by David Sims. Sims is a Chemistry major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Spring 2009 class "Folklore and Film."
Skinhead culture as a movement began in the late 1950s in the United Kingdom. The term “skinhead” however, appeared in the late 1960s and was applied to individuals with short hair, button-up shirts, combat style boots and suspenders . With the arrival of the 1970s, the skinhead culture began to fade from the public spotlight. However, in 1977, punk music sparked a revival in skinheads and the movement spread abroad to encompass the majority of Europe and the United States . This is England, a film on skinheads in England in 1983, focuses on the folklore behind the group and presents an inside look at the skinhead culture.
The most notable feature of skinhead culture is the dress and style of clothing. The skinheads as presented in the movie had “skinheads,” or very closely shaved haircuts. The men, and usually the women, sported buzzed or shaved haircuts and long, neatly trimmed sideburns. The clothes were nice and presentable, characterized by button-up or collared shirts, dress slacks or jeans, suspenders and combat style boots . The shirts were always tucked in and usually the pants were turned up to show off the boots, or the socks if loafers were worn . Often, the look was finished with a three-quarter length jacket or overcoat. As the movie showed, in order to be accepted into the “gang,” the recruit (in this case Sean, an 11 year-old whose father was killed) had to not only buy the clothing required, but had to shave his/her head and adopt the style of the skinheads.
Skinhead doctrines, contrary to popular belief, do not all revolve around racism and hate mongering. In the movie, a division in beliefs was presented between Woody and Combo, the two ringleaders of the skinhead groups. Woody was a friendly, warm and inviting skinhead who dressed neatly and was accepting of all individuals. This was seen when he tried comforting Sean at the beginning of the movie, standing up for him as the others mocked him, as well as the fact that Milk, the only Black skinhead shown in the film, was one of his closest friends. Woody never once preached hate nor condoned the abuse of minorities in England. Combo on the other hand, was fresh from a three-year prison sentence, and while he was not portrayed initially as a radical, it did not take long for his true hatred and racism to shine forth. Throughout the film, he preaches hate and racism and brainwashes the young members of Woody’s group into his way of thinking. A very important scene in the movie shows the newly converted racist skinheads driving with Combo to a skinhead rally. It gives an interesting “inside-look” at the rationale behind the racist thinking and violent actions of the skinheads. The leader of the rally, a straight-laced and impressively dressed businessman, begins by telling those gathered that they are going to rebuild England and bring back its national identity. He blames the foreigners for taking the English jobs, causing unemployment and basically being a parasite on the English people. This hate was personified by Combo’s use of seemingly unprovoked violence and open racism.
The schism in the skinhead movement between the racists and the non-racists was another thing presented in the movie. The group, led by Woody, was interested only in sticking together and watching out for each other, while Combo’s group was focused on hate mongering and abusing the minorities, which, in this movie, were Pakistani. Both skinhead groups however, are the epitome of a folk group; both were formed from a common interest and through regular interaction. The individuals in the groups were taught the doctrines through informal means and adopted the same dress styles. They differed in the beliefs each group expressed. Woody was accepting and simply created a folk group meant to keep a group of friends close. Combo created a group based on hate and was designed to discover and gather together radical racists in hopes of abusing the Pakistani residents.
The ideals behind the groups were expressed through the movie and often the characters’ colored pasts were exploited. Woody’s group was founded out of a common need for protection against bullies. The individuals were all bullied themselves, so they began hanging out in order to protect one another. Sean, the protagonist in the story, is an eleven year old who struggles with being bullied at school. He has recently lost his father in the War in the Faulklands, and is grossly bitter when anyone talks about him, “even positively,” as he relates in the movie. This hate and passion is shown at the very outset of the movie as Sean attacks an older boy who makes fun of his father. As the movie progresses, Sean runs into Woody, who convinces him to hang out with his group. Later on, Sean gets initiated into the “gang.” We never see Sean’s past exploited until Combo shows up. Combo has the entire group over to his apartment one morning and begins to preach to them. He starts by stating that the group should stick together and watch out for one another, which is the very thing that formed the group in the first place. However, he then begins to preach hate and site the immigrants as the reason for the war and for the unemployment rate being so high. This sparks a violet outburst from Sean, which is then capitalized on for the rest of the film by Combo. This also highlights the relatively fragile nature of the folk group formed by Combo. His group was founded on the common interest of hate of foreigners and violent outbursts towards them. However, at the conclusion of the movie, Combo has violently murdered one of his friends, a member of his group, and this has caused the others to give up the group’s hate mantra and beliefs. As a result, the common beliefs have ceased and the group dissolves. This can be contrasted with Woody’s group, which still remains intact.
The two skinhead groups defended their respective beliefs in different ways. Woody and his group, because they were formed to help each other, had a “come as you are” approach, and were willing to accept anyone who needed a new family. They didn’t express a radical nationalism, nor did they seek to drive out anyone who wasn’t English. Instead, they sought to remain friends and help each other out whenever they could. Combo’s group on the other hand, was looked at as being racist and influenced by Nazi ideology. This group blames the public and says it is labeled that way out of fear. As the speaker at the rally said, “We’re not racists, we’re realists…We’re not Nazis, we’re nationalists.” They blamed the immigrants for stealing jobs and hurting the national identity of England. The group defended their beliefs by saying that they welcomed immigrants, just not the ones who thought, “England owed them a living.” This statement was presented as rather hypocritical in the movie, as Combo’s group targeted anyone and everyone who was Pakistani, regardless of the impact they had on the community.
Skinheads can be compared with other folk groups and some obvious similarities present themselves. Skinhead groups, just like gangs, are usually formed by a group of individuals who lack a stable family and are made fun of or abused by the rest of their peers. The individuals bond together over their similar situations and protect each other, forming a family of their own, so to speak. The danger in these folk groups is due to the bond between them, as it usually is based on hate and abuse. As demonstrated in This is England, it did not take much for Sean to become militant and violent. This is the same case with some of the other characters, Tubbs in particular. He expresses that he was in the same situation as Sean was and was worried about slipping back. He also is one of the characters that Combo convinces to join his group and Tubbs becomes violent and racist as a result as well.
This is England provided a snapshot of the skinhead culture in England during the early 1980s. The film shows how the skinhead groups were formed, gives insight on why they were formed and shows the impact that the group had on its members. The members were heavily involved with one another and shared musical, religious and political beliefs with each other . The punk attitudes and “stick it to the world” approach to life was well evident in skinhead culture, but ironically enough, the majority of skinheads were not militant. As demonstrated by Woody, many skinheads did not express radical racial beliefs, and in many ways were not detrimental to society . With the end of the 1980s and rise of the 1990s, many anti-racist skinhead groups were formed, but for whatever reason, still remain out of the public spotlight . All said however, skinheads continue to be an easily identifiable folk group with a large amount of membership to this day.