May 20, 2008

Industrial Britain (1931)

Part of the recent 'Land of Promise' collection of 30s and 40s documentaries put out by the BFI and made by Robert Flaherty at the start of the British documentary movement of the 1930s and 1940s, Industrial Britain is a wonder to behold. Flaherty believed in a romantic ideal of work- an ideal that we have almost lost today- that work was the culmination of life. His craftsmen- and in this film every single worker is a craftsman- are the epitomy of what it is to be a real person. In a sense what Flaherty captures is not so much industrial Britain, as pre industrial Britain- in that he seeks to find amidst the industrial the remnants of the craftsman who can be happy with his skill, the man who is more than machine, who is an expert in his own craft. It is no surprise for example that he turns to look at men who make glass and pots as his exemplas of the way that industrial Britain is or rather the way it should be. What he captures though is important and it is a precious insight- his documentary is about the value of work, work should not be about going to an office for a day and coming back in the evening to earn a wage in what is ultimately boring, futile and soul destroying, such as the ancients or the early moderns would have described it is slavery. Provender, as Mark Anthony comments, is fitting reward for a horse but it is an insult to regard any person as a horse! Rather work in Flaherty's conception was noble, it was an endeavour that transcended its dull monotony- one might not know it but the work of a steel mill or a coal mine produced a ship, a speed record, a lighthouse, a railway track or the girder that held up a hotel roof.

Flaherty was a wonderful film maker as well as someone who had an insight into the way that what we might call the industrial aristocracy of England thought about their jobs. What I think he also conveyed was something that England as a country rather lacks today- the responsibility I hasten to add of a series of complicated social changes- which is an esteem for engineering and craftsmanship. What he manages to communicate in this film is why engineering is so wonderful: it is creation at its purest. He has a wonderful sequence in which he films the construction of a glass light for a railway- the workers puffing away- the fine tweezers which manipulate the glass and the fascinated and intent look of the craftsmen at their job. Another example is where he shows a potter moulding the clay- here the eyes of the young man are intent, his hands in sinc with each other as they caress the lines of the clay and move up and down, changing subtly its shape until it becomes something recognisable as a pot. His filming is impecable- it is hard to fault any part of it- the shots are well chosen- in a steel mill for example he captures the urgency with which the men shape the course of the steel into a mould- he focuses always inwards on the expressions of those working, on their faces, intent and concentrated staring at their product.

He does romanticise, this is not the kind of film produced later in the decade which highlighted the suffering of those that worked in industrial Britain. Flaherty's workers are undeniably physically tried, in one remarkable sequence he takes us down into a coal pit where the miners are hewing out the coal with picks. The work is hard, arduous and back breaking: far removed in a sense from the glass work of the craftsmen. But he doesn't dwell on it. Rather for Flaherty the miracle is that despite the modernity of what these industries produce, ultimately it is human agency which determines their production. Coal has to be bludgeoned out of the rock, steel supervised, glass and clay shaped in order to produce what seem to us at the other end as purely mechanical productions. What he stresses is the effort, the sweat and the attention that went into the creation of industry in the modern era- and in his context the pride that also went into it, professional pride in creation. It is a part of the story that we often lose- we forget that the industrial revolutions of this and other countries depended and still depend on people doing difficult and hard jobs, and doing them well. Sometimes the part of the story that we seem to have lost is not so much the awareness of class struggle, as the awareness of the acheivement of craftsmen, engineers and manual workers. That's what Flaherty at the end of the day gets to, it is a call for recognition and a call for people to feel proud of their acheivements- the call for the Industrial Revolution to turn all men into craftsmen- if leaves an idealised picture partly because it seeks to transform the world into an ideal.

Looking back on Flaherty's film from this point in time, we can admire the photography, admire the filming and recognise that what he does is utter a call to recognise those, whose back breaking labour formed our modern world. Alongside the great scientists, great businessmen, great politicians, we shouldn't forget the great miners, great glassworkers, steelworkers and potters- our world was shaped by their hands.


James Hamilton said...

" should not be about going to an office for a day and coming back in the evening to earn a wage in what is ultimately boring, futile and soul destroying.." Thank heavens that isn't us, Gracchi! Have you seen Flaherty's film about life in the Scottish Western Isles? (I hope I've got that right..)

Ian Appleby said...

This not only expresses beautifully the subtext of what I have been stumbling to convey recently, namely the pride associated with heavy industry, it interrogates it perceptively.

The thing that strikes me is that this pride appears to persist in the area much longer after the actual industry itself has disappeared. Is it somehow analagous to Nationalist pride in military prowess, that could have been shown centuries ago? It seems to draw on the same ideas of courage in the face of danger (as you hint, heavy industry was dangerous).

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

He does romanticise, this is not the kind of film produced later in the decade which highlighted the suffering of those that worked in industrial Britain.

Strangely, this was what I was thinking as I read down and then you wrote it.

Gracchi said...

These are perfect comments, thanks lads.

James I agree- I enjoy my present job and would hate to work hating it. I haven't seen that other film- I'd love to- if its ever on tell me and I sense a WW movie evening, actually I might do that soon anywya.

Ian yes yes and yes again- I think it does, also on the pride in the object and the skill learnt over time from fathers to sons, particularly with craft. There is a pride in being able to do or make something few others could do or make and part of that is the courage to confront the heavy machinery and dangerous conditions.

Thanks James