It’s noteworthy that five of the most libertarian films ever made were produced by Britain’s Ealing Studios in the brief period, 1949-1957. These were among the much-praised “Ealing Comedies” that have become a classic genre in their own right.
Ealing Studios was by no means a hotbed of free-marketers. Studio head Michael Balcon was an explicit supporter of the post-war Labour government, and indeed under his management the studio produced some films very sympathetic to socialism, such as They Came to a City. But even in these productions you sense not so much a desire for the heavy hand of government intervention, as simply a yearning for the return of the “we’re all in this together” community spirit of wartime Britain, and for people to just be kind and decent to one another.
In any case, the five Ealing films noted here for their libertarian content — usually consisting of mild organized resistance to the kind of bureaucracies typically associated with the classic welfare state — express a tone very much against the domination of the individual (or groups of individuals) by the State.
These films are notable as well for being some of the best examples of British comedy ever produced, still popular sixty years later, as evidenced by their recent digitally-remastered re-release.
The first of these was produced in 1949. Passport to Pimlico tells the story of a London borough, which discovers through the unearthing of an ancient document that it has a legal basis for secession. For a short time the borough declares itself an independent country, and benefits in that moment from the repeal of licensing and quotas. The independence doesn’t last, but the film nonetheless has the tone of pushing back a bit against the heavy hand of bureaucracy.
Whiskey Galore, also released in 1949, is very much in the same attitude. It relates a tale of comedic desperation, in which a small Scottish village has run out of its beloved whiskey. Suddenly a shipload of liquor runs aground just offshore. The villagers are just about to recover the cargo, when an uptight official forbids it because the cargo has not been taxed. That brings the village together in a small rebellion against the official’s authority, and everyone gets their whiskey after all.
A third film in the same vein, Green Grow the Rushes, was released in 1951. In this film, an old charter granted by a king entitles the locals to a degree of independence but the central government no longer respects that ancient legal document (one thinks of the Magna Carta). The locals, however, have not forgotten their rights, so when the Ministry of Agriculture sends in officious bureaucrats to improve agricultural production by meddling with local farms, the bureaucrats find the community to be…just a bit uncooperative. (It was actually produced not by Ealing but by A.C.T. Films Ltd. However, the film so successfully mirrors the Ealing style it is commonly included among the “Ealing comedies.”)
The same year produced my personal favorite libertarian film of all, The Man in the White Suit, about a research scientist who invents a revolutionary new fabric that is both indestructible and stainproof. When unions and manufacturing interests realize that an everlasting fabric would mean an end to their jobs and profits, they gang together and bring in government regulators to stop the inventor. In an odd coincidence, the story pits Alec Guiness (who would later play Obiwan Kenobe, of Star Wars fame) in the lead against a wizened, slow-moving Lord of The Ministry of Trade, who wheezes menacingly, not unlike Darth Vader, Obiwan’s nemesis of twenty years later.
One last libertarian film came out in 1957, All at Sea (titled Barnacle Bill in the UK). Alec Guiness again starred, this time as a retired Royal Navy captain who decides to invest in an amusement pier. Shortly after purchasing the pier, corrupt local officials decide to condemn and seize it for their own benefit. But the captain, the proud descendent of a long-line of seafarers, is no pushover, and he knows something of maritime law and naval battlefield tactics!
Libertarians will find much to enjoy in these five films, and fans of British humor in particular should certainly see them without fail.
It’s an odd thing that they were made in such a short period by this small studio. One suspects that interesting political conversations were going on there, at least among a few. Two of these films, The Man in the White Suit and Whiskey Galore, were directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and two, Passport to Pimlico and All at Sea, were written by T.E.B. Clarke.