British Universities Film & Video Council

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Re-discovering Thorold Dickinson

Film historian James Leahy provides a personal view of three of the films made by the educator and film director Thorold Dickinson which are now available on DVD.

About the author: James Leahy is a screenwriter and film historian and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, PIX and he was one of the founding editors of Vertigo magazine . His detailed analysis of the life and work of Jean Renoir for Senses of Cinema can be read online at


Thorold Dickinson, on the right, directing Queen of Spades (image © STUDIOCANAL)

Thorold Dickinson (1903-1984) was a passionate supporter of BUFVC (or the BUFC as it then was). Not only did he speak regularly at the Council’s conferences but, when necessary, he lobbied to protect the organisation’s independence and its independent grant. He had a vision of the contribution film could and should make, not only to academic work, but within culture as a whole, and BUFVC contributed to that vision. Indeed, in its concern with the interaction of the disciplines of film and history, the Council was following in his pioneering footsteps. Dickinson felt our culture was essentially illiterate cinematically. This was certainly the case then. Things have changed now, but how radically I’m not sure. Thus he saw as a priority the generation of a wider and deeper understanding of how a film articulates its meanings, and greater sensitivity to those meanings. One of his accounts of the early days of World War II surges up from my memory: how he and colleagues needed to educate senior military officers to make them aware of the artificiality of filmic accounts of German military victories in films such as Feuertaufe (Baptism of Fire) from 1940, about the campaign in Poland. It was the filmic rhetoric (largely generated in the editing, a skill in which Thorold was a master) that pushed these soldiers close to despair, just as, for a filmmaker, it was this rhetoric that revealed the film’s distance from being a realistic or documentary account as this would be understood by British filmmakers.

Thorold Dickinson was one of the most ambitious and skilled directors working in British film production during the thirties, forties and fifties

Thorold Dickinson was one of the most ambitious and skilled directors working in British film production during the thirties, forties and fifties, the era of classic cinema, yet his name and his work are hardly known today. Indeed, newspaper headlines suggest his work had been forgotten over a quarter century ago, when he died. Nevertheless, his art has been hailed by such leading modern filmmakers as John Boorman (‘He had Michael Powell’s daring, David Lean’s taut editing, and Carol Reed’s emotional tension’) and Martin Scorsese (‘a uniquely intelligent and passionate artist’). Thus, the appearance of three of his films – The High Command (1937), The Queen of Spades (1949) and Secret People (1952) – on DVD from STUDIOCANAL (previously known as Optimum) is particularly welcome.

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