentally-unstable aunt16. Angela’s true nature is subtly foreshadowed in the scene where her aunt – a Doctor – provides her and Ricky with certificates of fitness to give to the camp nurse, exempting them from the “physical”, a long-established feature of camp life:

Children’s inculcation into camps’ body-focused culture began when they underwent precamp physicals… designed primarily to keep ill and potentially contagious children out of camps, where they might put others at risk…. They undressed in single-sex groups, wrapped themselves in sheets, and stood in line with many others until it was their turn to have their noses, throats, ears, teeth, chests, hearts, skin, and feet examined.17

Angela is awkward and shy and is mercilessly bullied by the girls in her cabin and the campers at large. Much of the teasing is of a sexual nature, as when Judy wonders aloud why Angela “never showers with the rest of us. What has she got to hide?!” However, her cousin’s best camp friend Paul develops a crush on her and begins a tentative relationship which, while prompting Angela to smile and talk, engenders jealousy and triggers events which lead to tragedy. Putting aside Angela/Peter for a moment, the film is full of other troubled relationships: Angela’s cousin Ricky returns to summer camp to find that his “steady” from the previous summer has matured and is no longer interested in, as she says, “younger men”; camp counsellor Meg is having an affair with a camp director old enough to be her father; the chef is a predatory child abuser and the other counsellors are involved in bickering, destructive relationships. Placed against this background, the attempts by Paul to draw Angela out of her shell seem tender and wholesome and make the final reveal all the more shocking: Angela asks Paul to go skinny-dipping on the lake and is discovered with his severed head in her lap before standing to reveal herself as Peter18.

A gentler approach to the same themes is found within the later comedic drama Happy Campers (2001), which draws on A Midsummer Night’s Dream to tell the story of the relationships between a group of summer camp counsellors over the course of one summer. The central couple are Wendy, who is a overly-conscientious counsellor focused on the welfare of the campers and Wichita, who is a cynical, poetry-writing young man who is bewitched by Wendy but unable to identify with her. As their relationship ebbs and flows through the summer it has a direct impact on the campers as they are described as “the heart and soul of the camp”, a constant source of gossip for the younger children. Happy Campers dramatises this inter-generational aspect of relationships to a greater extent than other summer camp-set films, with several of the campers developing crushes and meaningful relationships with the older counsellors. Talia, an initially uncommitted and cynical counsellor, described as “our queen” by another character19, has to deal with a young female camper’s first period which, though awkward to begin with, leads to reciprocal relationship where the camper encourages her to talk about her unrequited love for Wichita. The film also reveals its distance from the more conservative 1980s by foregrounding an openly gay counsellor and a potentially closeted by-sexual female character. The gay counsellor, Jasper, has his own following amongst the campers and is approached by one young boy on the last day:

Boy: I’m gay.

Jasper: No. You’re not. You’re twelve.

Boy: Are you saying you didn’t have any gay thoughts when you were twelve.

Jasper: No, I didn’t have any sex thoughts when I was twelve.

Boy: [pause] Aren’t you glad I waited until the last day to have this conversation?

Jasper: You better believe it! Get out of here!

The film obfuscates the lines demarcating authority in the camp hierarchy by telling the story from the perspective of the counsellors, presenting them as fallible and subject to their own emotional and professional challenges. As Wendy says, “The kids had to realise that this was our vacation too.” And, when the bus is leaving and the counsellors are loudly complaining about their pay cheques one of the campers indignantly replies, “Hey! This was the best summer of my life! I love you guys!” Of course, it’s a joke (or half-joke), a dig at authority, and part of the dissolving of barriers which the film works to achieve.

Summer camps originated at roughly the same time as cinema, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, but despite several films containing scenes or references to camp20, it was not until the late 1970s that films began to emerge that were not just set at summer camp, but explored the themes central to the whole ethos of the summer camp movement. This seems curious given the massive popularity and coast-to-coast nature of summer camps from the interwar years, and the focus on films for a youth market from as early as the late 1950s. It seems that it took the emergence of a generation of younger filmmakers in the 1970s, people who had attended summer camps themselves and who were close enough to those days to want to attempt to capture the sights, sounds and spirit of camp. As Meatballs director Ivan Reitman says in his foreword to Camp Camp, a pictorial history of everyday campers’ experiences in the 70s and 80s:

I honestly believe that I would not have the life or career that I now have had I not gone to camp. It was at camp that I started my first band, acted in a play, competed in group sports, and learned that one could actually talk to members of the opposite sex… When I look back on Meatballs now … I am pleased with how honestly and joyfully it reflected my own camp experiences: from crying as a seven-year-old when my parents left me after Vistiting Day to the shivering excitement I experienced after my first kiss to the thrill of competing in Color War. All the feelings I felt during and about summer camp are woven into that movie.21

Reitman describes how everything that is good about camp life is contained within the film, and the comedy genre – particularly the brand of knockabout, “smart-alecky”22, teen-focussed comedy which emerged in the late 1970s – is perfect for capturing the sense of fun, independence and group spirit which are integral to summer camp. But, as has been stressed above, not all campers have wholly positive experiences from camp, and defining a hierarchy of authority and structuring play is also part of camp. The emergence of a youth-focused series of cautionary tales set in authentic camp environments, modern-day Brothers Grimm horror tales, makes sense as the flipside of the exuberant, “schools out” attitude of the summer camp comedy genre. That there are a number of overlaps, genre-crossbreeds and parodies23 illustrates the careful balance camp ideology played with notions such as safety/freedom, civilisation/nature and authority/independence. Playing largely to a teen audience with knowledge of, if not direct experience with, summer camps, these films accurately reflected and exploited the tears and laughter, failure and triumph, loneliness and community of summer camps – through horror and comedy.



Primary film texts

Friday the 13th (Georgetown Productions Inc., 1980)

Meatballs (Canadian Film Development Corporation, 1979)

Madman (The Legend Lives Company, 1982)

Sleepaway Camp (American Eagle, 1983)

The Burning (Filmways Pictures, 1981)

Ernest Goes to Camp (Emshell Producers, 1987)

Oddballs (unknown, 1984)

Happy Campers (DiNovi Pictures, 2001)



Leslie Paris, Children’s Nature, NYU Press, New York, 2008

Thomas C. Adler, Campingly Yours, 5Star Publications, Chandler Arizona, 2009

Michael D. Eisner, Camp, Warner Books, New York, 2005

Mindy Schneider, Not a Happy Camper, Grove Press, New York, 2007

Eric Simonoff (ed.), Sleepaway, Penguin, New York, 2005

Josh Wolf, Cabin Pressure, Hyperion, New York, 2007

Roger Bennett & Jules Shell, Camp Camp, Crown, New York, 2008


1 Meatballs is a Canadian production but has a number of key US personnel in front of and behind the camera, including lead actor Bill Murray and writer Harold Ramis. The film is set in a non-specific North American country and parodies this in the opening scene, where the camp is woken to the “national anthem”, a Scottish bagpipe lament.
2 Paris, Children’s Nature, pp. 17-18
3 Paris p. 18
4 Eisner, Camp, pp. xvi-xvii
5 Wolk, Cabin Pressure, p.7
6 Simonoff, Sleepaway, p. xiv
7 Schneider, Not a Happy Camper, p.54
8 This is a comic style inspired by the previous year’s Animal House (1978) and the series of college-set exploitation films of the mid-70s such as The Pom-Pom Girls (1976) and The Cheerleaders (1973).
9 The vast majority of summer camp-set horror films fit into the “slasher” genre template. A thorough and convincing analysis of the genre and its gender politics can be found in Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws.
10 Slasher films, including those in a camp setting, invariably contain one instance of false threat – where an appearance of the antagonist/monster figure is revealed to be a form of prank. This leads to a lowering of the guard for the first attack and is thus, a “cry wolf” moment.
11 Adler, Campingly Yours, p. 37
12 Paris, p. 191
13 Adler, p. 53
14 Adler, p.53
15 Again, this may be an in-joke. Despite its non-specific North American setting and absence of regional accents, Oddballs is a Canadian production.
16 Slasher films with a psycho-sexual slant display indebtedness to the Italian ‘giallo’ sub-genre, a series of thrillers made in the late 60s through to the early 80s. Specific examples of cross-dressing or cross-gender killers in the giallo include A Blade in the Dark (1983) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
17 Paris, p.123
18 A brief shot which gains in impact through the necessity of super-imposing the young actresses face on a full-sized body cast: the effect is unconvincing and adds another layer to the “did I just see that?” aspect of the final twist.
19 This would seem to align Talia with Queen Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The camp director is a more explicit reference, as he is name Oberon.
20 For example, Disney’s film The Parent Trap (1961), in which identical twins – separated at birth – discover each other at summer camp and plot to reconcile their parents.
21 Bennett & Schell, Camp Camp, p.9
22 By which I mean rapid-fire, carefully-scripted dialogue akin to the “screwball” comedies of the 30s and 40s. Interestingly, one of the films made on the back of the success of Meatballs was titled Screwballs (1983).
23 These include Pandemonium (1982), Wet Hot American Summer (2001) and Cheerleader Camp (1988).

Videogames and Film

Adaptations are as old as the cinema itself. From Georges Melies’ La Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008), filmmakers have continually scoured other media for stories suited to the big screen. This essay focuses on the phenomenon of films based on videogames, examining the reason why these films were made, how their production was influenced by aspects of the source media and the response with which they were met.

Films based directly on specific videogame series and franchises are a relatively new phenomenon – Super Mario Bros was the first such film, released in 1993. This may seem surprising given that commercially-available videogames were introduced in 1971 (Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space arcade machine) and that home gaming platforms such as the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System ensured that gaming was a popular and mainstream activity from the early 80s. Films were made which responded to the general phenomenon of video gaming: Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984) featured then cutting-edge computer-enhanced graphics; WarGames (1983) merged nuclear war fears with technophobia in a story where a teenage hacker almost starts world war 3; Joysticks (1983) placed arcade culture in the context of the popular teen sex comedy genre. However, despite the production of several videogames based on popular motion pictures – including E. T. (1982, game released the same year) – individual games and game franchises were not treated to a big-screen makeover. One reason for this may be the technological crudity and narrative simplicity of early videogames. As games are primarily an interactive medium, early videogames concentrated on playability. Limitation in memory meant that many early videogames contained patterns of repeating waves (or levels), which is not conducive to story or character development. What little narrative was present generally took the form of text displayed between levels or as an introduction (or “attract sequences” displayed between playing sessions). Despite this, the popularity of games led to a plethora marketing spin-offs and some characters did make an appearance on the small screen – Namco’s Pac-Man (1980) videogame was adapted into an animated series which ran from 1982-84. This activity, combined with the adaptation of other properties seen as appealing to a youth audience such as Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984) comic, adapted in 1990 and The Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, adapted in 1987, meant that – in economic terms at least – a film version of a videogame property was inevitable.

If it was only a matter of time until the commercial prospects for a direct videogame-to-film adaptation was produced it is perhaps also inevitable that the subject would be the most successful videogame. Super Mario Bros (1983), a co-production between videogame software and hardware publisher Nintendo, Cinergi Pictures and Allied Filmmakers, is based on the videogame franchise of the same name, a series of games beginning with Donkey Kong (1981) which have together sold 152 million copies worldwide[1]. The world of the Mario games has evolved over time but at the time of the film’s production the games were relatively primitive – Mario Bros (1983) is a simple platform game which requires the player – playing as either Mario or Luigi, his brother – to jump across platforms and onto enemies to defeat them. The film adaptation includes several elements which are present in the game series to this point and some from the subsequent entry, but understandable liberties are taken with the source material to allow a credible story to be constructed. In a more general sense, the film is more recognisable as a “videogame film” in its use of advanced (for the time) visual effects, elaborate sets and non-stop action. In this very first videogame adaptation we can see the elements which have come to characterise not just film adaptations of games, but a general critical observation of modern films of a certain genre (usually action films) to be “like a videogame”. This comment is usually a negative one and refers to excessive CGI, fast editing patterns and over-produced settings as pandering to an audience (usually young) who suffer from low-attention spans, crave violent entertainment and shun character and narrative development as boring. This tendency increased in subsequent videogame adaptations, with a wave of films based on videogames in the popular “fighting” game genre: Double Dragon (1994), Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995) and its sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997). These games, whose characterisation extends little beyond costume and contain no more narrative than the progression to a series of “boss” characters, were – and, still are – enormously popular, but contain a paucity film-like assets useful for adaptation. Certainly, from a critical point-of-view the films were seen as no more than an attempt to cash-in on a property which had a substantial in-built audience of a certain key demographic. A glance at scores for these films on movie review sites such as also shows that ordinary viewers have tended to assign low ratings, with only the first Mortal Kombat film achieving a score of more than five out of ten. Financially, the films follow a similar pattern with Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter making a substantial profit and the other either making marginal profits or losing money. Mortal Kombat was the first visible success for a videogame adaptation, spending three weeks at number one in the US box office charts. That its more generously budgeted sequel made substantially less than 50% of its box office and was followed two years later by the lamentable performance of Chris Robert’s Wing Commander seems to have halted production of more videogame adaptations until the new millennium.

Until the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001, videogame adaptations were taken from long-running game franchises designed for and running on primitive 8- and 16-bit computer hardware. The release of Sony’s Playstation and Sega’s Saturn in 1995 marked the debut of 32-bit technology in home console gaming and sparked a revolution in the kind of gaming experiences available. The improvement in graphical capability allowed the development of immersive 3D worlds and the use of CD-ROM for storage allowed streaming video to add narrative elements, CD-quality music and greater data storage for richer game content. The success of Sony, in particular, in marketing and supporting the Playstation leads to a demographic shift in the types of people playing games:

The effect of aggressive marketing campaigns employed by Sony to promote Playstation … has been a shift in videogame market demographics with the average age of players continuing to rise year on year. From the outset the Playstation family was marketed at late teens/early twenties and the success of these strategies has contributed to a shifting demographic that must force a reconsideration of the videogame as merely a child’s toy.[2]

This type of audience demanded more mature content and a number of games were produced which were more explicit in terms of violence or sexual content, but also in terms of the literate nature of plot and characterisation. The added graphical prowess of the gaming platforms had allowed developers to make games more filmic, with a number of genres developing which exploited the ability to move in three dimensions in a game world. So, when the time came to adapt these game franchises to the medium of film, filmmakers found a richer range of film-like assets to import: fully-formed characters with recognisably human behaviour traits and ticks; game world settings which either corresponded to the real world or presented a consistent fantasy environment; original, orchestral soundtracks; action and event-driven narrative approximate to existing genre film. It is a common feature of film adaptations of the new generation of games that they have quite often handled mature themes – many of them are in the “horror” genre and, with the notable exception of the Tomb Raider films, the majority have been shot for an “R” rating.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider stands as the most successful adaptation of a videogame to date in terms of takings at the worldwide box-office. However, in terms of return on investment – it is the second most expensive videogame adaptation – it is closer to Street Fighter than Mortal Kombat. It was generally disliked by critics and the poorer performance of its sequel would appear to have put paid to further entries in the franchise and generally to big-budget videogame adaptations released by major US studios. Since the release of Tomb Raider: the Cradle of Life in 2003, videogame adaptations have tended to mid-budget, with only high-profile failure Doom breaking the $50 million mark. The most expensive videogame adaptation of all time is a special case, in that Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within (2001) is not strictly an adaptation of a videogame (the Japanese role-playing game Final Fantasy has an entirely new storyline for each entry in the series), but an entirely original story which contains themes common to its nominal source such as environmental disaster, the destructive nature of humanity and standard fantasy tropes such as the importance of honour and loyalty. Its chief link to its source material is the nature of its production – it is an entirely computer-generated film, made with the similar technology as that used in the videogame series. Though the script has come in for criticism, few reviewers were unimpressed with the cutting-edge CGI used, in particular in the lifelike character models[3]. The film was a notable commercial catastrophe, however, and remains something of a cinematic anomaly. It also caused the dissolution of its Japanese production company “Square Pictures”, a branch of the Japanese company responsible for the Final Fantasy games.

The tendency of videogames to cross national boundaries (videogame series such as Tomb Raider – developed in the UK, Final Fantasy – developed in Japan and Doom – developed in the US, are successful all over the world) has led to international co-production in film adaptations of videogames. Tomb Raider, released by major US studio Paramount was made as a co-production with a German company and benefitted from German tax laws:

Germany allows investors in German-owned film ventures to take an immediate tax deduction on their film investments, even if the film they’re investing in has not yet gone into production … unlike the tax laws in other countries, they don’t require that films be shot locally or employ local personnel. German law simply requires that the film be produced by a German company that owns its copyright and shares in its future profits … In the case of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Paramount sold the copyright to a group of German investors for $94 million through Tele-München Gruppe … Paramount then repurchased the film for $83.8 million in lease and option payments.[4]

Further budget costs were offset with the use of some British actors and locations, which allowed the production to claim tax relief, and pre-sales of the “…distribution rights in six countries where the Tomb Raider video games were a big hit with teenage boys. These pre-sales in Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain brought in another $65 million.”[5] This partly explains the desire on the part of studios to persist in making films based on videogame properties, when the evidence is that they have had variable financial and critical success. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was trendsetting in its use of German co-production – Paul W. S. Anderson’s return to the videogame adaptation genre, Resident Evil (2002), was co-produced by German company, Constantin Films. It was also shot largely in Berlin.

                         The highest profile German production company in the field of videogame adaptations is undoubtedly Boll Kino Beteiligungs GmbH & Co., whose founder Uwe Boll has written, directed and/or produced a total of nine such films as of 2010. Almost universally loathed by fans and critics[6], his films and the man himself have a high profile in videogame and genre film press because of the perceived shoddy nature of his work. Critics complain that his films are badly made, with atrocious casting, confusing scripts and badly shot and edited action scenes. Fans of the videogames he adapts complain that he shows little fidelity to their stories, characters and spirit. Boll’s films are responsible for all but one rating below 5/10 on for theatrical films based on videogames since Wing Commander in 1999[7]. Despite his films’ terrible box-office, Boll continues to make films through the same exploitation of German tax laws as those used by Paramount in the production of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Much of the criticism is centered on the financial details of production of Boll’s films, with critics alleging that Boll intentionally makes films with no consideration of quality because he is compensated for losses under the deal. [8] Boll’s films tend to do better in non-US territories and generally perform well on DVD – in fact, several of his productions have become direct-to-DVD franchises, with sequels to House of Dead, BloodRayne and Alone in the Dark all bypassing theatres. Boll has been criticized for being more of a businessman than an artist, but in interviews he seems to indicate that the difficulty in making videogame adaptations is partly down to lack of business sense on the part of property holders:

Boll believes that part of the problem with convincing Hollywood that game movies are a good idea is down to game publishers themselves. He argues that Marvel, for example, are very good at cross-promoting movies based on their properties – whereas videogame companies simply sell off the license and then forget about it. According to Boll, he’s fallen foul of this on more than one occasion. “Sega did nothing for House of the Dead, and Atari did nothing to support Alone in the Dark. They developed Alone in the Dark part 5, parallel to my movie, and then they closed the LA facility and never finished the game. And I was standing there alone in the rain with my movie…[9]

In general terms, it seems surprising – given the cross-marketing possibilities – that more direct videogame tie-ins are not developed for simultaneous release with features films based directly on videogame franchises. This practice is widespread for films not based on videogames, with recent years seeing simultaneous releases of games to coincide with theatrical release of films such as Quantum of Solace (2008) and Cars (2006). There are two potential reasons why this does not occur often occur for films based on videogames. Firstly, it is difficult to synchronize the development and release schedules of two different industries. When one property is delayed, costs are incurred in either delaying the release of the other or missing out on the marketing opportunities of a planned simultaneous release. When this takes place within a vertically-integrated media company which owns (or has a direct financial arrangement with) the film and game studios this pain can be lived with. However, this is not usually the case with films adapted from games, where the source properties tend to be made by established independent game studios. In the case highlighted by Boll, his company was ready with their adaptation of Atari’s game, but delays in the production of the game led to a loss of cross-marketing potential which he argues harmed the game. As the game was designed to introduce changes in character and setting to a long-running and popular franchise the film was criticized for not following established game franchise canon. The game appeared three years after Boll’s film, in 2008. The second reason takes the form of a high-profile cautionary tale: the disastrous reception of the videogame Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. The game was released in tandem with the feature film sequel Tomb Raider: the Cradle of Life in 2003, which opened in fourth place in the box-office charts and went on to mediocre business:

Paramount says, it’s the fault of the latest Lara Croft video game. That’s the excuse offered by Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen, who told Reuters, ”The only thing we can attribute that to is that the gamers were not happy with the latest version of the ‘Tomb Raider’ video game, which is our core audience.” As it turns out, ”Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness” has been a big seller since its release on June 20, Reuters reports, but critics have complained that the game has so many bugs that it’s nearly impossible to play. [10]

The Angel of Darkness, which has a metacritic score of 49/100, was rushed into release to coincide with Cradle of Life which exacerbated problems the development team – Core Design – were experiencing with the new Playstation 2 games console. The early days of videogame-to-film adaptation had seen the release of a number of game tie-ins, but subsequent to the Tomb Raider fiasco, Doom the movie and Doom 3 remains the only significant simultaneous videogame/film release.

                        The idea of a “core audience” is key in understanding the appeal of adapting videogames for film studios. As games are an interactive medium it can be argued that they are naturally predisposed to encourage fan participation in cross-media spin-offs and in creating their own works based on game franchise elements (what Henry Jenkins terms “participatory culture”):

Fans have always been early adapters of new media technologies; their fascination with fictional universes often inspires new forms of cultural production, ranging from costumes to fanzines and, now, digital cinema.[11]

Jenkins is referring here specifically to those fans of the universe presented in the Star Wars film franchise and fan response to it, which has led to the use of home video and computer technology for the production of their own films. It’s apparent that there is an aspect of all adaptation to film that exploits existing audience knowledge and builds hype based on expectation and imagination. This can be a double-edged sword for filmmakers; audiences have their own ideas about such things as how a character should look, sound and behave and what their environment should look like. A century of adaptations of novels, short stories and theatre, though, has largely given audiences a context to mediate and understand divergences between expectation based on their experience of original texts and the film adaptation. This is complicated by the adaptation of an interactive medium, where the nature of the narrative admits what Janet Murray calls “agency”, the ability of the audience to actively and simultaneous dictate the course of narrative cause and effect in the game world. This may take several forms, one of which is simple movement:

One form of agency … characteristic of digital environments is spatial navigation. The ability to move through virtual landscapes can be pleasurable in itself, independent of the content of the spaces.[12]

Murray states that agency works to enhance immersion in a text. In the case of spatial navigation, this is exploited by such games in the horror genre – such as the Doom series – to enhance tension by providing the audience with the tools an author uses to build suspense and anticipation. Approaching the turn in one of the dark corridors of the space station in Doom 3, the game player is entirely in control of the way he encounters potential threats – from speeding directly around, guns blazing, to carefully peeping out in a stealthy manner. Replicating these kinds of experiences in film adaptations of video games has been problematic. The film adaptation of Doom, includes a sequence filmed from the perspective of the protagonist as he patrols the Olduvai research facility, which has been overrun by creatures mutated by a virus. Production design, practical creature effects, computer effects and staging of this sequence provide a very close facsimile of watching someone play the game Doom 3, while at the same time, only serving to remind that we are watching a film. Paradoxically, the sequence works to bring the audience (or, at least, an educated audience – the “core audience”) out of the picture. A similar tactic is employed in the opening sequence of Silent Hill (2006), where the protagonist’s walk into the titular ghost town is replicated with incredible fidelity by director Christophe Gans – camera angles, production design, creature effects and narrative event all work to create an extended quote of the corresponding sequence from the first Silent Hill game, published in 1999.

                        As of 2010, it seems unlikely that there will be an end to the adaptation of successful video game franchises, with a number of titles announced as in production. Even Uwe Boll, who seemed to have been given pause by the abject failure of his largest project to date – In the Name of the King: a Dungeon Siege Tale, in 2008 – has announced further videogame-related projects. While videogames remain popular and while film studios remain focussed on certain demographics, the appeal will remain. It remains to be seen whether further development of videogames as a mature art-form will render film translation irrelevant, as advances in graphical sophistication and processing power in a new generation of gaming consoles bridge the gap between Hollywood spectacle and today’s game worlds. In a few decades we may be looking back on the phenomena of films based on video games as a brief anomaly in the history of film and videogames. 


Primary film texts

Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1993)

Street Fighter (Capcom Co. Ltd., 1994)

Mortal Kombat (New Line, 1995)

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (New Line, 1997)

Wing Commander (Carousel Picture Company, 1999)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Mutual Film Company, 2001)

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Square Pictures, 2001)

Resident Evil (Constantin Film, 2002)

House of the Dead (Boll Kino, 2003)

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (Mutual Film Company, 2003)

Alone in the Dark (Boll Kino, 2005)

Doom (Universal, 2005)

Silent Hill (Silent Hill DCP Inc., 2006)

Dead or Alive (Constantin Film, 2006)

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (Boll Kino, 2008)


Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, MIT Press 1997

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture New York University Press 2006

James Newman, Videogames, Routledge 2004

[2] James Newman, Videogames, Routledge 2004, p.6

[5] Epstein, ibid.

[6] There is an online calling for Boll to sop working –

[7] The exception is Dead or Alive (2006), a Paul W. S. Anderson-produced martial arts film which attempted to replace R-rated violence with PG-13-rated fighting girls. It was a catastrophic box-office failure, but is still rated higher than any Uwe Boll film on at 4.9/10.

[10] Blame GameEntertainment Weekly, 7/29/03

[11] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture New York University Press 2006, p.131

[12] Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, MIT Press 1997, p.129