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Everything you knew about cinema is probably wrong; BFI releases definitive list of of the top 100 most-seen films

by Nick James, Editor, Sight and Sound

The British Film Institute, 27 November 2004

The Ultimate Film Chart reveals that the British really love British films! Can this really be true? Haven't the British always preferred Hollywood films?

Think again. Box-office figures dominate most discussions about films in the UK, with massive US blockbuster success as the story the media have been telling us for years. But now we can say it isn't so. Of course the most famous Hollywood successes like Gone with the Wind and Star Wars are at the top of any list, but what if I tell you that Spring in Park Lane (1948), a star vehicle for the British actress Anna Neagle with an 'upstairs downstairs' social class plot directed by her husband Herbert Wilcox, is up there with them? Surely not?

Well, yes it is. And we know now because a new survey conducted by the British Film Institute for Channel 4 suggests that much we thought we knew about cinema tastes in Britain is wrong. The new Ultimate Film Chart places Spring in Park Lane precisely as the fifth biggest film in the UK of all time. How is this possible?

Box-office top 100s are usually based on statistics gathered only since the 1970s, but this new chart, compiled using the best means and sources available to assess cinema admissions before the 1970s -- as well as those since -- has radically redrawn the top 100 in favour of British films. For instance, you'll find an astonishing three more Anna Neagle vehicles in the top 50 - at No.17 is The Courteneys of Curzon Street (1947), at No.42 Piccadilly Incident (1946), and at No.49 I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945), making Neagle possibly the most successful cinema actress in British film history.

And this Brit rediscovery is not just a one-woman phenomenon. Take Margaret Lockwood and James Mason in the highwayman costume romp The Wicked Lady (1946): it's up at ninth, just below Titanic, or another Mason vehicle The Seventh Veil (1945), which just beats Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to the tenth spot. Another one-time matinee idol, Dirk Bogarde, can be found playing a cockney killer at No.29 in The Blue Lamp (1950) outclassing the likes of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels -- which doesn't even make it into the top 100!

So how did Channel 4 and the BFI come to this revelation? The fact that cinema admissions reached an all time high in the 1940s, just before the advent of home television, aroused BFI researchers' curiosity as to how the biggest films then would compare to recent big successes. In the peak year of 1946, there were 1,638 million admissions, which had declined to just 54 million by 1984, to be helped back to around 176 million through the multiplex revolution by 2002 -- still a mere fraction of that 1946 figure. It was obvious therefore, that the popular cinema of the 1940s far outstripped much of today's -- although there were vastly more titles being distributed then, so the comparative difference is not as great as the overall admission figures suggest.

In the absence of straightforward box-office data it was important to draw on as many reliable sources as exist to assess the probable box-office figures for pre-1970s films. In pre-video and -DVD days, there was a lot more repeat viewing of films -- news items about middle aged ladies watching Gone with the Wind or The Sound of Music for a record umpteenth time appeared regularly. And just a glance at the subject matter of Anna Neagle blockbusters tells you that the pre-television audience for film in the UK was not dominated by teenage boys but by older women.

None the less there's an over-riding impression of a consistent preference for British subject matter throughout the whole list. Out of all the top 30 films one could, at a push, claim around half as having British subject matter (assuming you allow the likes of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Mary Poppins as British-originated subjects). What does that say to a British film industry that's always trying to imitate the Americans? Perhaps they would do better to try to tempt that older female audience back into the cinema with British subjects and matinee idols like Jude Law. Except that that's what Hollywood is doing these days.

There's also a definite showing for the British film-makers who dominate critics best-ever polls such as the one Sight & Sound runs every ten years. Carol Reed's The Third Man, which did best of all the Brit films in Sight & Sound's 2002 poll and also won the BFI's 100 Best British Films poll in 1999 is at No.26 here (and his Oliver! is at No.74). David Lean has two films, Dr. Zhivago at No.44, and Lawrence of Arabia at No.85. Michael Powell, who figures so strongly in critics' polls with such idiosyncratic works as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, is at No.63 here with his rather tame 49th Parallel. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that the great Alfred Hitchcock's one and only entry in the list is his adaptation of Rebecca, at No.73.

The List:

  1. GONE WITH THE WIND (1940)
    Estimated Attendance: 35 million
     
  2. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
    Estimated Attendance: 30 million
     
  3. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1938)
    Estimated Attendance: 28 million
     
  4. STAR WARS (1978)
    Estimated Attendance: 20.76 million
     
  5. SPRING IN PARK LANE (1948)
    Estimated Attendance: 20.5 million
     
  6. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1947)
    Estimated Attendance: 20.4 million
     
  7. THE JUNGLE BOOK (1968)
    Estimated Attendance: 19.8 million
     
  8. TITANIC (1998)
    Estimated Attendance: 18.91 million
     
  9. THE WICKED LADY (1946)
    Estimated Attendance: 18.4 million
     
  10. THE SEVENTH VEIL (1945)
    Estimated Attendance: 17.9 million
     
  11. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE (2001)
    Estimated Attendance: 17.56 million
     
  12. GREASE (1978)
    Estimated Attendance: 17.2 million
     
  13. SOUTH PACIFIC (1958)
    Estimated Attendance: 16.5 million
     
  14. JAWS (1976)
    Estimated Attendance: 16.2 million
     
  15. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
    Estimated Attendance: 16.17 million
     
  16. THE LORD OF THE RINGS THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)
    Estimated Attendance: 15.98 million
     
  17. THE COURTNEYS OF CURZON STREET (1947)
    Estimated Attendance: 15.9 million
     
  18. THUNDERBALL (1966)
    Estimated Attendance: 15.6 million
     
  19. THE LORD OF THE RINGS THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
    Estimated Attendance: 15.22 million
     
  20. THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1946)
    Estimated Attendance: 15.2 million
     
  21. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1957)
    Estimated Attendance: 15 million
     
  22. THE LORD OF THE RINGS THE TWO TOWERS (2002)
    Estimated Attendance: 14.4 million
     
  23. THE FULL MONTY (1997)
    Estimated Attendance: 14.19 million
     
  24. HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)
    Estimated Attendance: 14.18 million
     
  25. MARY POPPINS (1964)
    Estimated Attendance: 14 million
     
  26. THE THIRD MAN (1949)
    Estimated Attendance: 14 million
     
  27. GOLDFINGER (1964)
    Estimated Attendance: 13.9 million
     
  28. STAR WARS EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)
    Estimated Attendance: 13.59 million
     
  29. THE BLUE LAMP (1950)
    Estimated Attendance: 13.3 million
     
  30. BEN-HUR (1960)
    Estimated Attendance: 13.2 million
     
  31. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1983)
    Estimated Attendance: 13.13 million
     
  32. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)
    Estimated Attendance: 13 million
     
  33. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
    Estimated Attendance: 12.6 million
     
  34. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977)
    Estimated Attendance: 12.46 million
     
  35. THE GREAT CARUSO (1951)
    Estimated Attendance: 12.4 million
     
  36. DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (1954)
    Estimated Attendance: 12.2 million
     
  37. TOY STORY 2 (2000)
    Estimated Attendance: 12.18 million
     
  38. RANDOM HARVEST (1943)
    Estimated Attendance: 12 million
     
  39. THE TOWERING INFERNO (1975)
    Estimated Attendance: 11.78 million
     
  40. FANNY BY GASLIGHT (1944)
    Estimated Attendance: 11.7 million
     
  41. THE JOLSON STORY (1947)
    Estimated Attendance: 11.6 million
     
  42. PICCADILLY INCIDENT (1946)
    Estimated Attendance: 11.5 million
     
  43. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961)
    Estimated Attendance: 11.4 million
     
  44. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1967)
    Estimated Attendance: 11.2 million
     
  45. THE STING (1974)
    Estimated Attendance: 11.08 million
     
  46. THE GODFATHER (1972)
    Estimated Attendance: 11 million
     
  47. INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)
    Estimated Attendance: 10.79 million
     
  48. CARRY ON NURSE (1959)
    Estimated Attendance: 10.4 million
     
  49. I LIVE IN GROSVENOR SQUARE (1945)
    Estimated Attendance: 10.3 million
     
  50. MRS. MINIVER (1942)
    Estimated Attendance: 10.2 million
     
  51. SUPERMAN (1979)
    Estimated Attendance: 10.19 million
     
  52. BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY (2001)
    Estimated Attendance: 10.15 million
     
  53. MONSTERS, INC. (2002)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.93 million
     
  54. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1972)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.9 million
     
  55. CROCODILE DUNDEE (1987)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.8 million
     
  56. FINDING NEMO (2003)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.79 million
     
  57. MEN IN BLACK (1997)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.73 million
     
  58. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1944)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.7 million
     
  59. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1976)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.65 million
     
  60. HIGH SOCIETY (1956)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.6 million
     
  61. MOONRAKER (1979)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.41 million
     
  62. I'M ALL RIGHT JACK (1959)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.4 million
     
  63. 49TH PARALLEL (1941)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.3 million
     
  64. LOST HORIZON (1937)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.2 million
     
  65. STAR WARS EPISODE II ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.16 million
     
  66. ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1961)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.1 million
     
  67. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.09 million
     
  68. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1978)
    Estimated Attendance: 9.02 million
     
  69. LIVE AND LET DIE (1973)
    Estimated Attendance: 9 million
     
  70. THE GREAT DICTATOR (1941)
    Estimated Attendance: 9 million
     
  71. THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)
    Estimated Attendance: 9 million
     
  72. BAMBI (1942)
    Estimated Attendance: 9 million
     
  73. REBECCA (1940)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.9 million
     
  74. OLIVER! (1968)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.9 million
     
  75. FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.81 million
     
  76. GHOST (1990)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.78 million
     
  77. LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.76 million
     
  78. REACH FOR THE SKY (1956)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.7 million
     
  79. MY FAIR LADY (1965)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.6 million
     
  80. DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.58 million
     
  81. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1978)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.54 million
     
  82. THE CITADEL (1939)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.5 million
     
  83. PINOCCHIO (1940)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.5 million
     
  84. A BUG'S LIFE (1999)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.41 million
     
  85. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.4 million
     
  86. THE DAM BUSTERS (1955)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.4 million
     
  87. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.35 million
     
  88. MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.3 million
     
  89. SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1960)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.3 million
     
  90. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.3 million
     
  91. THE EXORCIST (1974)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.3 million
     
  92. THE KING AND I (1956)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.2 million
     
  93. CHICKEN RUN (2000)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.12 million
     
  94. THE LION KING (1994)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.08 million
     
  95. NOTTING HILL (1999)
    Estimated Attendance: 8.05 million
     
  96. THE MATRIX RELOADED (2003)
    Estimated Attendance: 7.96 million
     
  97. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1934)
    Estimated Attendance: 7.9 million
     
  98. CINDERELLA (1951)
    Estimated Attendance: 7.9 million
     
  99. GLADIATOR (2000)
    Estimated Attendance: 7.8 million
     
  100. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
    Estimated Attendance: 7.7 million

Read More about the BFI's 'Ultimate Film' Project.

© 1999 The British Film Institute

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