The Parody of Britain's Appeasement Policy in Alfred Hitchcock's “The Lady Vanishes”

Essay, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 introduction

2 appeasing shadow hands: parody

3 an avalanche: innocence

4 on the train: collaboration

5 the final shots: pacifism

6 conclusion

7 filmography

8 works cited

1 introduction

What starts like a jaunty comedy soon turns into a suspense-packed spy film resulting in a trigger-happy fight for life and death. In Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes a conglomerate of foolish British passengers travels on a train "adrift in a hostile Europe, surrounded by inimical foreigners in a world on the brink of war" (French 2012). When reviewers assess this exceptional espionage thriller as Hitchcock's "most political film" (Sweet 2007), they do it due to its "genuine sense of purpose" (Ryel-Lindsey 2007): The film was made in 1938, shortly before Neville Chamberlain's fatal agreement with Hitler, conceding ground to Nazi-Germany's aggressive territorial ambitions. Disapproving of his prime minister's indirect collaboration with the enemy, Hitchcock stages The Lady Vanishes as a critical statement on the policy of appeasement. By presenting his characters the way he does, he parodies British blindness towards the rising threat of Hitler's Germany as a prerequisite for this very appeasement policy. Since not all of Hitchcock's characters in The Lady Vanishes are shown as unmistakable exponents of it, this essay aims at examining those who are. For lack of space, it will be focused on the characterisation of the appeasers par excellence, Mr. Todhunter (played by Cecil Parker), and the "stiff-upper-lip Oxfordians" (Ryel-Lindsey 2007) Caldicott and Charters (played by Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford).[1]

After briefly defining appeasement along with the contemporary criticism of it, Hitchcock's artistic means of parody and his character drawing will be examined. The director strictly subdivides his film into three narrative sections (cf. Acherman 2008) not only to generate a remarkable arc of suspense, but also to satirically conduct the characters in question from innocent unworldliness to insight into reality.

2 appeasing shadow hands: parody

Before being able to analyse Hitchcock's method of parodying British political blindness towards Hitler's Germany aggressiveness as the basis for the inglorious policy of appeasement, it has to be explained what was meant by appeasement and why Hitchcock dealt with this policy by means of parody instead of using direct references.

In the narrower sense, the term appeasement describes the foreign policy of Neville Chamberlain between 1937 and 1939 with which he and a group of prominent British politicians, called the Cliveden Set (cf. Rose 2001), longed to avoid any forcible conflict with Hitler. This policy culminated in the Munich Agreement enabling Nazi-Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia (cf. Hunt: 861). Although concessions of such kind were broadly welcomed at that time by the public opinion in Britain, contemporary critics regarded such appeasing practice as tantamount to an indirect collaboration with the German National Socialists, based on an ignorant, isolationist, and pacifistic mind-set concerned merely with neutrally maintaining security and peace for Britain. Hitchcock was one of those critics, yet in his role as a director he was obliged to not express his scepticism openly. British governmental officials wished to avoid any endangerment of the fragile peace and had the British Board of Film Censors prohibit filmmakers any direct criticism of Hitler's or Britain's foreign policy (cf. Wollaeger: 42, Parkinson 2010). In order to still preserve his artistic licence, Hitchcock volens nolens referred to Germany and the British appeasement covertly by making use of parody, a "cultural practice which provides a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural [...] practice" (Dentith: 9). Thus, the director circumvented the British officials' leeriness by simultaneously allowing his attentive audience to unmistakably notice his satirical comment on "England's stance of appeasement" (Rothman: 182). Hitchcock's viewers will have easily identified the obviously fabricated toy-like "fairytale land" (Wilmington 1998) Bandrika as Nazi-Germany or as reference to its territorial ambitions. By using symbols and exaggerating clichés, Hitchcock omits no allusion to debunk who the enemy is. While the beginning turn of the camera from the station over the roofs of the alpine village to the hotel clearly accentuates the three clichéd German signs Gasthof Petrus/Josef Stedl, Bürgen Brau, und Wiazen Bier (1:54-1:58), the village serenader is clandestinely strangled in the night by two shadow hands which are highly allusive thanks to their symbolically referring to the influential silent films for which Germany was famous in the 1920s.[2] Although the murder initially remains unexplained, the audience will be informed in the course of the film that the musician had to die because his music was an encoded state secret that could save Britain (cf. French 2012). Thus, the shadow hands must be understood as a symbol of Nazi-Germany's hidden threat to the English democracy.

3 an avalanche: innocence

Hitchcock's allusions to Nazi-Germany by means of symbols and clichés provide the political background against which the film needs to be understood. Symbols and clichés are also used to humorously draw his characters in the amazingly long and quaint opening scene whose purpose is to parody "different kinds of Englishness" (Smith: 55) among which are the relevant characters for this essay. By proving their self-absorbed political and social attitude towards the preservation of their own convenience in a chaotic environment, Todhunter and the upper-class friends Charters and Caldicott are the ones who represent the British mind-set of isolationism and ignorance as a prerequisite for appeasement.

After an avalanche has forced the trans-European express train Budapest-Basle to halt in a Bandrikan village, the British passengers have to spend the night in a crowded provincial inn. Although little else happens within this first part of the film, in an extended set of comic sequences the viewers meet the English main characters who are interested solely in their own petty advantages. Two of them are the adulterous barrister Mr. Todhunter and his mistress (played by Linden Travers) whose "once passionate affair [...] is already cooling" (O’Brien: 153). In a short sequence and with a sheepish side glance to his mistress, it is shown that Todhunter more cares about his reputation than sharing a double room with his lover (6:29) in a hotel completely lacking rooms (6:22-49).

The "comic byplay of the blinkered cricket fans Caldicott and Charters" (O’Brien: 152-53) attracts more attention. Considering themselves stranded in an ignorant (4:42-44), rather primitive (8:00) "third-rate country" (4:45-46), they represent the "quintessential British tourists, passionately attached to all the proprieties of English society" (Acherman 2008) and apparently obsessed with "England on the brink" (5:19). But this "on the brink" does not refer to allusively political realities (11:54-55), but to an English cricket match which they are afraid of missing as a consequence of the train's delay (11:54-56). Hitchcock highlights his companions' cricket obsession (11:44-12:17) as "symbolic of a peculiarly British obstinacy to what happens around them" (Sweet 2007). Careless of everything but cricket, they stand for an "insular mind-set" (Barr 2011) which is parodied deliciously in their contemptuous "bafflement at all things un-British" (Ryel-Lindsey 2007). Although they are travelling through a politically unstable region, their banal inconveniences are in the centre of all their concerns. Like bumbling figures of fun, Charters and Caldicott are completely unable to cope with the troubled situation (13:29-30) in which they try to find their place (12:50-57).

In the opening narrative section, the relevant characters which represent best British isolationism and ignorance still appear as innocents abroad (cf. Smith: 62) whose obstinacy still harms no one. However, in the course of the film, this attitude will be exposed as the prerequisite for the unconscious collaboration with the enemy, called appeasement.


[1] For a convincing comment on the diverse, considerably class-determined reactions to Hitler’s aggression, parodied in The Lady Vanishes, see Barr, Charles (December 6, 2011): "Tea and Treachery" at [Retrieved May 5, 2015].

[2] Hitchcock himself had worked at the Babelsberg studios and seen Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau directing his Der Letze Mann (cf. Orr: 53-79). The menacing shadow hands of Graf Orlok (32:41-32:52) in Murnau's world-renowned Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens were unambigously the inspiration for the strangling hands in Hitchcocks opening scene (24:07-24:11).

Excerpt out of 10 pages


The Parody of Britain's Appeasement Policy in Alfred Hitchcock's “The Lady Vanishes”
Free University of Berlin  (Englische Philologie)
Cultural Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Hitchcock, Alfred Hitchcock, Eine Dame Verschwindet, Appeasement, Film, Parodie, Parody, The Lady Vanishes, Filmgeschichte, Movie, Great Britain, Großbritannien, Krimi, Chamberlain, Germany, Britain, Cricket
Quote paper
Dominik Jesse (Author), 2015, The Parody of Britain's Appeasement Policy in Alfred Hitchcock's “The Lady Vanishes”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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