Over the next couple of weeks the names of other films came back. I am surprised to be able to recall twelve titles, all from before the age of twelve. They were mostly nautical, or about the war, or both, and are listed below with links to trailers or clips, together with my own vague, idiosyncratic, reconstructed childhood impressions.
What an unsuitable catalogue of horror they are: casual violence; cold blooded killing; wartime death and destruction; the stuff of nightmares. Although most had ‘U’ certificates meaning Universal or suitable for children, that does not mean they really were. Films tended to be restricted more often because of sexual content than violence. The films I saw would now be considered highly inappropriate for children. But fear not. I think I emerged undamaged. For most of the time I was completely mystified as to what was going on: a feeling not experienced again until I sat through films in French during foreign exchange trips to Belgium.
Just as with everything else, children have to learn how to make sense of the special language of film and moving images, and those of us born before every home had a television would have came late to this kind of literacy. It was especially true for me. We did not get a set until I was around twelve, and as I went to my grandma’s on Saturdays I never went to Saturday morning children’s cinema. It is no surprise I did not understand the films I saw. Sometimes I don’t even now.
We can now easily look up film release dates and work out my age at the time, although they may have taken a few months to reach our small Yorkshire town.
Shane (Certificate A, released April 1953, aged 3)
He always enjoyed a good ‘cowboy’, as he called Westerns, and I remember his infatuation with Alan Ladd’s quick draw, but how can I be sure it was this particular Alan Ladd Western we saw? On seeing the trailer again now on YouTube, I feel sure it was indeed Shane. Not even a four year old could forget nasty Jack Palance’s flat nose, deep-set eyes and wide cheekbones.
The Student Prince (U certificate, released June 1954, aged 4)
The Dam Busters (U certificate, released May 1955, aged 5)
The Dam Busters might have given my dad some idea as to what it was like but all I saw was lots of aeroplanes flying. The only incident I specifically remember is the black dog belonging to one of the pilots being run over and killed. It was most distressing. Today people only get upset at its unfortunate name.
Thanks to Uncle Mac and Children’s Favourites we can all still hum the iconic theme tune (‘Derrr der der der de de der der’). I also subsequently learned that some of the aerial sequences were filmed over the River Don at Goole, otherwise known as the Dutch River, a dead ringer for the Dutch canals.
Reach for the Sky (U certificate, released July 1956, aged 6)
Around the World in 80 Days (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)
Afterwards I always recognised David Niven and remembered the odd name of his character from before it became a brand of crisps, and also that of his sidekick Passepartout. The film now seems like an attempt to get the most stars possible into one production, but I knew none of them at the time.
The Battle of the River Plate (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)
Dunkirk (U certificate, released March 1958, aged 8)
I was fascinated by my dad's personal acquaintance with small boat owners on the Yorkshire Ouse who had sailed down to Ramsgate to take part in the evacuation.
The Vikings (A certificate, released June 1958 , aged 8)
Kirk Douglas with his ridiculous dimpled chin has his eye pecked out by a falcon and leaps about with a disgusting blind eye for the rest of the film. When he dies at the end his body is cast out to sea in a burning Viking longship with dragon heads at the ends and a big square sail.
I recognised other actors who later became familiar as having been in the film, most notably the tousled head of Tony Curtis and the lined face and wide toothy grin of Ernest Borgnine. The most memorable thing however was the theme tune played over a backdrop of animated Viking scrolls. I can still hum it after nearly sixty years.
A Night To Remember (Certificate U, released July 1958, aged 8)
On The Beach (Certificate A, released December 1959, aged 10)
Sink the Bismarck (Certificate U, released February 1960, aged 10)
The Alamo (Certificate U, released October 1960, aged 11)
I had only wanted to see it because of the Davy Crockett song (thanks to Children’s Favourites again):
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,But the song wasn’t in the film. I didn’t like John Wayne’s sanctimonious voice either.
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.
Davy Crockett was the last one. Soon afterwards we got a television which put paid to our joint cinema outings for a decade.
I may have forgotten one or two. I definitely remember going to see Bambi at some point, but it wasn’t with my dad and certainly not in 1942 when it came out.
Now I wish we’d gone more of course.
The links to the trailers on YouTube may cease to work if blocked by the copyright owners.