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Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2015


The House of Representative Committee on Un-American Activities was most prominent in the late 1940s and early 19150s, at the same time as the genre of classic  film noir was at its peak. Whilst HUAC or its members or agents rarely get literal representation in these films, the subtexts seem to be full of them. The one notable example is not a film noir:  the pro-Committee Big Jim McLain (1952) has John Wayne  hunting down communists and includes actual film of the Committee hearings with studio inserts. Both the actual Committee and the fictional film world of noir have common qualities, notably a strong sense of paranoia.


The discussions of the Committee are primarily of the 1940s and the 1950s but the roots of what has become known as ‘McCarthyism’ goes back several decades. There was anti-working class USA state action in the years prior to World War I, primarily directed against the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World). 1917 saw the Socialist Revolution in Russia and 1918 the official end of the W. W. I. However, a joint military expedition by the UK, USA, France and Japan involved an invasion of the new socialist state in an attempt to suppress the revolution.

The 1920s saw heavy oppression and repression in the USA against working class militancy and the young socialist movement. Edgar Hoover’s new Federal Bureau of Investigation was in the front line here. Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil gives a dramatic representation of these events; [representations completely excised from the film adaptation There Will be Blood, USA 2007].

1929 saw the great financial crash and in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the National Recovery Programmes with radical economic policies. The conservative elements in the political establishment, notably in the Republican Party, regarded this as ‘socialist’: their common language reflected what can be described as ‘political illiteracy’. It in this period that the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities [also known as the Dies Committee, from its chair Martin Dies Jr.] was set up, to expose ‘communists and subversives’. One of their targets was the Federal Theatre Programme, which provided employment for theatre professionals and theatrical presentations for ordinary people across the states. It included many radical elements, among them members of the Communist Party USA. It is worth noting that many of the people who joined the Party in this period were motivated by anti-fascism; their grasp of the analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was often limited.

One important factor in the conflicts were strikes by Hollywood workers, notably by members of the Screenwriters’ Guild. Walt Disney, whose autocratic style occasioned one strike, blamed it on ‘communist subversives’. In 1938 Dies conducted an early investigation of Hollywood including questioning actors and film crafts people. One actor, Lionel Stander, was fired from the Republic Studio: in No Time to Marry (USA, 1938) the film, [scripted by John Howard Lawson, another blacklisted writer]  has him whistling the Internationale.


Cradle Will Rock (USA, 1999) presents a picture of some of the work of the Dies Committee in relation to the Federal Theatre Programme. John Houseman and Orson Welles produced the show of the title, which was a sort of Brechtian musical exposing the exploitation and oppression rife in the USA. The play’s opening night coincided with the shutting down of the Federal Theatre funding. In the film [written and directed by Tim Robbins] there are several sequences that show the Dies Committee in action  One sequence [80 minutes into the film] has the Committee grilling a Federal Employee re this ‘subversion’: humorous but frightening. The exchanges with the Committee in the film are based on actual records.

The agitation around left politics continued at the end of the Second World War. This period was characterised by Winston Churchill [and George Orwell] as the ‘cold war’: with the Soviet Union and its allies. It is worth noting that there was wholesale repression of National Liberation Movements in the colonised countries and a rapid expansion of US neo-colonialism. Racism, including what is termed anti-Semitism, and homophobia were also rife. And there was a strong strand of misogyny in the culture. In this atmosphere HUAC pursued the phantom of communist infiltration across a host of US institutions, including the media.

Between March and September 1947 HUAC, under the chairmanship of Parnell Thomas, launched an investigation of Hollywood. It is clear that this was partly motivated by the desire for publicity: at the later hearings Arthur Miller was advised he could be excused a hearing if his wife, then Marilyn Monroe, would agree to have her photograph taken with members of the Committee. The initial response of the Industry was strong resistance. But as the investigations continued, with public hearings, the producers buckled. When the Committee cited ten ‘unfriendly witnesses’ for ‘contempt of Congress’, with subsequent jail terms, the Motion Picture Producers Association of America responded with the ‘blacklist’.

The Hollywood Ten – Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz.  Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The ‘Ten’ can be seen in the film produced to defend them in 1950 when they were fighting their sentences for ‘contempt of Congress’ in The Supreme Court, The Hollywood Ten written and directed by John Berry.

Red Hollywood (1995) is a documentary that studies the influence of radical filmmakers on Hollywood’s output in the period: a contentious area. It uses an opening clip from Johnny Guitar (1954) as an example: there are numerous references to ‘naming names’ in Hollywood films of this time. But the opening of this documentary also briefly displays the operation of the Committee with clips from films of the period. The film does not really address of the post-war politics of ‘the left’ and the Communist Party USA. The subservience of  the CPUSA to the interests of the Soviet Union meant that revolution in the USA was no longer on its agenda.

When HUAC returned with a fresh investigation between 1951 and 1953 the industry and its members generally collapsed before this attack. Actors and craftspeople who had been friends and/or colleagues of the ‘Ten’ now confessed their activities and even named names. Apart from The Ten many other people in the industry suffered blacklisting and there were similar purges in Television, the media and institutions like the State Department. One result was refugees working in the UK and Europe – Joseph Losey’s career in British film was a direct result of HUAC.

Ten demo

The Way We Were (1973) has a sequence from 1947 presenting a fictionalised version of one attempt by Hollywood stars and filmmakers to support the ‘Ten’. This is followed by a sequence with a conversation between Hubble (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbara Streisand) that shows some of the attitudes and arguments circulating in Hollywood at the time. Some of the filmmakers involved in the project [like writer Arthur Laurents] had suffered during the blacklist:  it is worth noting that the film was cut of several important scenes for general release.

Film Noir

This Hollywood genre has its roots in German expressionism and many of the filmmakers involved were either émigrés or refugees from Europe, especially Germany. It was also influenced by the French poetic realism of the 1930s. The genre’s title was only applied in retrospect: at the time most of the films fell into crime genres or similar.

The most common and basic plot involved a hero [nearly always male] who is drawn by an attraction, commonly a femme fatale or dangerous woman, into a world of criminality and chaos. The main focus of the plot is whether the hero wills survive – the seeker hero; or whether he will perish – the victim hero.

Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944) has a victim hero: Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (RKO, 1944) has a seeker hero. The latter film also has filmmakers involved who suffered under HUAC and the blacklist: Adrian Scot and Edward Dmytryk. A number of the radical and noir films were made at the RKO Studio: Orson Welles worked there. When Howard Hughes acquired the studio in 1948 he closed it down for six months whilst he carried out a check [witch-hunt] of the studio personnel; followed by a number of sackings.

Both of the above  films above demonstrate the stylistic tropes of the genre, which make it rather distinctive for the time. Extensive use of chiaroscuro or light and shadow: notable camera angles: the voice-over and confessional mode. And overall the films frequently project an atmosphere, of cynicism, fear and paranoia.

Critics have offered many suggestions for the rise and influence of this genre in the 1940s particularly. There were the dislocations and uncertainties in the post-war world. An air of cynicism was common. The changing roles of women with changes in the mores of sexuality produced a reaction and often misogyny. Despite the horror at the excesses of the Third Reich there was frequent public anti-Semitism, racism especially directed at Negroes or Afro-Americans, and pronounced though not usually explicitly articulated homophobia. But undoubtedly the activities directed at so-called Un-Americanism also had a powerful effect, especially on the workforce in Hollywood.


Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1947, written and directed by Orson Welles) offers an example of coded language which could be seen as anti-capitalist [the dominant value system in the USA] or anti-USA  values, with subtle allusion to US racism. The scenes with an argument between Michael (Orson Welles) and Arthur (Everett Sloan), with Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and George  (Glenn Anders ) looking on, is a good example.

Red Menace (Republic, 1949) shows some of the attributes of noir being used to attack ‘anti-Americanism’ and communist ‘subversion’ with a portrayal of a villainous Communist Party USA akin to the mafia.

Another critical example  is Body and Soul (Enterprise, 1947) which was written by Abraham Polonsky, later one of the Hollywood Ten. The film demonstrates how crime organised crime is effectively ‘business’ and capitalist business.  The film stars John Garfield, whose treatment by HUAC was possibly a factor in his early death. Both men were involved in a number of film noirs or films with liberal values and both had Jewish heritage. Polonsky would go on to write and direct Force of Evil (MGM, 1948).  This is the great ‘political’ film noir. The drama is set in the numbers racket, [organised gambling controlled by a criminal ‘mob’]. During the story a take-over is organised by a larger combine: the parallels with a critical observation of the operation of capitalism run throughout the film. The film includes wire-taps, surveillance, the ‘naming of names’, betrayal and tragedy. And in the personal dramas, interweaved with this corporate action, there is a frequently a strong sense of paranoia.


The above is taken from the notes for a Study Day at the Swarthmore Centre in Leeds.

Wikipedia has detailed pages on ‘The Hollywood Blacklist’ with links to other Webpages.

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the film community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press, 1983 is the best study of HUAC in Hollywood that I have read.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood, Movies with messages, Political film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, West Germany 1979

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2015


Gunther Grass died in the last week. A towering figure in recent world literature, his most famous work also became a famous film. I have read the novel twice: the second time to prepare for a screening of the film version [in 35mm] as part of a series at York City Screen of European Classic on Film. The other three screenings were The Lady With a Dog from Chekhov: La Bête Humaine from Emile Zola: and That Obscure Object of Desire from Pierre Louys’ The Woman and the Puppet. The Tin Drum was the fourth and final screening. On the way to York that morning I read [as usual] the Saturday Guardian: the best section being the Review. That issue opened with a long article by Salmon Rushdie on adapting literature into film: and he ended by singling out the film version of the Günther Grass novel as a fine example of this art. One could list other adaptation of the same calibre and, as I suggest below, the adaptation has limitations: still it is a great example of the craft and a worthy addition to memorials to the novelist.

Günther Grass’s book, first published in 1959, is reckoned to be the finest novel published in Germany since the end of World War II. [Both the Penguin and Vintage editions are translated by Ralph Manheim]. It is also a key work, dramatising Germany’s pre-occupation with its past, especially the period of the Third Reich: the extreme nationalism, the wars and the European Holocaust. These remain potent themes, witness the success of the recent fictional work, The Reader / Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink.

Grass’s story is focused on Oskar, a unique individual who stopped growing at the age of three years, and refuses to grow to adult size. He is also gifted with an unusually piercing scream, which punctuates the story of his life. And he plays with, to great effect, the instrument in the title. Oskar narrates his tale from a mental institution, where he has been committed, in the 1950s.

The narration is unusual. Oskar switches from first to third person and back again repeatedly. The book is structured around flashbacks, so the reader constantly returns to Oskar in the then present. The style of the book is far from the naturalism of Zola. The narrative is full of bizarre events, presented alongside detailed descriptions of actual places and of re-created historical actions. Oskar commences his tale in 1899 with the meeting of his grandparents: then takes us through the birth of his mother, her marriage and his own conception in 1924. Thus most of Oskar’s childhood and adulthood are passed under the shadow of the rise of Fascism and of the Third Reich.

Grass sets the novel in his hometown of Danzig. This is a potent spot in modern German history. Danzig was part of Prussia and therefore acceded to the new German Empire in 1871. After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the creation of a Polish State dramatically moved the borders in this region. Much of Prussia was ceded to Poland. In addition East Prussia was separated from the main mass of Germany. As an important and strategic port for the area Danzig was declared a ‘Free City’ under the protection of the League of Nations, [in January 1920]. It had its own administration, currency and so on. Poland, which surrounded this small territory, had a military presence on the Westerplatte and a Polish Post Office. According to the census taken in 1934, Danzig had 383,955 inhabitants, 96 % Germans, 3 % Poles, Kashubians; 60 % Lutherans, 35 % Catholics. Predictably the separation from the ‘German fatherland’ caused outrage among German–speakers in Danzig and in Germany itself.

In the 1930s the National Socialist Party increased its representation in the city. There was also an increasing emigration from the small Jewish population. In November 1938 the city introduced the Nuremberg Race Laws. In 1939 Hitler demanded a ‘korridor’ between Germany and its province of East Prussia. In August the Danzig Gauleiter staged a coup d’etat. Then on September 1st a German warship opened fire on the Westerplatte. The invasion of Poland and the European war had commenced. The Polish Post Office became a battleground. Danzig was annexed to the Third Reich.

Early in 1945 the Red Army conquered the city which it placed under Polish administration. This was followed by large-scale migration from the city by German-speakers. After the war the port remained in Poland and became known as Gdansk. As the latter city it was to have further dynamic and influential conflicts.


Volker Schlöndorff was an appropriate person to transpose the novel to the screen. There had been several earlier attempts, which came to nought. Schlöndorff had already directed several screen adaptations from literature. His first film, which was very well received, was Der Junge Törless (Young Torless, 1966, from the novel by Robert Musil). The film was set in the turn-of-the-century German boarding school, critically examining its cruelties. [This has been a theme in a number of German films: there are parallels with Michael Haneke’s recent The White Ribbon / Das Weise Band Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009].

Schlöndorff was equally apt because he was a member of a group which was to become the New German Cinema. Junger Deutcher Film was inaugurated in 1962 with the issuing of the Oberhausen Manifesto. This was a group of 26 writers and filmmakers who demanded freedom from industry conventions and commercial strictures. They were able to make their way at this time through government grants, support by a new Film Institute in Berlin, and with financial support by German Television. The group included [besides Schlöndorff], Edgar Reich and Jean-Marie Straub. To these were added directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Hertzog and Wim Wenders. The films had disparate styles but the common bond was a critical approach, both to the question of Germany’s past, and to the ‘bourgeois complacency’ of contemporary Germany. This did not always translate into success at the domestic box office, but many of the films were critical successes and fared well on the International Art Circuit.

Schlöndorff Young Torless fitted in with this critical approach, as the film could be read as a metaphorical indictment of German complicity in the crimes of Nazism. His wife, Margarethe von Trotta, who started as an actress, also took up film direction. Her Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, 1979) examined the impact of such movements as the Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhoff Group.

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, 1979. West Germany / France.

Bioskop Films Artemis Films & Argos Films.

Director: Volker Schlöndorff. Screenplay: Jean Claude Carrière [familiar from Bunuel’s films], Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seit, and Günter Grass [who is credited with dialogue].

Cinematography: Igor Luther. Editor: Suzanne Baron. Production Design: Nicos Perakis. Music Maurice Jarre. The film is in colour and European widescreen. Running time 142 minutes. German with English subtitles.

Cast: Mario Adorf – Alfred Matzerath. Angela Winkler – Agnes Matzerath. Katharina Thalbach – Maria Matzerath. David Bennent – Oskar Matzerath. Daniel Olbrychski – Jan Bronski. Tina Engel – Anna Koljaiczek (young). Berta Drews – Anna Koljaiczek (old). Charles Aznavour – Sigismund Markus. Roland Teubner – Joseph Koljaiczek. Tadeusz Kunikowski – Uncle Vinzenz. Andréa Ferréol – Lina Greff. Heinz Bennent – Greff. Ilse Pagé – Gretchen Scheffler. Werner Rehm – Scheffler. Käte Jaenicke – Mother Truczinski. Helmut Brasch – Old Heilandt.

The Tin Drum was one of the most financially successful German films of the 1970s. It won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and was jointly awarded the 1979 Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with Apocalypse Now.

Predictably the film both compresses and shortens the novel, which itself ran to 580 pages. For example, the opening sequence concerning Oskar’s grandparents leaves out quite a lot of writing and plot. Similarly, in the course of the novel certain sequences are eliminated. But many of the most powerful, like the Nazi rally in Danzig or the battle at the Polish Post Office, remain.

The film also alters the narrative voice. We still have Oskar’s commentary, but the flashback structure has been replaced with a linear form. More drastically, the film ends in 1945 as Oskar and his family joined the evacuation of the German-speaking citizens. This leaves out Part Three of the novel, about 150 pages. The written story carries on until 1954 and contains ironic developments in Oskar life, which comment obliquely on post-war Germany.

Another important change stems from the casting. Oskar is played by the 12 year old David Bennent, [brilliantly]. However, in the novel Grass insistently tells the reader that Oskar develops: though he remains in a child size body.

The film did suffer some attempted censorship in the USA. This was mainly due to objections to the explicit sex scenes, and [I suspect] the outrage was exacerbated by the child-like central protagonist.


About his preference for screen adaptations Schlöndorff has said:

“A great part of my experience in life is reading. A filmmaker translates an experience into cinema. And I consider it legitimate to translate my reading experience into film to try to recall what moved me.”

And regarding the narrative stance of the film:

“It will not always work to stay in Oskar’s skin. Just as he speaks sometimes in the first person and sometimes, alienatingly child-like, in the third, so must the film narrative at times be quite subjective and at times show his shock from outside.”

[Quoted in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992].


Re-watching these films and listening to the discussion caused me to think again about the films and the categories of ‘film adaptation’ suggested by Geoffrey Wagner. Transposition – Commentary – Analogy. These categories were used each week as an analytical tool in relating the individual films to a more general ‘Literature on Film approach’.

Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’

Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’

Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’


Lady with the Dog / Dama s Sobachkoi, 19159 – The stultifying social atmosphere in Chekhov’s writings is a symptom of the decadent Tsarist Society. Perhaps there is a subtle reading to be made of the film’s relevance to 1960s Russia. It was then part of a moribund Soviet Union, which had lost the revolutionary political and cultural impulse of earlier Bolshevik periods. One can imagine apparatchiks aping the ennui of Dimitry’s acquaintances.

La Bête Humaine, 1938 – Zola’s novel provides a scathing critique of the political culture of 1860s France. This is most notable in the final careering train with its troops off to the Franco-Prussian war; [none of the three versions that I have seen actually uses Zola’s amazing descriptive and symbolic conclusion]. That was a war that caused the political establishment to collapse. This is clearly a strand in the Renoir adaptation, but it is less overt than in the novel. In the following year, in 1939, Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] does provide a quite ruthless demolition of ruling class values.

So both the above films could be seen as using the novel’s narrative to provide a commentary on their own times.

That Obscure Object of Desire / Cet Obscur Objet du Désir 1977  – Louy’s novel seems to satirise C19th bourgeois sexual mores, through the stereotypes of Spanish machismo. These were popular stereotypes in literature. Bunuel’s adaptation retains that satire, but crosses it with themes of social and political violence, social ritual, voyeurism and tourism. Thus the film appears to draw analogies between the novel and contemporary society, but also between social, political and cultural contradictions. Thus I find the film much more subversive than the original book, [and two earlier film versions – a silent ‘porn’ version from 192 and the famous 1939 adaptation with Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman]. Also, whilst the film’s staging bears the recognisable signs of the 1970s, thematically it seems to me a powerful parable for the new C21st.

To a degree Renoir’s film version is an analogy. Undoubtedly, Buñuel’s work falls under analogy: in his case for the sake of art and of turning art upside down.

The Tin Drum – Before the discussion I remarked on how revisiting the book and novel had sharpened my sense of how the film curtails the narrative of the novel. It seems that Schlöndorff closes down Grass’s critique to a focus on the Third Reich and Nazism. This possibly makes the film more pointed, but it produces a slightly restricted ‘commentary’. The emphasis is on Germany’s ‘past’: an approach that ties in with the New German Cinema approach. The film is very much ‘adaptation’, for which Rushdie rightly praises it. The ‘commentary’ aspect relates to the ‘commentary’ in Grass’ novel, but in a restricted manner.

So the major problem with the film’s adaptation is that Grass critique of the post-Third Reich Germany is largely missing. This is a crucial theme across Grass’s work, culminating in his unfashionable opposition to the form taken for reunification. Moreover, Grass, especially in later works, addresses the problems of the ‘Soviet Liberation’ and the issue of the DDR. But in its treatment of the fascist period the film remains one of the most biting and powerful dissections of that period of German history. I still find The Tin Drum more politically powerful than recent parallel films like The Reader (2008) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

I have recently seen the film adaptation of The Book Thief, a novel that I enjoyed immensely and which seems to be influence by Grass’s use of fantasy alongside realism. This later film just emphasises the quality of the Schlondorf film. If, as Rushdie argues, The Tin Drum is a great example of how to translate literature to film then The Book Thief is a text book example of how not to do so.

After the screenings, as at every session, we had a 20 to 25 minute questions and comments by the audience, composed of about 65 people. The final comment was by a young women who had attended all the screening and who usually had something interesting to say. I thanked everyone and said I hoped they had enjoyed the film and the morning. She sharply questioned my use of the word ‘enjoy’ and remarked on the grimness of the film. She was, of course, quite right. But I think she also agreed that enjoyment is only one aspect of cinema: there are other equally rewarding responses, and The Tin Drum feeds into a number of these.

Taken from the notes prepared for the York screening. Quotes by Grass in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992. Adaptive categories in Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema, 1975.

Posted in German film, History on film, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

To the Commissioners of To the Editor of Amateur Photography

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2015


The film in question was commissioned by the Hyde Park Picture House and the Pavilion Visual Arts Commissioning Organisation in Leeds. The film was premiered at the Hyde Park in November 2014. There have been a number of screenings since and on Saturday 10th January 2015 there was a screening followed by a discussion involving the filmmakers, the participants and audience members.

The film is a study of the first period of the Pavilion Art Project in the 1980s, using archive documents, photographs, interviews with women involved in the project at that time and filming carried out during the production. The Pavilion started out as a project around women’s photography but over the years, partly due to funding pressures, the project has changed and developed and it is now an art commissioning project. The original venue of the project was a disused one storey building in the Hyde Park, alongside the Leeds University campus. I remember it chiefly for interesting exhibitions in the 1980s, though there were also seminars and other events

The basic form of the film uses montage, which can probably be considered an avant-garde form. Re-watching it I noted more aspects and gained a clearer sense of the content. It struck me that the photographs are organised both around themes but also around tropes: the latter offering a sense of the practical work of the project. I noted that the photographs are accompanied by recorded sound whilst the archive documents [minutes, letters, leaflets, pamphlets,…) are accompanied by electronic music: the latter increases in complexity as the film develops. The interviews are separated in presentation between visual and sound: the latter plays as voice-overs alongside discrete footage. The participants discuss chosen photographs that are not necessarily seen at that point: but I realised that all of them do figure in the montages of photographs through the film. Whilst the contemporary footage seems all to be of or about the actual film production. I also noted that from the early interviews there are questions raised about the form of the production itself.

The overall form of the film seems to be a ‘work in progress’: in a sense that the film foregrounds its own construction. This is definitely a form that might be considered avant-garde or at least modernist in its approach. It also relates to the body of film that follows the use of montage as it was developed in the pioneer Soviet cinema: The Factory of Facts collective would seem to be an important influence, either directly or mediated through filmmakers who follow their practice.

This presentation was via a DCP version, slightly different from the premiere. Visually this made little difference: black and white and colour images in a 1.37:1 frame. However the soundtrack was also embedded on the digital folders, and I thought there was less variation within the auditorium than with the direct sound at the premier.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

The discussion that followed was very full and very interesting. There was a panel of speakers at the front of the auditorium:

Gill Park the current Director of the Pavilion: Will Rose, Associate Producer of the film: Luke Fowler and Mark Fell, the filmmakers: Griselda Pollock and Diana Clark, founders member of the Pavilion: and Irene  Revell, who acted as a sort of chair. There were also couple of the participants from the film in the audience.

What follows are my notes on the discussion, which lasted for an hour and a half. So these are partial, and, of course, my interpretation is based on notes taken during the discussion.

Gill opened up explaining some of the rationale and emphasising the stance of the Pavilion, which includes addressing the problematic of images and of their reproduction.

Will talked about setting up the production, which grew out of conversations with the two filmmakers. Also he explained how the Pavilion set about raising the funding: and pointing out that the film meshed with the 30th anniversary of the Pavilion and the centenary of the Hyde Park Picture House.

Irene then moved to the two filmmakers, Mark Fell and Luke. Mark explained how they had approached the project and the three major strands in the film – photographs, archive material, interviews.

Luke explained that the archive material was important, though it was incomplete: Mark added, ‘stuff left behind’ rather than being systematically’ collected and collated, [the archive material is housed in Feminist Archive North in the Special Collections at Leeds University]. The photographs were found as a collection of negatives, with no known provenance. The selection of photos used in the film was made at different points by Mark, Luke, Will and Gill.

Irene raised the question that one contentious issue was gender. Some of the interviews question why the film was made by two men. This also led on to comments about the interviews and the use of discrete image and sound. Points made included that of the context for photographs, which can be thought of as ‘mute documents’. There was also the point of bringing in what is ‘outside the frame’ of any photograph.

It seems that the interviews all followed the same format, though they do seem rather different. Each interviewee was asked to select a single photograph from the collection. They were all given the same four questions. And the interview was recorded aurally and subsequently, with suggestions from the interviewee, they were filmed and these images accompanied the sound recording.

Mark emphasised that he and Luke were the ‘authors of the film’ and took that responsibility’. He added that authorship can ‘take many forms’. Irene asked about the title, which was partly improvised but also reflected the view of Amateur Photography as a ‘bastion of male hegemony’.


Before we heard from other panel members there were some comments/questions from members of the audience.

One young woman raised the point of the non-synchronised sound and suggested that this made ‘problematic the voice of the subject’.

Luke responded that they wanted to get away from the dominance of ‘talking heads’. He and Mark talked about filming the interviews and creating the music for the film, which was improvised.

Another woman referred to the collection of photograph in the film and expressed the view that many of them deserved to be highlighted as particular images. Luke responded that they wanted to place less emphasis on their qualities as photographic images and treat them as interesting images.

Another woman bought up the occasional appearances of the filmmakers: and Luke responded that they thought there was a problem when ’producers were presented as anonymous’. He also made the point that they were not making documentaries in the form followed by Nick Broomfield.

Points was made that the film only partially explained how the Pavilion developed/

Griselda Pollock now contributed to the discussion. She made some comments about the formal structures in documentary. One aspect, going back to John Grierson, treated film as ‘someone goes and looks at someone else’. She contrasted this with the work of one of the photographers featured in the film, Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen.  She worked for seven years in an area in Newcastle-on-Tyne, building up relationships with mothers and children involved in dance classes. Her work was not just about recording but also about ‘changing access’, and using ‘informal photography’ she also raised questions about how the recorded interviews were treated – there was a slight dispute about what editing left out from the interviewees comments.

Dinah Clarke also now contributed. She talked about her days in the initial work to develop the Pavilion project. One aspect of the context was that these were the years when the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was taking place. Thus a place like the park ‘or moor’ was not necessarily a safe place for women. She also talked about how funding issues changed the nature of the project. The Art Council was only prepared to fund what it regarded as ‘quality photography’: ‘informal photography’ was seen as ‘community work’ rather than ‘art work’. The emphasis on exhibitions in the early years of the project resulted from this emphasis.

Griselda added some points about her personal experience. She also commented on the use of the archive material. As a historian she felt they could have made the material ‘more vivid’: there was a sense in which they were merely illustrative rather than informative.

Sue Ball, in the audience, added to these. She also raised the distinction between authorship and ownership. She pointed out that one important aspect of the project took place in the dark room: both for them professional photographers and for the users. She thought that there was this aspect of the project’s own production process which the film omitted.

As the discussion came to an end people returned to points about the filmmakers being men: to the changes that had occurred in the project since the period the film covered: and a suggestion that the matter needed to be related to different views of the Pavilion in the different generations who were involved.
Irene thanked everyone and then event came to an end, after an hour and half for discussion. This was an extensive discussion, even so there was clearly more to be said and there were individual discussion taking place in the foyer and outside the cinema.

I asked a question at one point. After a woman made the point about how the photographs were treated I asked whether the filmmakers had thought about using some of the modern technologies to produce a version that audiences or viewers could construct themselves. Mark responded that he was not interested in ‘a viewer’s narrative’. I can understand this standpoint. The filmmakers have produced a version that critiques conventional treatments, but viewers might choose to follow just those conventional approaches.

However, some of the participants in the Pavilion in the period studied felt that the film did not sufficiently reflect the role of people in constructing images and their meanings: one comment added that the film should include the users of the project, often involved in informal photography. This is a recurring contradiction between authorship in films and participation. I remember that Jean Rouch, who was partly responsible for the renewed interest in the Factory of Facts and the writings of Dziga Vertov, included in his seminal Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un Eté, 1960) a sequence where the participants viewed and commented on an early cut of the film. This appears to have happened to a degree with Letter, but only with those being interviewed and their segment sin the film. It would be interesting to take this further with others of the participants in the project, including ordinary women who were users of the centre.

This is a consideration of the film and its relationship to the Pavilion rather than a specific criticism. I remain impressed by the film. Someone near the end commented that one function of the film was to ‘galvanize people to do more work’ on the Pavilion and its history. That would be good, though given the ‘privatisation’ of Universities, I think the Feminist Archive North collection is probably less accessible than in the past. Mark and Luke talked about the time and labour they had to spend on this.

Those interviewed for the film were:

Dinah Clark. Angela Kingston. Caroline Taylor. Griselda Pollock. Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen. Quinn. Rosy Martin. Sutapa Biswas. Al Garthwaite. Deborah Best. Jenifer Carter Ramson. Sue Ball. Maggie Murray.

A Pavilion film by Mark Fell & Luke Fowler
Commissioned by Hyde Park Picture House & Pavilion
Kindly supported by: Arts Council England  Leeds City Council  Leeds Inspired
Hamilton Corporate Finance  Feminist Review Trust  Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society

Camera: Margaret Salmon
Second camera: Luke Fowler
Producer: Will Rose
Music: Mark Fell, Luke Fowler
Rostrum: Jo Dunn, Leeds Animation Workshop
Grading: Ben Mullen at Serious
Sound Mix: Iain Anderson at Savalas
Music mastering: Andreas [LUPO] Lubich at Calyx
Telecine colourist: Paul Dean at Cinelab
Lab: Cinelab London
Film stock: Kodak
Pavilion: Gill Park, Anna Reid, Will Rose, Linzi Stauvers, Miriam Thorpe

Posted in Documentary, History on film | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Miners on Film

Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2014


The working class tends suffer a subordinate role in mainstream films under capitalism: the unfortunately short-lived socialist cinemas offered an alternative as did Labour Movement films. Organised labour, in the presence of miners and mining communities is one frequent representative.

In 1933 Joris Ivens and Henri Storck made Borinage, focusing on a miners’ strike in Belgium. The Lad from the Taiga (Paren’ iz Tajgi, 1941) is a Soviet drama directed by Ol’ga Preobraženskaja and Ivan Pravov, the film follows the conflict between individualism and co-operation among gold miners in a remote area. In 1953 a group of filmmakers blacklisted by the Hollywood Studios, dramatised events from a strike in New Mexico. Barbara Kopple in 1976 made the independent Harlan County, USA depicting the violence directed against striking miners in Kentucky. The last film deservedly received a high rating from the Sight & Sound critics poll of ‘great documentaries. Grupo Ukamau produced The Clandestine Nation (La Nación Clandestina, 1976) which portrayed the struggles of miners in the Bolivian Andean plateau.

Mining and miners is one area, which has enjoyed some space and prominence for working class characters and communities in the mainstream. Examples can be found in most film industries. Hollywood’s Daryl F. Zanuck produced an adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s classic novel, How Green was My Valley, in 1941. One of the early classics of European cinema is Kameradschaft (The Tragedy of the Mine, 1931) which celebrates working class solidarity across borders. And there are at least six film versions of Emile Zola’s classic novel, Germinal: though the most radical is also one of the earliest, in 1914. From farther afield comes The Human Condition (Ningen no jôken, Japan 1959 – 1961) in which the protagonists supervises forced Korean labour working in mines. There is also Blind Shaft (Mang Jing, 2003) which deals with exploitation in open cast mining in China.

As one would expect mining and miners have been a recurring feature in British cinema as well. The conditions and dangers of mining make for dramatic situations. The fact that there are often whole mining communities involved, not just a group of workers, offers strong characterisations. And, in Britain especially, for much our industrial history, mining has been a core industry and the miners have been in the vanguard of the organised working class.

So miners turn up in the early days of British cinema. Mitchell & Kenyon were a regional film company, based in Blackburn and filming and distributing both actuality films and short fictional films. There are several short films on mining in the surviving archive, including a Miners Demonstration at Wakefield in 1908. This expression of solidarity, involving miners, women and children, was seen as rather threatening by the political establishment: a press report described it as ‘organised rowdyism’.

More substantial is A Day in the Life of a Miner filmed by Keystone in 1911 for the London & North Western Railway: the colliery featured was Alexandra Colliery of Wigan Coal & Iron Co Ltd. There are clearly staged scenes, actual footage in the mine workings and shots of women workers hauling away on the surface. But, apart from Newsreels, there do not seem to be any contemporary film reports or dramas of the 1926 General Strike, in which the miners were key players.

Coal Face title

Sound cinema bought new presentation to the industry and its workers. Coal Face (1935) was produced for the GPO Film Unit and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. Cavalcanti had a background in European avant-garde cinema. The eleven-minute film enjoyed contributions from composer Benjamin Britton and poet W H Auden. Predominately the film used ‘found footage’ from other work by the Unit, which was then edited into a very distinctive montage.

It is worth noting that in the 1930s the Regional Committees of The Miners Welfare Fund were able to organise leisure facilities. These were especially extensive in Wales and a number included cinemas equipped with 35mm sound film projection.

The strength and centrality of coal mining and the political issues around the industry can be seen in The Stars Look Down (1939). Produced by the small Grafton Production Company, it was filmed at the Denham Studio with location work at mining pits in Cumberland. The story was adapted from the novel of the same name by A. J. Cronin, and adapted by J. B. Williams and Cronin himself. The film was directed by Carol Reed and starred Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Emlyn Williams. The film develops its story to a serious accident at the mine, a staple of mining films. But the disaster and the victims are tied to a message of nationalisation, already becoming a key industrial battleground before the war. A year earlier, in 1938, the British arm of MGM had produced another adaptation of a novel by Cronin, The Citadel. The follows the travails of a young doctor, played by Robert Donat, working in the slums of a Welsh mining village. Again in 1939 Ealing Studios produced The Proud Valley. A wandering black stoker joins the Welsh village choir and the pit workforce. Almost predictably he sacrifices his life in a mining disaster. The stoker David Goliath is played by the charismatic Paul Robeson, who enjoyed better roles in British sound films than those in his native USA.

The focus on disaster is found again in a post-war film, The Brave Don’t Cry (1952). Philip Leacock directed an almost documentary recreation of the 1950 mining disaster in Knockshinnock in Scotland, though using some conventional melodrama and stars like John Gregson.


However, by now the mining industry had been nationalised. The National Coal Board produced a whole series of films about the mines, mining and miners, including between 1947 and 1983 a Mining Review newsreel. But the new management in 1947 included some of the representatives of old and discredited owners. This is an issue addressed in Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45

The contradictions of this strategy came to a head in the famous conflict of 1974. The independent film collective Cinema Action made a 16mm black and white documentary [with a grant from the British Film Institute] presenting the point of view of the miners during the 1974 dispute. The film took a social and historical view, including reflecting back to the 1926 General Strike. This sense of the relevance of that earlier event was also seen in Robert Vas’s documentary Nine Days in ’26 (1973): in an episode of the TV series Upstairs Downstairs in the same year: and most famously in the final episode of Ken Loach’s Days of Hope (BBC 1975).

The historical references were to be again potent in the great miners’ strike of 1984.

Ken Loach’s Which Side Are You On? (London Weekend Television, 1985) is a beautifully crafted montage of miners, mining communities, organisers, activists, singers and poets. It was originally commissioned for the South Bank Show. Melvyn Bragg found the film ‘too political’, but worked with Loach to achieve an ‘acceptable final cut.’ But then the LWT management banned the film. It was later screened by Chanel 4. This sort of censorship was going on right through the strike and for a considerable time afterwards. A detailed study can by found in the research by the Glasgow Media Group and The Campaign for Freedom in the Press and Media.

Which side title

Since 1984 there have been several documentaries and features focusing on these events. Two important films are Mike Figgis’ The Battle of Orgreave (C4 2002): and this year’s Still the Enemy Within (2014).

Features include Billy Elliot  (2000) which follows the story of an eleven-year old boy, the son of a miner involved in the struggle. But the focus of the film is the son’s interest in ballet, with the strike featuring as background and context. The earlier Brassed Off  (1994) also relies on personalised drama. Produced by Film Four and Miramax, it was written and directed by Mark Herman. The cast is led by Pete Postlethwaite, and includes Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and a host of familiar faces from both film and television. The film directly addressed the aftermath of the 1984 strike through the programme of pit closures that followed over the next decade. If Billy Elliot offers an unlikley combination of ‘Swan Lake’ and coal hewing, Brassed Off has the brilliant marriage of the coal miners and the Brass Band culture, so strong in the mining regions. This film does also actually show some working miners, actual labour power not being a common sight in British films.

Both films aspire to provide an entertaining story and feel-good resolution. Empire commented on Billy Elliot “The first genuinely exhilarating Brit Flick of the new millennium…”. Time Out commented that Brassed Off  “pulls off a popular proletarian comedy which might actually appeal to the people its about … [but which also is] not shy at laying the blame”.

The success of both films suggests that they did manage to combine comedy, drama and notable historical events to effect. What is interesting is both leave [or attempt to leave] the audience with an upbeat ending, despite the miners actually suffering defeat. It struck me that there are not any major dramas on film recording the victory in 1984. Is this the [supposed] sympathy of the British public for the underdog? Certainly in political life there is much less sign of sympathy for organised labour.

Brassed collapse

These films about miners are part of a larger cycle of British films about ordinary working people; for instance The Full Monty (1997). They don’t actually suggest social or economic change, they celebrate survival. The film that actually ends in a real-life victory is Made in Dagenham (2010), celebrating the working women at the Ford Motor plant. However, the latter film is more about women’s rights than industrial conflict: part of the problem is male trade unionists. Women are important figures in a number of the mining films, despite the stereotypical image of the male miner. The Lad from Taiga has a woman engineer as a central character. In Salt of the Earth the women take over the picket when the men are barred by a court injunction. Days of Hope and Which Side Are You On?, in different ways, both rely on the women participants to progress the struggle.

However Brassed Off, whilst it has emotional scenes involving wives, fails to provide a close focus of the ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. And in Billy Elliot the one notable women character comes from outside the mining community. Indeed Brassed off and Billy Elliot both fail to develop a strong sense of the miming communities. Whereas Which Side Are You On? is centrally about those communities.

It is difficult to find a film that exposes the interests of the capital class directly. The film that come closest to this is Ken Loach’s Days of Hope, where the final words following the end of the 1926 General Strike are given to two members of the Communist Party of Great Britain [and a caretaker]. But this series received some of the most apoplectic criticism seen in recent years in the mainstream media.

Pride (2014), like some of the earlier films, is based on actual events. The scriptwriter Stephen Beresford hawked the idea around for years without success. Then David Livingstone, the producer, became interested. He obtained some development money from Working Title. The film was eventually produced by Pathé with financial support from BBC Films and the British Film Institute.  The pre-release publicity suggested that it combined personal drama and comedy and was likely to end with some sort of feel-good resolution. It certainly relies on certain British generic conventions and a cast of recognisable British character actors. Beresford and the film’s director Mathew Warchus main experience is in theatre and the film relies on acting and character. The film’s distinctive contribution, very much of the C21st, is ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’: in the guise of a Welsh mining village.

The film is stronger on the role of women and has a greater sense of community than most of the other films in the cycle. The depiction of Gays and Lesbian’s in the film is somewhat stereotypical, and issues like sexuality and Aids are shied away from. The latter presumably down to the inhibitions of the BBFC. Fundamentally though the film follows the cycle in its concentration on the personal rather than the political or the economic. What lies under the surface of this famous conflict is not unearthed. The economic imperatives of the 1980s, including the weakening of the power of organised Labour, is absent from the film. Certainly, like Brassed Off, the film develops sympathy for the miners. For an understanding of what the events actually signify one still needs to return to a film like Which Side Are You On?

Developed from Notes for an Introduction to a screening of Pride at the National Media Museum.

Posted in British films, History on film, Movies with messages, Union films | Leave a Comment »

Belle, USA / UK 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2014

Portrait of Dido and Elizabeth

Portrait of Dido and Elizabeth

This is a period costume drama, which retells in a somewhat fictional form the story of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She was the illegitimate daughter of a successful C18th English sea captain and a former black slave, Maria Belle. Her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) puts her, in the care of the Mansfield family at their Kenwood mansion. There she is bought up a lady of the landed gentry, though without the full rights accorded her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) is the Lord Chief Justice of the English legal system. And the familial crosses over with the social when he has to decide on an appeal concerning the slave ship Zong – a notorious incident where African slaves were thrown overboard on the pretext of a shortage of water. The film takes us up to the resolution of this seminal legal case and to Dido’s entry into an autonomous adult world.

This is a fairly conventional period film, what gives it distinction is the black heroine at the centre of the story. It has been directed by Amma Asante. Her previous and first feature was A Way of Life (UK 2004), a contemporary drama about working class young people, including a pregnant teenager, in South Wales. This film was notable both for its social realist style and its sympathetic and empathetic depiction of its protagonist world. Asante’s other work has been on television. Belle has a very different feel. The film project stems from the script by Misan Sagay, with whose work I am unfamiliar. It is partly funded by the British Film Institute but also be C20th Fox, and I suspect the latter has influenced the stronger generic feel in the film.

Whilst the film is an excellent production, with fine technical values and acting, I felt there were a number of problems with the way it treated this historical story. Foremost was the question of the Appeal Trial regarding the slaver Zong. The Insurers had refused to pay the claims by the ships owners for the loss of cargo. Taken to court the insurers lost and then appealed. The case was a seminal one in terms of black people, slaves and ex-slaves under British law. It also was extremely important in the developing financial capital of the City whilst the slave trade was the basis of British profitability and the developing industrial base. Alongside these key economic imperatives the case became an important opportunity for the developing antislavery movement. There was a welter of pamphlets and immense public interest.

Even at the time there were those who suggested that having a black ward in his house could affect the decision by Lord Mansfield. This is a point picked up and developed in the film.

Neither Dido’s own history or the records of English law cases in this period appear to be complete and detailed. However, it is clear that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the historical record for dramatic purpose. This is always a tricky area in which to make judgements, but I do feel that the uses made have actually been very conventionalised.

These points emerged when I consulted Lord Mansfield A Biography of William Murray 1st earl of Mansfield 1705 – 1793 Lord Chief Justice for 32 years by Edmund Heward (Barry Rose 1979). One point concerns evidence regarding the ship Zong and the issue of water. In the film Dido, who is taking a strong interest in the case, surreptitiously finds evidence amongst Lord Mansfield’s papers and passes this to an anti-slavery campaigner, John Davinier (Sam Reid). Heward quotes Mansfield’s ruling agreeing to a new trial on appeal, which specifically mentions this evidence, thus already in the public domain.

Then we arrive at the day of the Appeal Decision. Lord Mansfield appears alone to read his decision to a packed courtroom. Did appears, cloaked but clearly recognisable as a woman and apparently the only one present! But Heward’s account notes that three judges were involved in the appeal case. It was at a hearing for the application by the insurers for a new trial that Mansfield read out his comments. Heward also notes that there is no report of an actual trial, and that the owners ‘appear to have had second thoughts’. He then comments that the publicity and public interest in the case led to later statutes prohibiting the insurance of slaves in this manner.

These are to a degree minor changes for greater dramatic effect. However, they also provide Dido with a role and influence in an important historical milestone in the anti-slavery movement. I do wonder a little at that. The film does offer scenes where Lord Mansfield airs some of the issues and contradictions in the case. But overall the film is privileging the personal over the political.

Other aspects of the film make me wonder at the accuracy of the film’s depiction of Dido’s life at Kenwood House. The film’s most noted point is that it uses a surviving painting of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray held in Scone Palace in Scotland. We see the portrait of these two young and privileged women as it is being painted in the film. To be accurate we see them sit for the painter: at one point together and at another Dido is seated alone. Meanwhile the film points up the representations of Africans in art of the period as we see [with Dido] a series of traditional portraits where a black African is typically at the feet of a white master. However, when at the film’s conclusion we come to see the actual painting, or a reproduction, the two women are not seated side by side. Lady Elizabeth is seated and very much the traditional young woman of C18th portraiture. Dido stands alongside Lady Elizabeth, pointing to her cheek and arraigned in a far more exotic garb. Apparently this is ‘one of the first portraits to show a black person on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat’.  However, they do not seem equal. The first time I saw this painting, unaware of its significance, I assumed the black woman was a servant. The publicity material for the film suggests that Dido ‘appears vivacious and intriguing next to her cousin’s formal pose’. That seems to me to still carry the sense of the exotic and the other. The film does show the way that Dido suffers discrimination in a family that apparently cares and supports her because of her skin colour  [‘a mulatto’] and her illegitimacy. I did feel that the film never quite decided to what extent Dido was ‘integrated’ in that society. Perhaps the film’s producers were over-awed by the subject matter, or maybe the screenplay overemphasised the decorous aspect of C18th elite society. The nastier aspects of this society are all dramatised in one family, the Ashfords. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) is obsessed with finding rich marital prospects for her sons: Oliver (James Norton) who proposes to Dido because she has a fortune: and James (Tom Felton) who is both racist and misogynistic. This treatment is just as dramatically conventional

Another oddity of the release in the UK was the BBFC notes on the Certification. First it warned of a ‘brief sexual assault’ which is technically accurate but over emphasises the incident in question. Then it noted ‘a discrimination theme’! As far as I can remember I don’t think that 12 Years a Slave carried such a clause. What was its purpose?

My mind goes back to Philadelphia (USA 1993) an early Hollywood foray into gay relationships. Extremely dramatic and well done but never achieving a full-blooded grasp of the subject. Belle is well worth seeing and is a fascinating exploration of an often-overlooked area. I think it would have generated more power if it did not feel so much part of the heritage film cycle. This is especially strong for the resolution, where the orchestral score [by Rachel Portman] rises and increases on the soundtrack. And that, of course, was also the problem with an earlier film set in the same period and addressing the same subject, Amazing Grace (2006).


Posted in British films, History on film, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »


Posted by keith1942 on June 12, 2013


This was the final screening at the National Media Museum’s Widescreen Weekend in April. It was presented in a 70mm print; this was the original UK print in 1.85:1. There was an introduction by Sheldon Hall who placed this epic reconstruction of the major battle of the US Civil War in the cinematic context. He noted some of the predecessors on film and for television. This version started out as a mini-series for Turner Television, directed by Ronald F Maxwell, and was then given a limited theatrical release. The filming depended on the contribution of over 3,000 volunteers from the historical re-enactment societies, all of whom performed for free. And the film was shot on the original location, now a Nationals Park. This theatrical version runs for 254 minutes, though that is shorter than the actual battle.

The recreation is impressive. Thousands of men toil across fields, through woods, up rocky inclines, while shot and shell fall among them. One can see why Gettysburg, and indeed the US Cilia War in its entirety, was such a bloody conflict. It was also, as Sheldon noted a great conflict for beards and moustaches, which grace nearly all the main characters.

The approach if Gettysburg is to focus on key individuals, mainly generals and officers. On the Union side the key individual is Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a liberal teacher enrolled in the army. By his side is a somewhat stereotypical Irish sergeant major to whom he explains the morality of the war. The character enables the film to present moments of ‘progressive’ Union rhetoric [one of the subjects at the college where Chamberlain worked]. However, the film overall fails to project the moral and political superiority of the Union. This is an example that two US academic call the ‘curiously blame-free experience’ which is seen as the Civil War. A course that Hollywood, aiming at audiences in both the North and the South, has tended to follow.

It seemed to me that the film actually spends more time and feeling on the Confederacy than on the Union: their characters appear first in the ‘cast list’. [This is also true of Maxwell’s prequel Gods and Generals, 2002]. The key Confederate character is General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen). For me one puzzle was his reputation, both at the end of the film when he is cheered by the Confederate survivors and historically, at least in the South. The Confederate battle seems poorly managed. The Calvary under J.E.B. Stuart is out of control. The early engagements lack initiative. And the central event is ‘Pickett’s charge’ personally ordered by Lee. We watch several thousand confederate soldiers march up a long slope as the Union artillery and troops mow them down. Equally puzzling is that it looks just like one of the inane attacks ordered by British Generals in World War I. One would have thought that those military professionals would have studied the US Civil War and learned some lessons.

The most interesting character on the Confederate side is Brigadier-General Lewis Amistead (Richard Jordan). We see him in several times in conversations among the officers: on every occasion he worries that a close friend {Major-General Hancock) is present in the Union army. Even as he approaches death this is his main concern. Jordan seems deliberately to play this as a suppressed gay attraction: an aspect that stands out from the military characterisations of the film generally.

One aspect that made the film interesting to see again was the recent release of Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). That film focuses on the Union and on the politics behind the battles. It also addresses with more [if limited] emphasis the question of colour and of slavery.

See American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film by Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Peter, Edinburgh University Press 2005.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood stars, US films | Leave a Comment »


Posted by keith1942 on February 21, 2013

The advance

Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln [released in the UK February 2013] opens with brutal hand-to-hand fighting between Union and Confederate troops in a Civil War battle.  What makes the sequence distinctive that these are black Union Soldiers fighting white Confederate soldiers. In the age of Afro-American President Obama this is not a common image in Hollywood films. So the 1989 Civil War drama Glory was a real trailblazer, dramatising the story of one of the earliest Negro {Afro-American] regiments recruited to fight in the war to end the Southern secession and slavery. 

Glory is a 1989 US film which retells the story of a regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War between the Northern and Southern United States in the last century.  Apart from the film itself and the usual reviews there was also a free schools booklet on the film produced by Film Education, a body sponsored by the Film Industry to promote the use of film in schools.  Even better, there were three A3 pages of comment and analysis in a newspaper called The Revolutionary Worker, a US revolutionary communist publication.  I want to use the film and the two different commentaries to argue some ideas about how popular cinema uses the history of society and class struggle to generate a consensus of values, and the traps for the unwary who take such propaganda at face value.

Glory starts by telling the audience in a title that its story is based on the real life letters of Robert Gould Shaw, the Colonel and commander of this real life black regiment the Massachusetts 54th, [Shaw is played in the film by Matthew Broderick).  Shaw is white, as are all the officers, and the film’s early scenes are full of the irony of this “all-black” regiment run by whites. This is the historical record, as the Northern ruling class were less agitated about black slavery than retaining the union, and there was a groundswell of real racism amongst the northern whites.  The film, by highlighting this aspect, is immediately critical of white racism, most strongly punched home in a scene where Shaw orders a black soldier whipped for desertion.  The whip falls on a brutally scarred back, scarred from slave plantation whippings, while the eyes of the black soldier look squarely into those of the guilt ridden Shaw.

The first part of the film shows the training of the newly enrolled regiment, with the black soldiers inexperienced and naive about war.  However, once trained, they are shunted round at military labouring, their racist military hierarchy unable to bring themselves to let black people fight for them.  Once again the film combines historically recorded facts with criticism, as Shaw and his white officer and friend, Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes)), pressurise their superiors into letting the black regiment see battle.  The point of pressure is the plundering, looting and criminal activities being carried out on the side by high-ranking northern white officers.

Southern black boys and Rawlins

Southern black boys and Sergeant-Major Rawlings

In the final part of the film the regiment enters the field of battle and the ‘pantheon of Glory’.  Shaw volunteers the regiment to lead the assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner heavily defended and over a beach exposed to murderous and concentrated fire.  Here both officers and black soldiers prove their fighting ability, their courage and their heroism.  Half the regiment, including all the figures  who have already become identified by the audience, die or are injured in this battle.  At the end black and white are buried by the Confederates in a common grave.

I hope this brief outline will make clear that Glory was different from the ordinary Hollywood movie of the period, and even now seems more radical than many.  The story it tells is both a celebration of the black contribution to US history and a criticism of the response of white society to that contribution.  It is ably produced, with powerful widescreen colour visuals, emotive and dramatic music.  In one scene the newly trained regiment of black soldiers march, finally dressed in Union uniforms and carrying real rifles, march through the streets of their home city, to the acclaim and joy of their families and communities.  The close-ups of proud wives, children and friends are both moving and touching. We also see the noted Afro-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the podium with other dignataries, though he is only allowed one line of dialogue in the film. Moreover, the historical record is that one of Douglass’ sons was an NCO in the regiment, which hewas key in effecting. In the film version the key NCO is an Irish-American, i.e. white!

The film also contains strong performances from black stars and actors.  Denzel Washington, carving out a career in the liberal anti-racist cinema, plays Trip, a rebel and spokesperson for oppressed blacks.  He figures in key scenes in the structure of the film, it is he who is whipped at Shaw’s orders, and who faces him defiantly through the ordeal.

The film’s producer, Freddie Fields, stated, “It is the story of how a black regiment and its white officers challenged history, racism and the fortunes of war.”  So the film offers not only entertainment, but history and politics to the audience.

It is to the credit of Film Education’s Study Guide that it attempted to grapple seriously with these aspects.  The book provides questions, discussion material and extracts from historical sources.  It is clear that the film has taken liberties with the record, both in some of its characters and in the telling of certain events. The Study Guide questions the myth of a Civil War fought to abolish slavery, and points out the central cause, preserving the Union of States.  [Lincoln tells the story of how, late in the war, President Lincoln managed to pressurise and manipulate a bitterly divided House of representatives in Congress to pas the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the abolition of slavery]. The Film Education Study Guide sources provide some of the historical record of racism in that period.  It also provides some of the historical background and detail to the real life regiment missing in the film version.  On two illustrated pages it asks the reader to consider the use of key individuals to carry the story forward.  Then it raises the questions of what benefits war may have bought to black people.  The emphasis throughout the booklet is on the question of this film and the history it purports to tell.

But there are important issues that it misses out, the very ones discussed at length in The Revolutionary Worker article.  This article is concerned to address the film in terms of current racist oppression in the USA.  It starts with:

“Just telling this story is a blow to the oppressors’ version of history………GLORY brings home that oppression is still very much alive and needs to be cut down by “that terrible swift sword”.

It concentrates its attention on a few key scenes, the whipping already mentioned, the opening and closing of the movie; and two scenes that involve the character Trip and the flag of the USA. In the first of these scenes Shaw offers Trip the ‘honour’ of carrying the Stars and Stripes into battle for the regiment.  Trip refuses saying that the war will not liberate the black people.  Later in the assault of Fort Wagner, Shaw dies leading an assault, the flag falls to the ground and Trip picks it up, dying as the assault continues.  The article argues this is a limitation in the film, as black people have no interest in a flag, which represents modern US imperialism both at home and abroad.  The Revolutionary Worker was extensively involved in agitation round the burning of the Yankee flag, and attempts in the US to criminalise this act. Thus their article attempts to site the film in this continuing class struggle over racism and chauvinism.  They raise a dimension that {not surprisingly] is totally absent from the Study Guide.

However, they still see the film as generally positive [as they did Cry Freedom, 1987]. The article makes the point that “The most that could be done in 1863 was to destroy slavery and create the conditions for a future revolution…” However they do not discuss the cinematic representation of these acts. I believe this fails to grapple with what the entertainment format does to historical and political issues, a facet which the Study Guide at least asks the students to discuss.  Entertainment stories generate emotional responses in audiences, partly by the continuing thrust of the story, and partly by emotional responses to individual characters, scenes, music, colour and so on.  Any specific scene or incident is to be responded to in the context of the whole.  One character may say ‘I won’t die for imperialism’, but s/he is then either discredited or reformed by the ongoing narrative.

Trip and flag

The flag and the dying Trip

So what I think is key about the flag incidents is that at the height of the battle Trip picks up the flag at the cost of his own life, even if earlier he had refused.  His one line “I ain’t fighting the war for you”, is easily outweighed by the emotional impact of the rebel who at first refuses but then is swayed into allegiance – an extremely common motif in entertainment films.  And as the events of 2011 demonstrated, the emotional power vested by many US citizens in their flag would make this act extremely powerful. Such a message is reinforced by the final shot of the battle, this is a freeze frame shot [shades of Butch Cassidy] of a hopeless charge by the remaining soldiers led by Cabot and Sergeant Rawlings (Morgan Freeman). In The Revolutionary Worker article, Rawlings is a reformist black, “okay a hundred years ago, but whose time has passed’.  Yet for the film he is the leader finally imprinted on the audiences’ retina. And the casting of both white and black characters is important here. Broderick’s youthful looks fit the liberal notions imparted to him by his father. Elwes seems older and more cynical. And their authority is implemented by John Finn as Sergeant Mulcahy, an Irish-American veteran invented for the film. Meanwhile Denzel Washington at this stage of his career is a heroic rebel: another feature in which he starred in this year was Crimson Tide. Morgan Freeman, of course, has the gravitas of age and his voice: which later in his career enabled him to be cast in the role of US President.

The opening and closing sequences of the film confirm the limits of its criticism in its message about racism in the US and at the hands of the US.  The start of the film shows Shaw before the raising of the black regiment in a battle with white soldiers who turn and run from the confederates.  Thus his leading of the heroic charge at the end of the film is an overcoming of the earlier failure. There follows a scene of the Confederates burying the bodies of both black and white soldiers in a mass grave: Trip lies alongside Shaw with a choir heard on the soundtrack. Hollywood films nearly always centre on a heroic individual, usually white, rarely proletarian, female or gay, whose deeds and/or regeneration embody the emotional power of the film. This is exactly the strategy of the reactionary Born on the 4th of July (1989) movie, where the nation’s failure is whisked away in the failure and subsequent success of one representative individual.  While the final shot of a common grave for black and white can be see as positive, this common sacrifice is for the sake of a state built on oppression both at home and all over the world.

Shaw and Trip buried side-by-side

Shaw and Trip buried side-by-side

Glory is positive in its depiction of a little known history and its critical stance on racism in US history.  But all this is set squarely in the context of a chauvinist upholding of reactionary US patriotism, and the message that black people interests can be served by earning (through death) a place in the system of exploitation.  As The Revolutionary Worker points out black troops have been used against the peoples of Mexico, the Philipines, Cuba, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama [and many more, just look at Vietnam movies].  While people who hate racism may get an emotional frisson from the powerful scenes of black achievement and heroism in the film, they will also get a large dose of reformist and reactionary values.

This is an area bypassed the Study Guide which considers the entertainment format, but not the politics of imperialism.  It is also an aspect that is only partially by The Revolutionary Worker, which treat the film as a political text to be read off and agreed or disagreed with.   Critical responses to this (and other movies) must engage with the powerful emotional devices and images created by cinema.  Images that have been developed over the years, to which audiences are finely attuned, and which carry messages without the obviousness of the printed page, but often with greater power and effectively.

Produced by Tri-Star Pictures. Director Edward Zwick. Screenplay Kevin Jarre, based on the book Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirsten, and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard.

Cinematography Freddie Francis. Production designer Norman Garwood. Music James Horner. Sound Design Lon E. Bender. Editor Steven Rosenblum.

In Technicolor, 133 minutes, Certificate 15 in UK. 


The above article was written shortly after the original release of the film. Recently I came across a book that deals with some of these issues in relation to Glory and other films set during the Civil War. It is however a fairly academic tome, including using the specialised language of the discipline.

American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film, Trevor B, McCrisjen and Andrew Pepper, Edinburgh University Press 2005, Chapter 3 Hollywood’s Civil War dilemma: to imagine or unravel the nation? Gettysburg: Glory: Ride With the Devil: Cold Mountain.


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