Monthly Archives: February 2013

Here’s the bibliography that goes along with our Western film class, ’cause movies seem smart when books are backing them up:




Some of these texts predate, sometimes far predate the settling of the North American West as we presently know it, or at least as we try to know it.  Others are happening at the same times as Conquest and Colonialism, but they are taking place elsewhere, as it were.  Still, for all of the diversity of setting, classic Western ideas, icons and issues very much pertain.   

  1. Aesop, Fables
  2. Andersen, The Snow Queen/The Bog King’s Daughter/The Ice Maiden
  3. Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh
  4. Ballantyne, The Coral Island
  5. Bronte, C., Jane Eyre
  6. Bronte, E., Wuthering Heights
  7. Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
  8. Cooper, The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans
  9. Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
  10. Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
  11. Euripides, trans. Teevan, Bacchai
  12. Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  13. Hamilton, Mythology
  14. Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  15. Heaney, trans., Beowulf
  16. Hesiod, Works and Days
  17. Homer, trans. Fitzgerald, The Odyssey
  18. Hughes, trans./ad., Tales from Ovid
  19. Ibsen, An Enemy of the People
  20. Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha
  21. Marco Polo, Travels
  22. Melville, Typee, Moby Dick, Benito Cereno, Billy Budd
  23. Scott, Waverly, Rob Roy
  24. Shakespeare, Macbeth, The Tempest
  25. Shelley, Frankenstein
  26. Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
  27. Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days
  28. Voltaire, Candide



Print the legend, they say.  Try to print the story too, though.  Again, the West, defined broadly.

  1. Abbey, Desert Solitaire
  2. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses
  3. Austin, The Land of Little Rain, Lost Borders
  4. Bashō, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  5. Berton, Klondike, The National Dream/The Last Spike
  6. Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks
  7. Boswell, Journal of the Tour to the Hebrides
  8. Cabeza de Vaca, Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition
  9. Carr, Klee Wyck
  10. Chatwin, In Patagonia
  11. Clappe (Dame Shirley), The Shirley Letters
  12. Cooper, Grass
  13. Cruise and Griffiths, The Great Adventure: How the Mounties Conquered the West
  14. Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
  15. Doig, This House of Sky
  16. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
  17. Facey, A Fortunate Life
  18. Franklin, Autobiography
  19. Greene, Another Mexico (The Lawless Roads)
  20. Grove, Over Prairie Trails
  21. Herr, Dispatches
  22. Hopkins, Life Among the Piutes
  23. Houston, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller
  24. Kincaid, A Small Place
  25. Klein, Woody Guthrie
  26. León-Portilla, The Broken Spears
  27. Leopold, Sand County Almanac
  28. Lewis and Clark, Journals
  29. Lopez, Of Wolves and Men
  30. Love, Life and Adventures of Nat Love
  31. Mackenzie (Alexander), Journals
  32. MacLean, St. Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World
  33. Madsen, Growing Up in Zion
  34. Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush
  35. Muir, The Mountains of California, My First Summer in the Sierras
  36. Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars
  37. Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest
  38. Snyder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems
  39. Starkell, Paddle to the Amazon
  40. Stegner, Wolf Willow
  41. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  42. Thoreau, Walden
  43. Traill, The Backwoods of Canada
  44. Twain, Roughing It
  45. Van Dyke, Nature for its Own Sake, The Desert
  46. Whitman, Walt Whitman/Song of Myself
  47. Wiebe, Of This Earth
  48. Williams, Refuge: an Unnatural History of Time and Place



Western, or Western-like discourse, taking place around the time that films are a-forming.  Again, though the sources vary, the issues really do cohere.

  1. Barrie, Peter Pan
  2. Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  3. Cather, O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, Death Comes to the Archbishop
  4. Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
  5. Christie, And Then There Were None
  6. Colum, The Children’s Homer
  7. Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
  8. Connor, Glengarry School Days
  9. Conrad, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness
  10. Drummond, The Habitant, and Other French-Canadian Poems
  11. Fisher, Children of God, Mountain Men
  12. Forster, A Passage to India
  13. Franklin, My Brilliant Career
  14. Garland, Main-Travelled Roads
  15. Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
  16. Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Vanishing American
  17. Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
  18. Jackson, Ramona
  19. Johnson, Flint and Feather
  20. Kipling, The Jungle Books
  21. Lewis, Main Street
  22. Lindsay, The Magic Pudding
  23. London, The Sea Wolf
  24. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
  25. Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence
  26. May, Winnetou
  27. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
  28. Norris, McTeague, The Octopus
  29. Service, The Shooting of Dan McGrew and Other Poems
  30. Somerville, Some Experiences of an Irish RM
  31. Stevenson, The Beach of Falesa, The Ebb-Tide
  32. Stoker, Dracula
  33. Turner, Seven Little Australians
  34. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
  35. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  36. Wister, The Virginian
  37. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight


Classicism, modernity:

Some of these books are aware of the Western, others are independent of classic or revisionist cinematic statements that are being made at the same time.  Still, migration and settlement, conquest and vanquishment, optimism and the sneaking suspicion that something is not right …

  1. Anand, Untouchable
  2. Anderson, Thieves Like Us
  3. Brand, Destry Rides Again
  4. Buck, The Good Earth
  5. Burnford, The Incredible Journey
  6. Camus, The Plague
  7. Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident
  8. Greene, The Power and the Glory
  9. Grey Owl, Sajo and the Beaver People
  10. Gunn, Highland River
  11. Guthrie, The Big Sky, The Way West
  12. Hammett, Red Harvest
  13. Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea
  14. Herbert, Dune
  15. Hilton, Lost Horizon
  16. Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica
  17. LeMay, The Searchers
  18. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet
  19. Lindgren, Pippi in the South Seas
  20. Lofting, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle
  21. Lowry, Under the Volcano
  22. Matheson, I Am Legend
  23. McKenzie, Whisky Galore
  24. McNickle, The Surrounded
  25. Mowat, Lost in the Barrens, Never Cry Wolf
  26. O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins
  27. Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country
  28. Scarborough, The Wind
  29. Schaefer, Shane
  30. Shute, A Town Like Alice
  31. Stafford, The Mountain Lion
  32. Steinbeck, Pastures of Heaven, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row
  33. Tolkien, The Hobbit
  34. Traven, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Bridge and the Jungle
  35. West, Day of the Locust
  36. Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy
  37. Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  38. Whipple, The Giant Joshua



All the foregoing, happening in the more or less, or at least the historical present:

  1. Achebe, Things Fall Apart
  2. Adams, Watership Down
  3. Alexie, Reservation Blues, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  4. Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima
  5. Atwood, Surfacing
  6. Banks, The Indian in the Cupboard
  7. Berger, Little Big Man
  8. Blunt, Forty Words for Sorrow
  9. Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
  10. Card, Ender’s Game
  11. Carey, The True Story of the Kelly Gang
  12. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
  13. Dahl, The BFG
  14. Desai, Village by the Sea
  15. DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers
  16. Dexter, Deadwood
  17. Durham, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing
  18. Erdrich, Love Medicine
  19. George, My Side of the Mountain
  20. Golding, Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors
  21. Heinlein, Farmer in the Sky, Starship Troopers
  22. Herriot, If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet
  23. Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead
  24. Hulme, The Nun’s Story
  25. Jansson, Moominpappa at Sea, The Summer Book
  26. Kelton, The Good Old Boys
  27. Kerouac, On the Road
  28. Kincaid, Annie John
  29. Kinsella, The Moccasin Telegraph, The Fencepost Chronicles
  30. Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey
  31. Lee, To Kill a Mockinbird
  32. Leonard, Hombre, Valdez is Coming
  33. Mackay Brown, Magnus
  34. MacLachlan, Sarah, Plain and Tall
  35. MacLeod, No Great Mischief
  36. McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
  37. McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  38. McMurtry, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove
  39. Mitchell, Jake and the Kid, Who Has Seen the Wind
  40. Momaday, House Made of Dawn
  41. Moore, Black Robe
  42. Morrison, Beloved
  43. Paulsen, Hatchet, Brian’s Winter
  44. Peterson, The Backslider
  45. Portis, True Grit
  46. Pratchett, Nation
  47. Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
  48. Robinson, Housekeeping
  49. Silko, Ceremony
  50. Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  51. Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Angle of Repose, The Spectator Bird
  52. Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet
  53. Thompson, Pop. 1280
  54. Toews, A Complicated Kindness
  55. Welch, Fools Crow
  56. Wiebe, The Temptations of Big Bear

The House is Black
Iran, 1963
by Forugh Farrokhzad


In which the commercial feature film finally crumbles into superfluity and irrelevance.  How can one think of box office or the fickle fan in the face of such awe-inspiration?  You certainly can’t imagine Farrokhzad caring about such trivialities.  That’s for cultural and historical reasons, but not only.  Her view here is unflinching and empathetic, her method is bold and express-train irresistible.  Maybe a train is the wrong analogy.  A mountain?  As with the entire career of, say, Colin Low, this suggests that we’ve all had it all wrong, for the whole time.

The House is Black is equally, confidently an activist documentary and an art-cinematic, poetical prayer.  Form and content are in perfect, classical balance.  The facts of the case are captured with utter sharpness and clarity, while the unique organizing sensibility—wrote, directed, and edited!—shapes and elaborates in ways that are positively dizzying.  It’s visually reminiscent of Eisenstein (Old and New, for instance) and later Welles (The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, and maybe a bit of It’s All True).  But with regard to the poetry (a challenge for the westerner), as well as the seeming performances, the blazing authenticities she gets out of these social actors, this is reminiscent of nothing and nobody.  It’s not a pity that she never made a feature film, because this bears no resemblance to the feature film world.  It’s certainly regrettable that she died so early—of course—and that she was never able to give us something more in this unique voice.  But is this like Wuthering Heights, or Black Beauty, or To Kill a Mockingbird?  Apologies to Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando—this is surely the greatest film ever made by a person that never went on to make another.

Once again, an essay that appears in The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge, 2005.

City of Gold (Canada, 1957)

The National Film Board of Canada’s City of Gold (1957) is one of the most celebrated short films ever produced, and one of the most decorated.  Its numerous international awards, as well as its influence on the historical documentary and on noted contemporary filmmakers, testify of its real merits and innovations.  The use and frequent mention of these endorsements by commentators and distributors alike says a great deal about the present status of the subsidized documentary film within an increasingly commercial global film economy.  The substance beneath the ad copy suggests the continued validity and importance of this beleaguered kind of production.

City of Gold relates the history of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush.  The origins of the film lie in the 1949 discovery of several hundred Klondike era photographs in Dawson City, Yukon Territories.  These images, preserved on 8X10 glass plate negatives, had been stored and forgotten in a sod roof cabin, and were only found by chance upon its demolition.  They were largely the work of A.E. Hegg, an American photo-journalist and entrepeneur, who captured the ferment of the Gold Rush with extraordinary vividness.

In ensuing years, through numerous means, these remarkable images attained wide circulation.  In 1955 Board director and animator Colin Low saw them at Ottawa’s National Archive.  He had been working on a Gold Rush project, and saw quickly that these photographs might provide his film’s centre.  The challenge for Low and his collaborators was how to render this windfall of static imagery in some kind of dynamic cinematic fashion.

The solution to this problem came in the form of a mechanism devised by Roman Kroitor and Brian Salt, which enabled Low and co-director Wolf Koenig to plot and execute the most minute camera movements with complete precision, and to explore their fixed images with unprecedented flexibility and fluidity.  It is for this innovation that City of Gold is most cited today, but the film would doubtless remain a mere technical footnote were it not for the material that the machine served, and the sensibilities that informed its arrangement and presentation.

Low and Koenig were the film’s directors, but City of Gold is definitively a collaboration.  In its production there was a democratization of roles and relationships and a neutralization of film elements, resulting in an impressively integrated work of art and information.  These characteristics and qualities were strongly associated with the Board’s legendary Unit B, of which City of Gold is perhaps the most famous product.  In the ideal Unit B production the ego of individualism was subordinated to the needs and values of the creative community, and, as behooved a publicly funded institution, of the larger community the creators served.  The idea and actuality of Unit B at the Film Board was not without contradiction and controversy, or romanticization.  Still with this film, and with many others besides, the ideal and the real seem to have been substantially correlated.

This culture of collaboration hearkens back to the early days of the British documentary movement, but City of Gold features refinements matched by few EMB and GPO productions.  It is extraordinarily well made.  There is a telling tension between the stasis of present-day Dawson, as illustrated by the film’s live action prologue and epilogue, and the dynamism of the still photographs that preserve the vivid past.  The contrast is emphasized by the exquisite transitions between the two periods.  Much of the credit for this seamless assembly goes to editor—and Unit B head—Tom Daly.

Daly has mentioned that the edges of the photographs were never shown, leaving audiences with the illusion of extended offscreen spaces.  This quality had been integral to realist filmmaking for some time, but what was remarkable was how that space operated in a photographed context.  As Erik Barnouw observed, it was not only space that was expanded in City of Gold, but time as well.  The vividness of the images, and the superb coordination of their rendering, opened up the documentary film to the times and events that pre-dated it.

Some of the credit for this must also go to Eldon Rathburn’s superb score, as adventurous and important in its way as the work of Virgil Thomson with Pare Lorentz, or Hanns Eisler with Alain Resnais.  The immediacy of the historical is also aided by the film’s narration, co-written and delivered by Pierre Berton, a Dawson native who was on the brink of becoming Canada’s most prolific and popular historian.  The voice that he presents, that of the native son who did his homework, combines the scholar’s rigour with the citizen’s affection and commitment.  This combination communicates a concrete sense of past realities as well as a clear sense of their relevance to the present.

Low and Koenig’s film appears at an important juncture in the development of the North, and in the Canadian identity as it related thereto.  It had ever been a place with a “silence that bludgeons you dumb” (Robert Service), and dire notions of the inhospitable and the impossible had long pervaded northern representations.  Inevitably these pictures had affected the perceptions and self-concept of the nation as a whole.  But competing voices had also spoken for the necessity, even the inevitability of successful community in this savage environment.  In the light of more recent events (the Leduc oil strike of 1947, the subsequent establishment of the Canadian pipeline system, the opportunity this opened for the airing of native grievances, the dissemination of native cultural ideas and aspirations) this idea had assumed even greater importance.  For the sake of its own economic and social development, there was need for a more nuanced, more optimistic view of the region.

In telling its story then, City of Gold filled a number of present needs, and it continues to resonate in more contemporary contexts.  In parallel to the organization that produced it, the film recalls how individual pursuit within a strong community has led to great prosperity in the midst of environmental and geographical constraint.  It presents a model for peaceful relations between Americans and Canadians, in which the values of both sides are defended and combined to greatest mutual advantage.  It affirms the importance of history’s obscure, for whom difficulties are assured—we do not always find the gold which we seek—but whose flexibility and decency in the face of inevitable frustration presents a worthy model for living, and for representing life.

City of Gold (Canada, National Film Board, Unity B, 22 minutes).  Produced by Tom Daly.  Directed by Wolf Koenig and Colin Low.  Commentary by Pierre Berton and Stanley Jackson.  Narration by Pierre Berton.  Location camera by Wolf Koenig and Colin Low.  Animation camera by Douglas Roberts.  Music by Eldon Rathburn.  Editing by Tom Daly.  Sound by George Croll.  Filmed in Dawson City, Yukon Territories.

Further Reading:

Berton, Pierre, The Mysterious North, Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1954

Berton Pierre, Klondike, Toronto: McLelland & Stuart, 1958

Evans, Gary, In the National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989, Toronto, University of Toronto Press

Grey Owl, Tales of an Empty Cabin, Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1998

Houston, James, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1995

James, C. Rodney, Film as a National Art: NFB of Canada and the Film Board Idea, New York: Arno Press, 1977

Jones, D.B., Movies and Memoranda: an Interpretive History of the National Film Board of Canada, Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 1981

Jones, D.B., The Best Butler in the Business: Tom Daly of the National Film Board of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996

London, Jack, Klondike Tales, New York: Modern Library, 2001

Service, Robert, The Shooting of Dan McGrew and Other Poems, New York: Dover, 1993

These two essays appear in The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge, 2005.

Churchill’s Island (Canada, 1941)

Churchill’s Island is primarily remembered as the first National Film Board of Canada production to win an Academy Award (best documentary, 1941).  But it is not so much its acceptance by the commercial mainstream as its departure from that mainstream’s discursive conventions and institutional presuppositions that makes the film historically significant and of some continuing interest.  Churchill’s Island marks the visible beginning of a Canadian film alternative to industrial Hollywood, and an extension and elaboration of the documentary idea to new national circumstances and possibilities.

In the early years of its existence the Board’s founder and first commissioner, John Grierson, discovered that much of his time was occupied by administrative and political duties.  As a result, much of the responsibility for day to day producing and mentoring fell to Stuart Legg, a Grierson recruit from the days of the Empire Marketing Board. Legg was particularly noted for his subtle grasp of public, political, and as he would increasingly demonstrate, geopolitical issues.  As head of production, he would explore these topics with great distinction through the Board’s flagship wartime series, Canada Carries On (of which Churchill’s Island was an early entry) and The World in Action.

The March of Time was an acknowledged influence on the Canadian series.  Legg was impressed by the quality of its reporting, its concision and cinematic craft.  For the task at hand however, Legg and his collaborators were anxious to move beyond the entertaining reportage so often characteristic of the existing newsreels.  Propaganda played a role in this decision.  The United States was still officially neutral toward the European conflict, and so the Board series had a great gap to fill in informing and motivating its domestic audiences.

Churchill’s Island is a vivid response to this challenge.  The film, which recounts the details of Britain’s home defense against the Nazis, is completely compiled from the Board’s extensive stock library.  Future Board stalwart Tom Daly was largely responsible for maintaining this library.  His seemingly complete recall of its holdings would make him increasingly central to the compilation films that would make up a good portion of the Board’s early output.  Daly has ascribed much of their motivational success to Legg’s principle of “waves,” which was that sequences were to rise to a climax and then diminish, before the next sequence came along and increased the intensity.  The emotional results are still clear in Churchill’s Island, in which the high stakes, the national peril and the national opportunity, are quite palpable.

Although there were motivational (and manipulative) imperatives, Legg also intended to move his films toward the depth and breadth of the best investigative journalism.  In Churchill’s Island this deepening process is visibly well underway.  There is a conceptual, even dialectical element to the film that was emblematic of the innovations and elaborations that Legg and his newsreel collaborators would develop throughout the war period.  In addition to emotional appeal, there is a constant illumination of causal chains, a setting forth of the tactical and strategic elements of the conflict.

Legg introduces us to the main participants and the key processes, insuring not only sympathetic identification, but also understanding.  The exposition discusses varying threats of invasion, the defensive responses thereto, and over all, the abiding courage and leavening influence of Britain’s everyday army.  These three elements recur through what are essentially the film’s three acts.  The first gives an account of the Blitz, for which Legg takes a characteristic retrospective turn.  He reviews the causes and conditions of the German action to that point, thus insuring that the emotional audience member always remains historically oriented. Next we witness the Royal Air Force’s defense of Britain’s skies, and, from the Nazi perspective, the German blockade that was devised in response.  During this second act there is a clear discussion of the tactics of the U-boats, and a frank admission of the great cost of their activities.  There is also a clear message, quite common in this period (cf. London Can Take It, Foreign Correspondent, etc.), to the neutral Americans.  With the rising toll of sinkings, the ever more bold encroachments toward North American soil, it is intimated that no one is safe, and no one can remain neutral.

In keeping with Grierson’s instruction that these films be “truthful, but not defeatist,” these warnings give way to an expression of gratitude for help rendered, and confidence for the future.  The U-boats are on the run, and even as the third act outlines and then just slightly glosses over the possibilities of and preparations against a possible land invasion, the film moves toward a stirring, even pugnacious climax.  As the last wave crashes we hear narrator Lorne Greene’s mighty challenge to the Nazis to “come…if you dare!”  This justifiably famous conclusion remains extraordinarily powerful.

Churchill’s Island was a great success.  Along with the practically prophetic War Clouds in the Pacific (November 1941), it facilitated the remarkable access that Board newsreels would have not only to Canadian audiences, but to screens in the United States as well.  Although that access would continue, the tone of the newsreels would be altered.  Wartime propaganda under Legg would further shift from the emotional and the partisan, however justifiable these things may have been at the time, to a more global, humanitarian approach.  In this endeavor Legg’s sensibilities coincided with one of Grierson’s most important convictions, which was that wartime films were also a preparation for peacetime, and that an awareness and anticipation of the needs of peacetime were essential to their successful execution.  In this we can see that the Board’s activities strongly prefigured the international role that Canada, and Canada’s documentary films, would assume in the decades after the war.

As Aristotle had suggested in another context (Poetics, chapter 4), it is only in action that character is revealed.  It can be argued that during the war, as well as in the period of Pearsonian diplomacy that followed, Canadians stopped their customary agonizing about who they were and started pitching in, and so came to know and to be themselves, at least for awhile.  If this is true then it was substantially through the Board’s auspices that this happened.  In their wartime activity the filmmakers, and the public whom they served, shared a sense of urgency and purpose.  In so sharing they revealed to each other how anxious engagement in a goodly cause left Canadians with a fully constituted identity.

Churchill’s Island (Canada, National Film Board, 21 minutes).  Produced, directed and edited by Stuart Legg.  Commentary by Stuart Legg.  Narration by Lorne Greene.  Music by Lucio Agostini.  Sound by Walter Darling.  Research by Tom Daly.

Aitken, Ian, Film and Reform, London: Routledge, 1990

Aitken, Ian, The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998

Ellis, Jack C., John Grierson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000

Evans, Gary, John Grierson and the National Film Board, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986

Evans, Gary, In the National Interest: a Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991

Grierson, John, Grierson on Documentary, edited by Forsyth Hardy, London: Collins, 1946, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947; revised edition, London: Faber, 1966, New York: Praeger, 1971; abridged edition, Faber, 1979

Hardy, Forsyth, John Grierson: A Documentary Biography, London: Faber, 1979

James, C. Rodney, Film as a National Art: the NFB of Canada and the Film Board Idea, New York: Arno Press, 1977

Jones, D.B., The Best Butler in the Business: Tom Daly of the National Film Board of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Diary, London: Secker and Warburg, and New York: Hill and Wang, 1973

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975


The True Story of Lili Marlene (UK, 1944)

The True Story of Lili Marlene raises important questions relating not only to the films of Humphrey Jennings, but to the entire British documentary film movement, and indeed to any canonical hierarchy selected from a wider range of expression and discussion.  The films that we write about and remember contribute much to our critical attitudes and our historical understanding.  A closer look at the films that we have not remembered reminds us of how arbitrary the processes of selection and validation can be.

Discussions about the work of Humphrey Jennings have often proceeded in terms of masterpieces and also-rans, with the latter quickly disappearing from view.  Contemporary reports suggest that this division is rooted in the initial reactions to the various films.  The acknowledged masterpieces—Listen to Britain, I Was a Fireman (Fires Were Started) and A Diary for Timothy—were much remarked upon and generally, though not universally, appreciated from the start.  Some of the other films, less effective, or perhaps more elusive, also elicited immediate responses, which seem for the most part to have been quite a bit cooler.

The hardening of this division into a kind of received wisdom probably begins with Lindsay Anderson’s celebrated appreciation of Jennings’ work, which first appeared in Sight and Sound in 1954.  This critical eulogy, entitled “Only Connect,” is a superb piece of sympathetic criticism that is largely evaluative.  This is to say that Anderson is talking about good films and bad films, and that his judgments are based on criteria that are more personal than they are textual or historical.  The result is a critical position that is quite defensible without being quite comprehensive.

The Humphrey Jennings in Anderson’s portrait is an intellectual and a propagandist, one who in his finest work avoids, by his great humanity, the pitfalls so often associated with these parts.  The great films by this great artist avoid the elitist inaccessibility, the hectoring coercion to which intellectuals and propagandists are prone.  This is certainly a true likeness, or at least part of one, and through its continued inclusion (Lewis Jacobs, 1975, Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cousins, 1996) or reflection (Barnouw, Ellis, Barsam) in the most popular documentary anthologies and histories, it has become a matter of record.

In a survey sense this is as it should be, but connected to all this enthusiasm there has emerged a consistent and connected idea that appears even in the more specialized studies of Jennings’ work.  This idea is that the other, more complicated elements of Jennings’ personal and aesthetic makeup—the scholarly complexity, the intellectual’s irony, the surrealist’s awareness of the indeterminate—are not as easy to contain or to comprehend.  It is suggested that the films that are reflective of these less tractable qualities are less coherent, less representative, and finally, less useful.

The True Story of Lili Marlene is one of these films, and if its almost universal dismissal needs reconsidering, then its undoubted difficulties also need to be accounted for. Both its subject and treatment are unlikely: it traces the permutations of a sentimental German song, Lili Marlene, from its first appearance in the 1920’s, through its appropriation as part of the Nazi propaganda machine, to its final “capture” and recouping by the victorious allies.  Its careful juxtapositions and its telling use of music are typical of Jennings’ work, but the lack of a real protagonist, single or collective, the lack of a clearly unifying mood or message or even through line separate it from the best known and, most would say, the best of his films.

The record suggests that Jennings himself was frustrated during the film’s production, and not fully satisfied with the final result.  It is not coincidental that this frustration, the mixed feelings and lack of focus, would become the explicit subject of Jennings’ next film and last unequivocal success, A Diary for Timothy.  With regard to finding a place for Lili Marlene it could at the very least be argued that its production provided a refining space in which Jennings confronted and came to terms with his own confusions, the better to counsel with and console his countrymen in their own.

But Lili Marlene also has merit beyond its contribution to more acclaimed works. As with Jennings’ similarly underconsidered Eighty Days and The Silent Village (both 1943), in this film we see the intellectual emerging from beneath his propagandist’s banner.  If the results are uncertain then it is at least partly because Jennings is exploring new ground, both in representing the war and in critically questioning the documentary film’s place in that representation.

Lili Marlene reveals much about the conflict during late 1943 and early 1944, as well as the state of the nation and its citizens.  With the tide having turned and victory becoming a real possibility, the need for unambiguously reassuring propaganda gave way and made room for admissions of doubt and vulnerability, for searching and questioning.  If Eighty Days hints at how bewildered and broken the victims of German bombings must have been, even in the days when London was proclaiming how well it could take it, then Lili Marlene reaffirms the common ground—humanity, sentimentality and sentiment, susceptibility to suggestion—that all of the combatants shared.

But it is particularly in exploring that susceptibility, in turning its gaze upon its own workings, that Lili Marlene marks an advance, however tentative, in the history and maturing of the documentary film, most particularly in Britain.  The elusiveness of its story suggests that story is only the ostensible subject, a means to investigate the rhetorical and ideological underpinnings of our unquestioned communications.  Its formal and narrative strategies, its much criticized unconventionality and artificiality all inhibit conventional illusion and identification, allowing for and even demanding a deeper intellectual engagement.  This is not a propaganda film so much as it is a film about propaganda.

The True Story of Lili Marlene raises the possibility that there is a substantial neutrality in the songs, stories, ideas, and representations that we take to heart and take for granted.  It is no wonder then that a wartime film about propaganda’s neutral nature, its susceptibility to tone and context, a film which exposes the workings of narrativity by tracing the history of a not-so-Nazi air did not quite motivate the masses like the standard words for battle. These many years later such notions are familiar, and just as disconcerting.  Jennings’ neglected film deserves credit and attention for its contribution to this current and always relevant discussion.

The True Story of Lili Marlene (UK, Crown Film Unit, 30 minutes).  Produced by J.B. Holmes.  Direction and Script by Humphrey Jennings.  Narration by Marius Goring.  Cinematography by Henry “Chick” Fowle.  Music by Dennis Blood, directed by Muir Mathieson.  Editing by Sid Stone.  Sound by Ken Cameron.

Further Reading

Brecht, Bertolt, “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre,” in Brecht on Theatre, trans. and ed. by John Willett, New York, Hill and Wang, 1957

Hodgkinson, Anthony W., and Sheratsky, Rodney E., Humphrey Jennings: More than a Maker of Films, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1982

Jackson, Kevin (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1993

Jacobs, Lewis (ed.), The Documentary Tradition, New York, Hopkinson and Blake, 1971

Jennings, Mary-Lou (ed.), Humphrey Jennings: Film-Maker, Painter, Poet, London, British Film Institute,1982

MacDonald, Kevin and Cousins, Mark, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, London, Faber, 1996

Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975

Winston, Brian, Claiming the Real, London, British Film Institute, 1995