Beer in film
By Wholesale Manager, Pete Brissenden
Alcohol and film have been intertwined from the beginning of cinematic history. Charlie Chaplain’s recovering drunkard in 1917’s The Cure, the bar in Casablanca, James Bond’s vodka martinis, ‘the finest wines available to humanity’ and a million other quotes in Withnail & I. They either feature as a defining part of a character’s persona, a comedic device, or a central part of the plot. The most common thread I’ve noticed specifically about beer is that it represents freedom. Freedom from a physical restraint, a time of difficulty or of new freedoms bound up with coming of age.
There are only a select few films that make almost every top/best films of all time, but The Shawshank Redemption is one of them. Set in the 1940s about a banker who is convicted of murdering his wife, there is a scene in which the protagonist Andy overhears a guard complaining about having to pay inheritance tax on a large amount of money left to him. Andy offers to help file the papers for the guard and all he asks for in return is ‘three beers a piece for each of my co-workers ... I think a man workin' outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds. That's only my opinion’. I have to agree with him too. There is no greater joy than a cold beer after a hard day’s work outdoors.
Morgan Freeman’s character narrates over the film’s closing scene ‘And that's how it came to pass, that on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of '49 wound up sitting in a row at ten o'clock in the morning, drinking icy cold Bohemia-style beer, courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison... The colossal prick even managed to sound magnanimous. We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the Lords of all Creation. As for Andy, he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer ... You could argue he'd done it to curry favour with the guards, or maybe make a few friends among us cons. Me? I think he did it just to feel normal again, if only for a short while.’
Ice Cold In Alex is a classic 1950s black and white war film set during the North African campaign. It focusses around a Captain of the Ambulance corps who is evacuating out of Tobruk with two nurses and his NCO. Headed for Alexandria, they become separated and have to head out over the desert on their own. They pick up a ‘South African’ soldier on the journey who turns out to be a displaced German officer. They have trials getting their ambulance through the desert, including broken axles and getting bogged down in the sand, having to hand crank the engine in reverse gear to get it up the steepest of dunes.
The thought that sustains Captain Anson through it all is the though of an ice cold lager when they finally arrive in Alexandria. ‘I'll tell you this, the next drink I have's gonna be a lager. Ice cold. There's a little bar in Alex with a marble top counter and high stools. They serve the best beer in all the middle east. When we get through with this lot I'm gonna buy you one. I'll buy you all one.’ When they finally do reach Alexandria, they head to this bar and the bartender racks four tall, thin glasses of deliciously sweating lager into glasses. Captain Anson chugs the glass in one go just as the military police turn up. Covering for their newfound friend, who they know is German, they rip off his fake South African dog tags so that he’ll be taken as a POW and imprisoned, rather than captured a spy and shot. On parting, they acknowledge that war aside, they fought a greater enemy together - the desert.
Whilst on the subject of war films, it is impossible to not mention Das Boot. At the moment the crew’s morale is at its lowest ebb, stuck on the bottom of the Bay of Biscay, depthcharged by a British ship, engine broken, water leaking in and very little chance of survival, the captain offers ‘half a bottle of beer for every man tonight if we make it out of here’. Galvanised by the offer of beer for the first time in three months, the crew spring to action, shoring up leaks, and shifting thousands of litres of seawater from the flooded compartments of the boat by hand using buckets and a human chain. Without that promise of something as simple of half a bottle of beer, it seems like the battle weary, exhausted crew are ready to accept their fate.
Finally, this could be a hundred films from the same mould, but I’ve chosen a personal favourite from the American coming of age genre - Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Set on the last day of high school before the summer break, it has every classic coming of age trope … hazing rituals, social groups of stoners, jocks and losers, drugs, sex, catchphrases (‘alright, alright, alright’), furtive activities planned with parents nearby and finally and most importantly the keg party. The keg party, be it at a frat house, in the woods, at the beach or after a ‘ball game paired with red Solo cups is a quintessentially American thing … largely because, for most of the US, the drinking age is 21 rather than 16 or 18 like most of the rest of the civilised world. This ritual of taking a keg, a bucket of ice and a party pump and getting wrecked is often used as the dramatic climax of a film. This is true for Dazed and Confused too. The scene in which Mike, threatened by tough guy Clint - ‘I only came here to kick some ass and drink some beer, looks like we’re almost out of beer’ finally decides to stand up for himself and a little later punches Clint before being tackled to the ground.
As we all know, drinking a cold beer can be many things, but as these classic film examples show, more often than not it represents freedom, normality and celebration. Something to think about when you next crack open a cold one.