Appended is a PowerPoint presentation exploring how movies have sometimes both refleced and fed some myths about the Great War, the “war to end all wars”.
The cause of peace is not helped by bad history. This applies especially to World War One. A crop of anniversaries is reviving interest in the events of 1914-1918 and any ‘lessons’ it might teach. Care must be taken to avoid the crude stereotypes that circulate about it.
One obvious danger is historical anachronism, projecting back onto the Great War period, not least the political leaders and generals of the time, knowledge and values of the here and now that were not current then. The realities of the war took nearly everyone by surprise at the time and few knew how to respond strategically or tactically. Most things worked out very differently to what key decision-makers intended. There was much miscalculation about the responses others might make. A lot of writing on the Great War makes insufficient allowance for accident and contingency, relying too much on overly deterministic theories about the inevitability of imperialist war.
But we cannot duck the difficult issues of what to do when faced with a brutal and expansionist power as Imperial Germany certainly was. German war crimes in Belgium were not myth while Austria committed terrible atrocities in Serbia, though, for some reason, these are usually overlooked. German ‘scorched earth’ policy during the retreat to the Hindenburg Line was also extraordinarily destructive.
Britain in particular was faced with terrible choices, not least hostile occupation of Belgium and German seizure of large (and economically vital) chunks of France. It is wrong to simplify the options available. It seemed that victory on the western front was the only way forward (the Dardanelles option had proved a disaster) and that defensive operations would leave Germany sitting on her conquests.
Ultimately, of course, it was the sea blockade that broke that back of Germany and Austria on the home front, though it must be said that death by starvation is not much better than death in battle. Indeed, by winter 1917 there were mass strikes in Germany due to the effects of the blockade. But there was not obvious at the time that the blockage alone would suffice. So land campaigns continued.
In a narrow sense the war was not ‘futile’ since the allied side, leaving aside its motivations and goals, scored a resounding victory. Thus in the seocnd half of 1918 the German army suffered a crushing defeat, a reality later shrouded in the self-serving mythology of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ spread by the Nazis and other reactionary forces. Similarly the Versailles Peace Treaty was not especially punitive as such settlements go, though it fatefully failed to translate the big talk about self-determination into consistent practice. In doing so, it created a whole series of powder kegs waiting to explode.
Contrary to another common stereotype, the death rate at the front, though certainly terrible, was no worse than in most wars (it is camouflaged in World War 2 by the far higher % of non-combat troops – that war was sometimes far more lethal than WW1 for those at the ‘cutting edge’). Indeed, the most lethal of all wars were (in comparative population terms) in the hunter-gatherer societies, as Steven Pinker and others have shown, though much of the killing took place not in big battles but in murderous raids and ambushes.
Things must be put in proper perspective. It is not surprising that the first day of the 1916 Somme offensive gets so much attention. Yet the ‘frontier’ battles of autumn 1914 were more lethal while the death rate in 1918 was higher than in 1916, something commonly ignored.
Another stereotype is ‘lions led by donkeys’. A handful of British generals were incompetent, most were average and some were brilliant. It is remarkable than, within two years of the Somme disaster, British generals had fashioned a war-winning machine. Germany was decisively defeated. That could not have been done by ‘donkeys’.
Furthermore, the Somme campaign did break the German army. It never really recovered and only fought on because of the influx of troops released by the Bolshevik withdrawal from the war. Meanwhile, most British prisoners apparently thought that Britain had won the battle, according to German source material.
Interestingly in the dark days of early 1918, despite all the war-weariness, recruitment and industrial production went up in Britain while the strike rate went down. It might also be remembered that it was the working class poor who most benefited from the war. Many were actually not fit enough to fight but they were able to get what for them were really well paid jobs in the munitions factories. There was, at the same time, strong oppostion in some quarters to the whole war drive, though at time it was intertwined with other issues such as the ‘dilution’ of skilled labour and high rents. In other words there was more diversity of experience and opinion that is sometimes recognised in broad brush pictures of the ‘working class’ or the ‘labour movement’.
In terms of the fighting itself, the key problem for the generals was lack of direct communication with the front line and their unfamiliarity with new technologies such as the tank and the aeroplane. The high death rate amongst senior officers undermines the stereotype of armchair generals sipping wine back at the chateau and callously sacrificing their troops. The average life expectancy of a British lieutenant was in fact around 6 weeks, far shorter than that of any other social group (most of these officers were ex-public school boys). In any case, other armies had far more ‘donkeys’. Look at the ‘kindermord’ at Ypres in 1914. However few ‘excelled’ the disastrous Italian campaigns on the Isonzo front. Yet a lot of ‘pop’ history seems to slag off only British generals (‘Oh What a Lovely War’, etc)
It might also be remembered that pro-war poetry quantitatively exceeded that from anti-war poets (Owen etc). Indeed such famous critics of the war as Owen and Sassoon voluntarily went back to the front, the latter well known for his enthusiasm for killing Germans (“mad Jack” was his nickname). Censored letters overwhelmingly reveal an attitude of ‘we’ve got to see it through’. Deep disllusionment really spread when hopes for the post-war period turned to dust.
In terms of films themselves, pro-war ones, and not just straight propaganda products, outnumber anti-war ones, most of which came later when the disappointments and frustrations of the 1920s decisively turned opinion against the war (futile sacrifice etc.). Until then, now reviled figures such as General Haig had actually been very popular public figures. There are plenty of other stereotypes e.g. the ones in the film ‘Gallipoli’ which ignores the role of UK troops and treats ANZAC soldiers as the same (New Zealander soldiers were quite different to Australian ones).
Similarly the ‘German’ army was very diverse. Allied troops were keenly aware that units from some parts of the then comparatively new Germany were far less combative than others. The Italian army was so diverse that many soldiers went to their deaths not knowing what orders had just been given such were the language barriers within ‘Italy’.
Overall, we need to avoid the crude (if very funny) stereotypes of, say, ‘Blackadder’.
The real lessons of WW1 are
- do not create tinder boxes,
- do not throw around matches and
- build institutions for conflict-resolution and peace-building
It might also be argued that though ‘Balkanisation’ has its risks and that small wars can be very vicious, it is the existence of big political units that really threatens the common good whern they start threatening each other. It is not so much that small is inevitably beautiful but, rather, than big will be a lot worse when it turns ugly.
It is well worth catching up with the remarkable drama ‘Reg’ first screened by the BBC. This review in the Guardian gives a fair flavour:
It was one of the best TV plays I’ve seen for years. I may be biased since I find Tony Blair more loathsome than Margaret Thatcher. At least she was honest about her intentions and did not seek to make line her pockets on Blair’s prodigious scale, one that renders words like ‘greedhead’ inadequate. So a programme about a campaign to unseat Blair held special interest.
The script did not make clear who, apart from unnamed Labour MPs, initiated the attempt to kick out Blair. Apparently, former ‘Monty Python’ actor Terry Jones was one of the first possible candidates (https://newint.org/…/2015/05/07/reg-keys-against-tony-blair/). Given that Keys was the main character and that Tim Roth gave such a comnpelling portrayal of him, such absences were not too critical.
The drama did spotlight the celebrities such as Frederick Forsyth and Martin Bell who came to help Keys. Missing were those Labour and trade unionists who backed him. It must have cost them dearly in terms of personal friendships. That said, there is only so much a play can cover without losing coherence and focus.
Apart from the Keys family, the main character was former Labour MP Bob Clay who acted as the election agent and campaign organiser for Keys. This gave the play added appeal since we used to share a house with Clay in the late 1970s (when he was known as ‘Rob’, a bit less proletarian than ‘Bob’). The representation of Rob-Bob in the play accorded with my experiences of him.
Bob Clay had been the organiser for a quasi-Trotskyist grouplet called the International Socialists on Teesside. At that time, I was also a member of the IS but here in Newcastle. We and others such as Roger Protz (later of CAMRA fame) were expelled for opposing the sudden change to a Leninist-style organisation [For political necrophiliacs, this sorry story is entertainingly, if bitterly, told here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/…/locust/chap13.htm].
Bob had shown himself to be a very gifted organiser with a keen eye for what needed to be done and how it might be best accomplished. This came across strongly in the “Reg’ play. What does not come across (and it was irrelevant to the story anyway) were the common downsides to such skills.
Such people are often prone to sudden whims regarding what they convince themselves are great opportunities. Once their minds are made up, it is extremely hard to change them. Worse and particularly true of Bob’s case, they tend to see the world in binary terms: you are either totally in agreement with what they are doing or you are an enemy. To that extent, they can become wreckers, causing harmful, rancorous and often actually quite unnecessary divisions. Any organisation appointing full- or part-time organisers really does need to be on its guard about what they might get.
The depressing thing about the Reg Keys story was that he only came fourth in the General Election. Sedgefield had plenty of people who did not like Blair for one reason or another. But such is the mind-numbing effect of ‘Labourism’ that such people still turn up as sheep to vote for Blair and his ilk.
Bob is apparently now a Labour councillor in Swansea. Presumably he is singing that tired old song of changing the Labour Party from the inside. It has been tried umpteen times and each time the effort came to nothing. In some ways, the ‘Labour Left’ is like the Bourbon Kings of France of whom it was said that they learned nothing and forgot nothing. But, with Momentum, people are trying yet again, It is the Labour of Sisyphus. It also hinders the emergence of a genuinely radical and relevant politics for our times.
Hark when the night is falling
Hear! hear the pipes are calling,
Loudly and proudly calling,
Down thro’ the glen.
There where the hills are sleeping,
Now feel the blood a-leaping,
High as the spirits
of the old Highland men.
Towering in gallant fame,
Scotland my mountain hame,
High may your proud
standards gloriously wave,
Land of my high endeavour,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart for ever,
Scotland the brave.
High in the misty Highlands,
Out by the purple islands,
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies.
Wild are the winds to meet you,
Staunch are the friends that greet you,
Kind as the love that shines
So goes the well-known song Scotland the Brave, an old tune but with lyrics from the 1950s. It reflects some popular images of Scotland: dramatic mountains and glens, peopled by brave and loyal men, rallying to the sound of bagpipes. Another song calls them the “flower of Scotland” who can rise and “be a nation again”.
Perhaps other images are being triggered: misty lochs, romantic castles, clans and tartans. It is likely to be a largely rural landscape, one dotted with remote crofts and small villages. Above the mountains and glens soar golden eagles and on them stand noble-looking stags. In lower pastures wander Highland cattle, rather hairy creatures with threatening horns. There may even be the odd haggis running around. Mention must be made of the local tipple: a wee dram or more of whisky. The there are the locals, prone to expressions like “hoots mon”.
Such songs are but one of many ways in which pictures are painted, literally and metaphorically, of Scotland, its land and people. Music (from compositions like Hamish MacCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood to performers like Jimmy Shand or the Alexander Brothers), paintings (see Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen), statues (from Stirling’s William Wallace to the Greyfriar’s Bobby in Edinburgh), artefacts chosen in museums, displays at historical sites, literature (from ‘classic literature like Sir Walter Scott to modern crime writers such as Ian Rankin), comics and strip cartoons (Oor Wullie and The Broons), music hall and stage shows (Harry Lauder etc), broadcast news and documentaries, radio and television entertainment shows, even images on ‘shortcake’ biscuit tins and whisky bottles give, in a word, a ‘representation’ of Scots, their character, history, culture and the land they inhabit. These images are very popular, which is, of course, why advertisers use them. (See: http://www.visit4info.com/static/advert_pages/17919.cfm?back_page=6.cfm , for example)
They create images of what Scotland’s landscape looks like as well as paint a picture of many features of human society, from male / females roles to patterns of employment. They build a story of the country’s past and of its present condition. They also suggest ideas not just about Scotland but also its relationship with its neighbours, most of all England. Last but not least such images change. The Scotland depicted in the novels of Irvine Welsh is rather different to that in the works of Sir Walter Scott. But there also many continuities. At times, old and new representations sit side by side, as in the TV adverts put out by the Scottish Tourist Board (one example can be tasted at http://adventure.visitscotland.com/157769 ).
This study will focus on the different ways in which the film industry and specific movies have shaped perceptions of Scotland and ‘Scottishness’. In doing so, it will comment on angles such as social class, gender, and sub-regional identities, including the big city compared to small town and countryside. It will also being exploring whether there is such a thing as ‘Scottish cinema’ that can be discussed in the same way as the national cinemas of, say, France or Japan.
Such questions are part of the wider debate about national identity and, conversely, global cultural homogenisation and ‘placelessness’. In the case of Scotland, a degree of political devolution to the comparatively new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has raised further issues about the nature of the ‘United’ Kingdom and its future prospects. Such matters cannot be separated from the role of the European Union and its centralising tendencies.
The focus is film and of course Hollywood has long ruled the roost here. As with the proliferation of American programmes on British TV screens and those of many other countries around the world, cinema acts a conduit for a certain set of values and a showcase for certain lifestyles. Distinctive local film industries struggle to survive. Scotland is unusual in that the last twenty years or so have witnessed a growth, not a decline, in the number of films that it would be hard imagine being made anywhere else but in Scotland.
Scotland the What?
There is, of course, no scientific definition of what constitutes a ‘Scot’. The emergence of the place we today call Scotland, has long and tangled roots. Words like Picts, Caledonians and Celts are used to describe certain ethnic groups that peopled the land in early times but there remains much uncertainty about their nature. In any case, many other ethnic groups have joined the mix since. The very boundaries of this Scotland have changed as has its dominant language (most notably with the retreat of Gaelic to the north-west margins). The authenticity of some popular icons of Scotland and ‘Scottishness’ is also strongly questioned. It is often claimed, for example, that the ‘traditional’ kilt is actually a 19th century concoction.
It must be remembered that, until quite recently, the lands to the north of today’s England-Scotland border were a comparatively unknown region to outsiders. The Highlands and Islands region was even more remote. The highly unusual nature of the famous tour by Dr Johnson and his companion Boswell in the late 18th century underlines the point. Only in recent decades have railways, motorways, and air flights put the country within easy reach. Even today, many people from outside the modern borders of Scotland still depend on the media for their knowledge of that land and its people.
There has also been a huge Diaspora of Scots around the world, especially as a result of the so-called Highland Clearances after the battle of Culloden in 1745. People with Scottish lineage in areas such as North America (where many place names mark that emigration) create a significant audience for media products that, accurately or not, tell stories about their forefathers and their times. Promoters of tourism similarly try to tap that market via the representations of Scotland their advertisements give.
But it should also be stressed that, no matter how Scotland is defined, it is land marked by much disunity. The infamous massacre of Glencoe was a slaughter of Scots by other Scots. Culloden, the last battle fought on British soil, is often portrayed as the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army by the English army but, in actuality, it was very much a civil war with many Scots fighting with the Hanoverian forces against the Jacobites. Such events point to a major fault line – physical, economic and cultural – between the Highlands and Islands on one hand and the Lowlands on the other.
But there is a case for seeing the Southern Uplands and Galloway to the south-west corner of Scotland as distinct regions in their right. The same goes for the region around Aberdeen in the NE. This author’s father was a Shetlander and many people on those northern isles see themselves as quite different to mainland Scots.
Such differences within ‘Scotland’ have been intensified by economic changes since the 18th century. The exploitation of the Lowlands coalfields, the explosive growth of industries like shipbuilding along the Clyde, the spread of the suburbs outwards from old city centres and, most recently, the tapping of North Sea oil have accentuated those older differences whilst creating new ones.
Religion is another divide. One expression is the rivalry in football between the Glaswegian teams Celtic (traditionally Catholic) and Rangers (Protestant). The history of Presbyterianism and especially the “Wee Frees” has reflected and encouraged a certain puritanical strain in Scottish life. The reputation and self-image as well as the real environment and people of individual cities also vary, most famously in the competition between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Socially, Scots are quite divided on class lines, from poor crofters to wealthy owners of giant country estates and from the unemployed of areas that have lost their old heavy industries to ‘yuppies’ found in converted town houses and new ‘loft living’ developments in certain areas such as Clydeside, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
Some areas, especially in the more remote countryside, are unbalanced in age terms with the loss of many young people to the bright lights of the cities. Yet, in such areas there are sometimes new incomers, often those buying up ‘rural retreats’. Mention has already been made of the Scottish economy. A major source of employment has long been the armed forces. Scottish regiments have long played a major part in British military history. The breaking up of some of these units has been particularly controversial of late.
But the biggest institutional change in recent years has been a degree of political devolution and the setting up of a separate Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. That said, some Scottish institutions, notable the education and legal system, have long been different to their cousins south of the border.
For all the cultural homogenisation that is taking place in this age of mass communications, extensive travel and globalised flows of trade, a Scottish accent still stands out. Landmarks such as Edinburgh Castle or stories about of the Loch Ness are well known far and wide. However, the dominant images of Scotland and Scots held in the minds of outsiders will be mainly second-hand and often distorted, thanks to the media that shaped it.
Scotland the movie
Films in particular have played major part in shaping perceptions of Scotland. A striking example of this comes in the ‘Scottish’ sequences of Four Weddings and a Funeral. At one point, a character remarks that at the wedding, “it’s Brigadoon! It’s bloody Brigadoon”. Obviously there would be little point in Gareth’s comment if the film’s audiences did not share certain common perceptions and therefore couldn’t get the joke.
Most viewers probably are aware of the ‘tartanry’ / ‘heather-and-haggis’ image of Scotland (even if they do not use such terms): the misty glens, lonely crofts, castles, kilts, bagpipes, Highland ‘flings’ and other such iconography from films like Brigadoon. In other words, they are been ‘schooled’ in certain notions of Scottishness. Yet much as films might reinforce such notions, they can also subvert them and suggest alternative ways of looking at Scottish life.
Before looking at those varying representations, it is necessary to consider what might count as ‘Scottish Cinema’. Then, it might be easier to explore the ways and the extent to which the picture painted of Scotland by the more ‘indigenous’ Scottish film differs from that filmed by ‘outsiders’.
The first film screened in Scotland was shown on April 13th 1896 in Edinburgh while the first clearly Scottish film was screened the same year in Glasgow, a documentary called The Departure of the Columba from Rothesay Pier. X-Ray Experiments was another documentary from the 1896 shot at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Curator of the Scottish Screen Archive Janet McBain (quoted Petrie, 2000), estimates that some 350 films released between 1898 and 1990 had some element of ‘Scottishness’. There was, for example, a 1911 version of the Rob Roy story while Fitba Daft (1921) linked football and whisky. An early combination of romance and history was the 1919 Harp King. In terms of broad brush strokes, it is possible to see five different kinds of movie with a Scottish dimension.
- First come films made in Scotland by largely Scottish personnel, financed by largely indigenous funding sources and with explicitly Scottish settings, characters and stories. Such films constitute the core of any purely Scottish cinema.
‘Purity’ is a relative word, however. Bill Forsyth’s films (excluding his American sojourn) seemingly satisfy these criteria but, of course, an American star, Burt Lancaster, plays a major role in possibly his best film, Local Hero. Another contributor to this body of movies (Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) has been Danny Boyle… from Lancashire in England. Rob Roy (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995) was the idea of a Scot, Peter Broughton, written by another Scot, Alan Sharp, and directed by a third but it needed United Artists money and in turn starred an American female lead and, as the male star, an Irishman who had relocated to Hollywood.
- Then there are films with the above qualities but largely made by outsiders. Here one might include the likes of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Anthony Kimmins, 1948), Whisky Galore (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949), Master of Ballantrae (William Keighley, 1953) Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954), and Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995). Highlander, for example, was an American film (20th Century Fox) directed by an Australian. Tunes of Glory (about a Scottish regiment) was an English movie (Knightsbridge Films) and starred two leading English actors, Sir Alec Guinness and John Mills.
- Next come films with individual scenes which match the above criteria regarding characters and settings but, overall, are otherwise non-Scottish. Examples here range from Lassie to the aforementioned Four Weddings and a Funeral. The whole central section of The Thirty Nine Steps, in its various versions, consists of a journey around Scotland.
- A close cousin to the above group is the film with an actor(s) and/or character and/or objects that, in one way or another, play on common perceptions of Scottishness.
The popular comedy Carry On Up the Khyber, for example, was set in India but featured Scottish soldiers and rather predictable jokes about what they might be wearing under their kilts. But tartans could also be the focus of documentaries, conventional (Tartans of Scottish Clans, 1906) or more experimental (Stripes in the Tartan, 1970). Scottish tweed manufacture is also used to represent old-fashioned craftsmanship against American mass production in the Edinburgh-set Battle of the Sexes (Charles Crichton, 1959), relocated to Scotland from New York in this British adaptation of an original James Thurber story.
The sound of bagpipes and lines of Scottish soldiers are used to convey the challenge faced by American soldiers at the Battle of New Orleans in The Buccaneer (1958). This instrument’s evocation of undaunted bravery perhaps explains why the 1962 film about D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day, twice features their sound (drawing on actual events, the real bagpiper at Sword beach, Bill Milliin, playing himself in the film). The 1953 The Desert Rats also ends on such a note. In the propagandist documentary Desert Victory (1943), a bagpipe is the first separate sound heard after the artillery barrage at El Alamein is lifted and the infantry go forward. [It is viewable at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1517053424508075834&hl=en at approximately 29.20, with the night attack sequence and its bagpiper re-enacted at Pinewood under Roy Boulting’s direction]
In one film, The Ghost Goes West (1935), a rather big object, an old Scottish castle from the duly misty Highlands, complete with (kilted) ghost, is dismantled and moved to America (in turn satirised for its vulgar ways). The Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival is the setting for a 2005 comedy film by an American director called…Festival. Actors can also embody a certain Scottishness even when not playing a Scottish character. This author saw Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves in an Aberdeen cinema where the audience suddenly came to life and actually cheered when Sean Connery made an appearance as Richard the Lionheart near the very end of the film.
Bogus history but real Scottish buildings (Rosslyn Chapel) combine in the rather silly Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006)
- Many movies use Scottish landscapes and townscapes as a picturesque backdrop, though, in purely narrative terms, it is not essential. Thus the famous Glenfinnan viaduct became a routine feature in the Harry Potter It even appears in Charlotte Gray (2001) when the eponymous heroine is supposedly travelling to London (the train is seen going north, i.e. in the wrong direction). The Forth Rail Bridge ‘stars’ in the various Thirty Nine Steps adaptations. A mist-shrouded old Scottish castle is the setting for Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear, though the Conan Doyle original takes places in Sussex. The 1941 Will Hay comedy, The Ghost of St. Michael’s uses a similar location. Eileen Donan Castle (the related website calls it the “most romantic castle in Scotland”) makes more appearances than any other such building (e.g. Highlander) though it is usually for its scenic value rather than any plot point.
But Scottish cities too can be used to provide a certain local colour. Thus Glasgow is the physical backdrop to the very dark comedy (and, for some reviewers, far from amusing) Beautiful Creatures (2000) though it might be thought that the violent men of the story resonate with popular perceptions of that city too. Edinburgh provides a cinematically pleasing backdrop to A Women in Winter (2005), directed and written by Scot Richard Jobson (formerly of Scottish art punk band The Skids), though the story might easily be relocated anywhere.
Scotland has not only been the subject of fictional films. There have been many travelogues and portraits of Scottish economic life, industrial and rural, plus leisure and domestic conditions. [For examples, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/scotlandonfilm/ and the lists on http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/504853/index.html ] It might be noted that Britain’s documentary tradition overall owes much to a Scot: John Grierson. Drama-documentaries ought to be mentioned, especially Peter Watkins’ 1964 Culloden which forcefully challenged rose-tinted representations of Bonnie Prince Charlie and indeed the whole clan system.
Some of these documentaries fall into the first of the above categories: indigenous products. Sources include the Films of Scotland Committee and the Scottish Educational Film Association. Bodies such as Glasgow Education Authority also sponsored film projects. It must be noted that some of these films recognised the toughness of life on a croft as well as the hardship experienced by many city folk, unlike the more romanticised picture found in the likes of Brigadoon. The 1938 Empire Exhibition held in Glasgow was s major stimulus for such film-making, with John Grierson who had made his name with Drifters and Night Mail, in a leading role e.g. Scotland for Fitness (Brian Salt, 1938) and Wealth of the Nation (Donald Alexander, 1938)
Many were also promotional films for firms like D. C. Thomson (The Making of a Great Daily Newspaper, (1911) which in turn led to the establishment of specialist production companies such as Scottish Film Productions. Tourist promotion films continue this tradition e.g. Loch Lomond (1967), with their own repertoire of sweeping aerial shots, iconic events and settings (Braemar Highland Games and Edinburgh Castle, for example) and romanticised history (the Bonnie Prince Charlie of The Skye Boat Song rather than the real figure of history). These travelogues have more of a vested interest than other kind of film in stressing not just Scotland’s beauty but also its otherness, thereby boosting its attractions as a place to visit.
But others had a loftier ambition. Thus the 1938 Face of Scotland deliberately tried to construct a national identity tracing the country’s development from Roman times. (Certain users may be able to see extracts on the BFI Screenonline website @ http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/730409/index.html ) It particularly stressed the hard conditions faced by Scots (variously a ‘race’ and a ‘stock’) had to face and the way this shaped their character (qualities like ‘hardiness’ and ‘courage’ pepper the commentary which even admits to a certain melancholia)
These films took varying attitudes to social conditions and the best ways to address them. Glasgow City Corporation’s Glasgow Today and Tomorrow (1949) celebrated its redevelopment plan, though not disguising the poverty of many citizens. [See http://www.bestlaidschemes.com/moviezone/glasgow-today-and-tomorrow ]. Its strategies were, in turn, challenged in Let Glasgow Flourish (1952) by Dawn Cine Group, some 14 activists with Communist sympathies who also chronicled local ‘Ban the Bomb’ demonstrations. Bill Forsyth might have made Cumbernauld more famous through his film Gregory’s Girl (1981) but the New Town Corporation had itself celebrated what it thought were its achievements in Cumbernauld, Town for Tomorrow (1970).
Several documentary makers from outside Scotland have used it as a subject of their films. Themes like life on lonely crofts attracted makers of educational films such as GB Instructional Films. Bodies like the British Transport Commission also sought the document its road-building exploits in areas like the Highlands. The Ministry of Information/Central Office of Information also commissioned several films on subjects like fishing. Ethnographers like German Werner Kissling were also attracted to remote areas like the Outer Hebrides (Eriskay – A Poem of Remote Lives, 1935).
The London-based Cinema Action collective engaged in explicitly left-wing film-making and in UCS1 (1971) and Class Struggle: Film from the Clyde (1977) it took its cameras north of the border to document the struggle to save shipyard jobs in the early 1970s. The Sheffield Film Co-op performed a similar service for the memory of the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915 in Red Skirts on Clydeside (1984), giving due recognition to the role of women (‘Red Clydeside’ tends to be remembered for its male leaders, many of whom subsequently became MPs).
Scotland the Attraction
The above overview of Scottish films raises the question of why film makers have been attracted to Scotland and the Scots. After all, films with some Scottish dimension do seem to outnumber those from many other regions with similar geographical extent and /or population size (some 5,117,000 people now live there, mainly concentrated in the ‘central belt’). There are two sides to this question: Scotland’s attractions to film makers and the appeal of resulting films to film audiences.
Two factors seem important: landscape and history. The scale of tourism there underlines how many people find the regions of Scotland attractive. The beaches of Loch Morar look simply magnificent on the big screen as can be seen in Local Hero. The locations in which William Wallace actually operated (modern Lanarkshire was his patch) are moved over 100 miles further north in Braveheart since the land around Ben Nevis provides a far better scenic spectacle. Splendid townscapes like Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile multiply the attractions.
Real historical events provide appealing raw material. Indeed one of the very first films made in America (1895) told the story of the Execution of Mary Queen of Scots in a one minute short. She is also the subject of a 2008 movie from Warner Independent Pictures, though RKO and the famed director John Ford did a ‘biopic’ back in 1936 and Universal Pictures cast Vanessa Redgrave in the role in their 1971 film. The title of a 1923 English silent film says something of the attractions of this slice of history: The Loves of Mary Queen of Scots. The fact that some of her lovers died in violent but sometimes mysterious ways further underlines its appeal. The Internet Movie Database also lists a couple of German treatment of her story, underlining its attractions for film makers.
The range of characters and events has indeed been tempting for film makers. It includes not only ‘heroic clansmen’ like William Wallace and Rob Roy (first appearing in a 1911 Scottish production). There is the failed ‘pretender’ Charles Stuart, played by Ivor Novello in a 1923 British silent and subject of a major box office disaster in 1948 but with another American treatment due for 2009. The Jacobite rebellion is also the subject of Chasing the Deer (Graham Holloway, 1994) which rightly stresses the element of civil war. Robert the Bruce appears in Braveheart in a very distorted characterisation and with more accuracy in The Bruce (1996).
This rich seam runs to truly hard case criminals like Jimmy Boyle (the basis of The Debt Collector) and the infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare (the subject of four movies, with, at the time of writing, another in the pipeline). The Ealing Studio film Whiskey Galore draws on a novel but it was itself based on real events (which had a far less happy ending). Then there are Scottish sportsmen such as runner Eric Liddle (Chariots of Fire), and cyclist Graeme Obree (The Flying Scotsman). There is even a famous dog, a Skye terrier that became known as the Greyfriar’s Bobby (a renowned fictional dog, Lassie, also visited Scotland, albeit reluctantly, in Lassie Come Home)
Scotland provides many myths and legends to mine as well. The tale of the Loch Ness monster is an obvious example. ‘Nessie’ was the star of the 1935 Secret of the Loch. Polygram and Working Title Films dipped into these waters in 1996 with popular American TV star Ted Danson (Cheers etc) as the ‘hero’, helping to broaden its appeal to audiences outside Scotland. But such monstrous legends can be mixed with other film staples. Thus the 1970 Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes combines what looks like ‘Nessie’ with an investigation by the famous detective into a missing person case.
Film-makers also tap Scotland’s rich literary heritage. The most significant source has been the pen of Sir Walter Scott and his romantic images of brave heroes like Rob Roy (the 1995 film is actually a bit closer to historical reality than the 1953 Disney version). There is also Edward Redgauntlet and indeed the odd female one such as Flora Mac-Ivor, both of Waverley. There has been Scottish derring-do abroad with the 15th century mercenary Quentin Durward (whose adventures were turned into an eponymous MGM movie in1955). The Edison Film Company tapped into Scott’s Marmion poem with Lochinvar in 1909, followed by the British Gaumont Young Lochinvar in 1923. Scott’s Lady of the Lake seems to have been adapted once in the silent era (1912) and then in 1930.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Alan Breck Stewart in Kidnapped was cut from the same gallant mould. This story was to be the basis of not one but four films. Such novels were thus the source of a major staple: the kilted hero fighting for his own honour and for the freedom of his people, with a background of misty mountains and remote glens. Film iconography was further shaped when some novels like Rob Roy were turned into comics in series like Classics Illustrated (Kidnapped was to become a graphic novel in 2007 as part of the UNESCO City of Culture in Edinburgh).
The poem Annie Laurie has allowed film makers to pursue the Romeo and Juliet narrative (love-across-a-divide) but locating it in a clan setting midst the blooming heather. According the Internet Movie Database there have been two English treatment in the silent era, one by the famous Cecil Hepworth, plus two American ones, one by Fox, the other from MGM and starring Lillian Gish. Two further ones from the 1930s are also listed. Another story of tragic love, Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor, was adapted by the American Vitagraph Company in 1909 (its subtitle: ‘A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland’ says all) while 1922 British film was composed of scenes from the eponymous opera.
Of Cabbages and Celts
Romantic heroes striding through the glens are not literature’s only bequest to film makers. There is another tradition, at its height in the late 19th century (i.e. after Scottish industrialisation) which critics have labelled ‘kailyardism’. It cherished what it saw as the virtues of small towns and villages against big city living (the name refers to the cottage cabbage patch). A musical equivalent can be found in songs like Westering Home (see http://celtic-lyrics.com/forum/index.php?autocom=tclc&code=lyrics&id=113 and Granny’s Hielan Hame (see http://www.rampantscotland.com/songs/blsongs_granny.htm ). A latter-day manifestation on TV was the 1960s BBC series Doctor Finlay’s Casebook in which the modernistic excesses of the young hero were tempered by the wisdom of his senior partner and veteran local doctor, Dr. Cameron, and their puritanical housekeeper, Janet (see http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/481822/index.html ).
The Kailyard school triggered a reaction in a more modernist development across the arts, sometimes called the Scottish Renaissance. Yet it too had nationalistic strands, actively seeking to develop Scottish styles (e.g. Charles Rennie Macintosh in design and Hugh MacDiarmid in literature). Its participants often looked to the Gaelic side of Scotland’s past. Perhaps ironically one fervent Scottish nationalist in this broad movement was the author of Whisky Galore, the Englishman Compton Mackenzie, a reminder that ‘nationhood’ may be more the province of the imagination than any incontestable material reality.
Much more recently a more iconoclastic school of writing has emerged in Scotland at the centre of which is the Edinburgh novelist Irvine Welsh. The environment he depicts in novels like Trainspotting of dilapidated housing, violent crime, drug abuse and pornography is a million miles away from that of romantic heroes and picturesque glens. It is rather closer the real world of social exclusion (and self-exclusion) in modern Scotland, certain surreal elements notwithstanding. Another significant writer, this time from Oban, has been Alan Warner whose first novel Morvern Callar (turned in to a film in 2002) is set in his home town. His later book The Sopranos, also due to be filmed, also draws on the theme of rural backwater contrasted against big city life
Film-makers have yet to mine an even more popular modern variant of Scottish literature, so-called Tartan Noir. By contrast, its best known character, Inspector Rebus (created by Ian Rankin) has featured a number of times on the television screen. These stories are a salutary reminder that notions like ‘nation’ and ‘region’ can only shed so much light. Rebus is very much part and parcel of the fabric of one city, Edinburgh, just as another TV detective, Taggart, cannot be separated from that of Glasgow.
Running through both fictional and factual stories from Scotland is a strand of potentially strong popular appeal. It is the age-old narrative of David-versus-Goliath. In this case, it is small but undaunted Scotland, victim of oppression and exploitation by its much bigger and more powerful neighbour, England, a theme that can attract audiences beyond British shores. Mel Gibson for one milks it for all it is worth in Braveheart. The Bruce (tagline: ‘courage never dies”) similarly pits evil English versus gallant Scots. This angle both reflects and encourages rivalries and resentments that surface in many ways, from football and rugby to politics, devolution and the so-called “Midlothian Question” (unbalanced powers for Scottish MPs in the British Parliament over purely English affairs).
Even an iconoclastic film like Trainspotting makes use of traditional Anglo-Scottish antipathies. When Renton seeks to bemoan Scotland, he underlines his argument thus: “Some people hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to get colonised by.”
At times, such antagonisms could be played down. Presumably post-war exhaustion with violence and a new sense of British national unity led the 1948 Bonnie Prince Charlie to skirt over the extremely brutal repression of the Highland clans after the Hanoverian victory at Culloden. Braveheart at least had the merit of showing how English violence against Scottish villagers was part and parcel of medieval times even if its depiction of Wallace’s army was decidedly ahistorical (wearing of face paint, baring of backsides etc) .
The presence of Scotland on the silver screen also owes much to indigenous efforts to support local film makers and attract foreign ones to shoot their movies there. The Scottish Film Council was set up by the government in 1934. Mention must be made here of bodies like Scottish Screen, Edinburgh Film Focus, the Tartan Shorts scheme (with BBC Scotland participation), and Glasgow Film Office. Such support networks also explain why, within Scotland, films may be made in one place rather than another. Thus though Shallow Grave is set in Edinburgh, several scenes are actually shot in Glasgow, source of a considerable grant. In his Screening Scotland, Duncan Petrie stresses the positive roe of Channel 4, whose first chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, was himself a Scotsman. Mention must be made too of the work of BAFTA Scotland (see http://www.baftascotland.co.uk/ )
More generally, the presence of a talented pool of film-makers obviously helps, even if, in some cases, success led to the familiar problem of a ‘brain drain’ abroad. They include directors Bill Forsyth, Kevin MacDonald, Gillies MacKinnon, Lynne Ramsay, and David Mackenzie, screenwriters John Hodge and Alan Sharp, actors Brian Cox, Ewan McGregor, Denis Lawson, Robert Carlyle, John Gordon Sinclair, Peter Capaldi, and, of course Sean Connery. Some straddle several categories. Thus Peter Mullan scripts, directs and acts,.
Then there are local film companies and production facilities (some of which are listed in http://www.filmbang.com/ ). Figment Films is particularly noteworthy (its history is told @ http://www.figmentfilms.com/index2.htm ) Film City Glasgow links another local company Sigma Films (Red Road, etc) with Glasgow City Council, and Scottish Enterprise Glasgow and the European Regional Development Fund. Edinburgh Film Focus supports film production in the city and Lothian region (see http://www.edinfilm.com/ )
An example from beyond the Central Belt is Aberdeen-based Stirton Productions which is due to release One Day Removals whose dialogue apparently is delivered in the local dialect, Doric. Young Films (Festival, Gregory’s Two Girls, Venus Peter and the 2005 Gaelic film Foighidinn) is based on the Isle of Skye. Stimulating activity in northern Scotland is the Highlands and Islands Film Commission, linking several interested parties.
Film festivals, primarily in Edinburgh and Glasgow, are another force that has helped to build a movie industry and film culture in Scotland. The first amateur film festival in Britain took place in Glasgow in 19933. Appreciation of film has been reflected in and encouraged by film societies such as the Film Society of Glasgow (founded 1929), the Edinburgh Film Guild (1930) and the Scottish Federation of Film Societies (1936).
It is certainly modest compared to Hollywood or Bollywood. Yet, quantitatively, its output well exceeds areas equivalent in population terms such as N.E. England while, qualitatively, it has delivered a string of movies that are distinctive and engaging (the author’s top three would be Whisky Galore, Local Hero, and Orphans but many thousands would nominate Trainspotting). But it would be wrong to suggest a blooming industry. According to the BBC News website, there was not one single film in production between the completion of Late Night Shopping in the summer of 2000 and the start of Morvern Callar in the following Spring, which makes it hard to sustain careers.
Scotland the Problem
Filming in Scotland is not without problems. Many of a holiday-maker has cursed the rain that wrecked their vacation. Film crews on location cannot alter the weather either. Nor can they dispel the clouds of midges that blight certain areas in summer. Any films basing itself on real events also faces the problem that development may have significantly altered the appearance of locations where they took place. Cast and crew can of course be transported by helicopter to more remote and less spoiled places that might act as ‘stand-ins’ (in the 1995 film about his life and times, Loch Morar replaced Loch Lomond where the real Rob Roy lived). But moves to more distant locations may significantly eat into budgets.
There have been some creative solutions to such problems. The village and beach seen in Local Hero are drawn from footage combined from two quite separate locations. The houses are in the village of Pennan in NE Scotland while the beautiful sands are actually those along Loch Morar on the west coast. The telephone box and church were creations of the film markers (the real phone box, covered up during filming, apparently became the most dialled public phone in Britain!)
A particularly striking example of film makers’ willingness to solve such problems at the expense of historical fact came with the shooting of Braveheart. Much location work was actually done in Ireland using extras on loan from the Irish Army. The logistical difficulties of moving large numbers of actors on and around the bridge in the scene based the real life battle of Stirling Bridge were solved by simply omitting what was a decisive factor in Wallace’s victory — the bridge. The film’s real life hero lived in the area south of today’s Glasgow, one now transformed industrialised agriculture, factories and housing developments and perhaps never noted for its scenic splendour. But a suitably magnificent background can be created for the film by shooting much of it in the spectacular Ben Nevis area. There is now a ‘Braveheart’ car park there while a Mel Gibson look-alike monument was built in 1997 near the original Wallace Monument outside Sterling. Thus life imitates art.
Perhaps the biggest problem for movie makers basing their film on Scotland is the one thing that, above all, quickly marks out a ‘Scottish’ film”: the local accent. Films with dense Glaswegian voices and other such variants can be hard to follow in detail. Not surprisingly a number of such films like Trainspotting (1996), Ratcatcher (2000), Sweet Sixteen (2003), and Red Road (2006) are given English sub-titles especially for North American audiences. As the San Francisco Chronicle (10/March/2000), reviewing Orphans, put it, “the pronunciation of vowel sounds is so bizarre that, without the subtitles, American audiences would have no idea what the characters are talking about. Just one example of many: The word ‘jacket’ is pronounced ’jeekit’.” It is a matter of both pronunciation and words themselves. Thus in the 1998 The Acid House, “wee bairn” became little baby”. Such efforts did not stop one reviewer posting comments on the US version of Amazon from thinking that Trainspotting was set in Ireland. Of course, it is possible to set a film in Glasgow, with the requisite gangland violence but without any Glaswegian accents as contrived by Louis Leterrier’s Unleashed (2005)
To be fair this problem isn’t unique to Scotland: French-Canadian (Québécois) film have been dubbed for screening in France. Obviously the very rare Gaelic film like Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle (2007) has to be given sub-titles (see: http://www.seachd.com/ ) Foreign actors can mangle Scottish accents, with Robin Williams’ Mrs Doubtfire taking the proverbial biscuit (or is it scone?) but their TV equivalents can be worse (for a wonderfully horrid example, try: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_nPt8nASva8 which packs in a lot of other stereotypes at the same time).
In an increasingly globalised film market and with US domination of distribution networks in North America and the UK, film makers from a small country like Scotland are going to have additional problems at all stages, not least funding and access to cinema chains. One result is the casting of better known actors and actresses from outside to play Scottish characters. Thus Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange star in Rob Roy. Another might be pressure to genre hybridity to broaden audience appeal. So a stronger dose of romance is stirred into the historical epic Braveheart, leading to the ludicrous plot line in which the French princess (born c. 1295 in reality) falls for William Wallace (died 1305).
Some more distinctly Scottish films may break through those barriers. Trainspotting is, perhaps, the best example. But it fortuitously caught a certain mood of the time amongst younger people in which anti-establishment sentiments were entwined with a degree of material self-indulgence.
Such success is very elusive however. A similar mix of lowlife characters and drugs did not help the 1997 Life of Stuff, set in a Glasgow night club from disaster, despite the presence of Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner in the cast. The Glasgow Film Fund got its finger burned when the film failed at the box office. On a Clear Day (2006), the story of a Glasgow shipyard worker made redundant and struggling to get himself ‘back together’ has touches of The Full Monty (proud working class men on-the-rocks but taking up oddball project that is their salvation) but does not do nearly so well.
Many of the films mentioned in this essay will probably not be known to even serious cinema-goers. In a number of cases, searches on the Internet reveal little information, again suggesting that they did not make much of a ripple. Scottish film makers have real hurdles to cross to get attention, beyond the basic one of making a ‘good’ movie.
Scots: Mean and Murderous?
There is no single representation of Scotland. It is fair to say that some depictions tend to be more common than others. ‘Tartanry’, especially in literary and historical reworkings, has had several outings on the big screen as have ‘Canny Locals’ (The Maggie and Whisky Galore! for example)). Cinema both built on these traditions and challenged them, with other depictions of ‘Scottishness’ have come to the fore of late. Certainly it paints a more varied picture than that of tourist propaganda and other commercial enterprises like the marketing of local goods (see the ‘Glen of Tranquillity’ adverts on TV for Glenmorangie whisky, for example)
Certain stereotypes do abound. There is meanness (hence the Scottish prayer: “Oh Lord, we do not ask you to give us wealth. But show us where it is!”) often coupled to a certain dourness and extreme caution. The best example is actually on TV, in Dad’s Army, with Private Frazer (played by veteran Scottish actor John Laurie) whose civilian job was, appropriately enough, as a coffin maker. Walt Disney’s main Scottish is uncle Scrooge McDuck who lives in McDuck Castle, suitably sited on Dismal Downs. Whisky Galore is perhaps the best example of a movie playing with such stereotypes. In real life, reportage of Scottish-born Chancellor and more lately Prime Minister Gordon Brown has often been done in ways that stressed his allegedly dour and tight-fisted nature.
Perhaps there is also a strain of pessimism: life will deliver yet more blows and all one can do is reel with them. Such bleakness comes in big measures, for example, in the black comedy Orphans and, for all its high energy, Trainspotting’s world remains harsh and unforgiving. The crofter’s wife that helps Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps accepts that she is doomed to her repressed life on the remote farm. Dark tones colour Young Adam (2004) based on a novel by Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi. Bill Forsyth’s 1984 film might be called Comfort and Joy but there is not much of either in the narrative, with resigned pessimism a stronger streak in it. Even in Forsyth’s more straightforward comedies like Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, happiness tends to be attained more by luck than design.
Scots are also stereotyped as crafty sometimes suspicious but essentially kind-hearted local, duelling with meddling but also bungling outsiders. The quintessential example remains Whisky Galore. However villagers can be portrayed as rather naïve, slow and often dull-witted (‘glaikit’ in local dialect). An example is the Hamish Campbell character in Braveheart, though his essential decency leads him to loyally follow his childhood friend William Wallace. Wee Geordie, the young athlete in the eponymous 1955 film is portrayed as being rather gauche in his desire to wear a kilt at the Olympic ceremonies (it came from the same stable as the St. Trinian’s films). The Scottish professor of Secret of the Loch is an oddball of a different sort (he can be briefly seen @ http://www.missinglinkclassichorror.co.uk/loch1.rm ) while the elderly heroine of Springing Lenin, directed by the Russian Andrei Nekrasov, has the rather odd ambition of bringing a statue of Lenin back to the Highlands. The residents of the mist-shrouded Highland retreat in The Last Great Wilderness (2003) may not be kilted but they are certainly eccentric.
But characteristics like craftiness and suspiciousness can be turned into something nastier. The villagers of Whisky Galore and Local Hero might be eccentric but they do not indulge in pagan rituals and burn alive outsiders as happens in The Wicker Man (1973). The locals of This is Not a Love Song (2003) readily turn to violent retribution. According to Dog Soldiers (2002), the more remote corners of Scotland are even home to werewolves. It must be noted, however, that the theme of hicks-in-the-sticks turning to murderous ways is scarcely peculiar to Scotland as films like the American Deliverance and Southern Comfort or France’s Brotherhood of the Wolf show. Still, within Britain, it is more common for such a turn of events to happen in ‘primitive’ Scotland than in ‘sophisticated’ England.
Rose-tinted views of the countryside and small town life are not peculiar to films about Scotland. The USA has produced several such hymns such as State Fair, On Moonlight Bay, Small Town Girl, Field of Dreams, Doc Hollywood, and Groundhog Day. They are almost a signature of the celebrated director Frank Capra. Scotland still offers a quite distinctive blend, however. It is not just the basic goodness of Scottish country folk but the almost magical properties of the wondrous landscape they inhabit that can even cure folk from the big city of their bad ways.
Thus the social climbing heroine of I Know Where I’m Going (1945) discovers that there is more to life than money. The hard-hearted American businessman in the 1954 Ealing comedy, The Maggie, is similarly enabled to see that there is more to life than money by his experiences in the Highlands. In Local Hero the hectic but empty life of Texan oilman Macintyre is contrasted with that of the villagers whose beautiful environment and slow-paced living totally seduces him. The beauties of Loch Ness and the attractions of (certain) locals persuade the scientist outsider in the eponymous 1996 movie to abandon his researches and go native. Childhood in enchanting rural environments is celebrated in Venus Peter (1989). Gregory’s Girl may set in a new town but it too taps a certain nostalgic sentiment about gentler times before unemployment, indebtedness, street crime and drugs spoiled things. Based on real characters, Mrs Brown (1997) sets the honesty and inner strength of Highland ghillie John Brown against the stuffy courtiers and devious politicians around Queen Victoria.
The point of appeal to cinema audiences in cities may be the vision of a simpler, more wholesome life. It is accompanied by reaffirmation of community values. Other media have tapped into this vein: witness the popularity of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days or the ‘paysage’ tradition in painting. By contrast, city life is often portrayed as deeply stressful, alienating and often downright dangerous. Compare, for example, the world of TV policemen in rural Hamish Mcbeth and city Taggart and Rebus.
All is not necessarily as sweet as it may seem outside the big cities, however. American cinema may have produced paens to small town life but it was also able to envisage a darker side. Peace and tranquillity can degenerate into boredom and despair. Often nasty secrets lurk beneath the otherwise cosy surface. Most striking perhaps were the opening shots of Blue Velvet but there have been many other examples: King Row, Shadow of A Doubt, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Picture Show, Far from Heaven, and A History of Violence. At other times, outsiders are a positive and necessary catalyst from which locals benefit (The Music Man and Pleasantville, for example). Even that famous ‘feel-good’ movie It’s A Wonderful Life leaves its small-town hero still vulnerable to the frustrations that almost drove him to suicide .
Just as Danish film maker Lars Von Triers caught the stifling, indeed repressive aspects of small-town America in Dogville (2003), his earlier Breaking the Waves (1996) pictured vicious intolerance in a small Highland community in the north of Scotland. The repressive nature of small isolated communities is also brought out in Another Time, Another Place (1983), based on the novel by Scottish author Jessie Kesson. One Last Chance (2004) shows village life to be suffocatingly boring.
Another genuine problem in some rural communities, depopulation and especially the loss of young people, has also been chronicled in film. This is particular true of St Kilda, which was finally evacuated in 1930. This was the subject of Michael Powell’s 1937 The Edge of the World (though shot on Shetland) and the more recent Ill Fares the Land (1983). Documentaries such as The Disappearing Island (1964), a film about Barra, also spotlighted rural blight.
A related divide is between those who have stayed at home and those who have gone away for work or education but decide to return, a potential conflict seen in the Gaelic As An Eilean (Mike Alexander, 1993) where the brainy Callum is due to leave for university, and Venus Peter where the missing father clearly feels frustrated by life on the Orkneys.
Perhaps the most interesting Scottish film in this respect is Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. In one way, it builds on the narrative of Whisky Galore. In this seemingly safe haven from the modern world, people do not lock their doors and the canny locals duly outwit the gullible outsider. Yet these villagers are out to make money, seeking to sell off their beautiful environment to an oil project that will destroy it. At one point they threaten violence against a beachcomber who stands in the way of ‘progress’.
In other ways too, Forsyth subverts traditional images of Scottish rural life. For one thing, the peace and quiet of the fictional village of Ferness is frequently shattered by the noise of overflying jet aircraft (a real problem in some localities) and a rather mysterious motorbike. Further the locals themselves are far from conventional: a punk, a Reverend Macpherson who is African, and a baby that would appear to have no parents. Forsyth’s film is surely a prime example of cinema’s capacity to cherish and yet subvert its own traditions.
No Mean City?
Throughout the history of film-making, most Scots have lived in cities, even if, traditionally, the better-known fictional movies disproportionately focus on rural dwellers. A number of 30s films were built around the shipyards such as Red Ensign (Michael Powell, 1934), Shipyard Sally (Monty Banks, 1939), The Shipbuilders (John Baxter, 1943) and Flood Tide (Frederick Wilson, 1949), however. They do not just show working life but also depicted pubs and music halls. Recently, urban tales have become more familiar still thanks to the films like Trainspotting.
The lyrics of the popular TV detective series set in Glasgow, Taggart, tell us that “city life is strange you take your share of the good times and bad times”. Viewers of Scottish cinema might be excused for concluding that life in Scotland’s cities are strangely and decidedly mean. Another set of stereotypes come into play: unemployment, violent hard men, rampart alcoholism, serial drug abuse, dark and dingy housing.
Such sores do indeed blight the face of certain parts of Scotland’s cities, especially in the Central Belt. The point is the one-sided character of that picture. The country has its share of pleasant suburbs like Glasgow’s Bearsden or Edinburgh’s Morningside. There is a planned commuter development near Dollar that will have its own helipad. Even the once notorious Gorbals has had a face lift. But grim housing estates, equally rough pubs, drug clinics and the like predominate on the big screen.
Part of the ‘mean city’ representation is of course gang culture, something that has long existed in reality (No Mean City was actually the title of a 1935 novel about the Glasgow razor gangs of that era). It is intimately connected to the local hard man as well as no holds barred fighting. Thus, in the TV sitcom The Thick of It, when one (Scottish) character, Jamie, refers to “Motherwell rules” (a pool in the eye, another up the bum), audiences would probably sense that he did not mean the Marquis of Queensbury’s boxing code. It might be remembered that a ‘Glasgow kiss’ is actually a headbutt.
This violent culture is amplified on the big screen. The more recent the film, the more likely it is to feature such brutal ways, something that partly reflects the decline in censorship. One film The Debt Collector draws on the real life and times of Jimmy Boyle who recounted his vicious past in his autobiography A Sense of Freedom. Sometimes the violence is part of organised crime: Gillies Mackinnon 1996 Small Faces depicts 60s gangland in Glasgow while bare-knuckle fighting organised by a Glasgow is the subject of The Big Man (1990). ‘Mr Big Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy (1984) has its wry moments but its background is the all too real ‘ice cream’ turf wars in Glasgow which, in 1984, led to the massacre of six members of one family.
But often violence is just a routine occurrence, outside of planned crime. Violent scenes erupt in Trainspotting, the 1994 black comedy Shallow Grave (where former friends viciously set on each other) and at several points in Orphans. At the time of writing it was reported that Peter Mullan had a film about Glasgow knife culture in the 1970s (it has not gone away today). The Edinburgh-set 16 Years of Alcohol (2004) features violent skinheads.
Poverty, unemployment and crime are shown to be intertwined in less ‘heavy’ films such as Bill Forsyth’s 1979 That Sinking Feeling and Ken Loach’s 2002 Sweet Sixteen. The humour in both films does not disguise the underlying poverty of the world in which they are set. The general meanness of many post-war council housing developments can be seen in other films that don’t feature extreme violence. Examples include the 2006 Red Road (named after a set of huge tower blocks in which some of the action is set) and the 1999 Ratcatcher (where the urban decay is aggravated by a strike by dustbin men, hence the rats of the title). There are, of course, exceptions such as the not unattractive picture painted of Cumbernauld New Town in Gregory’s Girl.
As in most societies, Scottish people are divided along class lines. A number of films point to rural tensions between the rich (and often absent and non-Scottish) owners of landed estates and much poorer locals. The title of the 1954 English comedy Trouble in the Glen reflects the real strife that has erupted between the laird and the local community. This theme, with much more violence, runs through Braveheart and Rob Roy.
But there are other social divides on view. The rise of a Scottish strata of ‘yuppies’ can be seen in the three main characters of Shallow Grave, in which the selfish materialism of this new middle class gets its come-uppance. Their lifestyles (prior to their downfall) might be contrasted with the depressed and depressing world of the urban working class depicted in Orphans whose characters are adrift in life as the film’s title suggests. Yet there are films such as Gregory’s Girl that show ordinary people just getting on with their lives. Indeed Trainspotting has moments where more typical middle class families appear on screen.
Alcohol and other drugs interact with poverty and crime in many of the above films. Others note in different ways Scottish addiction to such pleasures. The most obvious is My Name is Joe, the story of a recovering alcoholic. It may be noted how the island of Todday in Whisky Galore! is drowned in gloom when, at the start of the film, the whisky runs out. The local doctor also notes disparagingly at one point that “it’s a well known fact that some men were born two drinks below par”. The locals in Secret of the Loch also imbibe whisky as if there were no tomorrow.
City folk are no different. Alcohol also fuels many of the characters of Orphans while the very title of 16 Years of Alcohol (2003) speaks volumes (indeed a decision to stay sober does not save the ‘hero’). The heroine of Morvern Callar too tries to bury her problems in drink and drugs while a cocktail of chemicals pervade films like Trainspotting. The dark comedy film-for-TV Wedding Belles, also from Welsh, also deals in drugs. It does, however, also satirise this tradition at one point: a character is bemoaning negative images of Scotland and particularly Edinburgh when another rushes in to announce that a woman in a bridal outfit is taking drugs in the hall.
Scotland: A Male Affair?
Scottish films have more than their fair share of macho men, from William Wallace and Rob Roy to Trainspotting’s Begbie, the siblings Michael and John from Orphans and the brutal husband of Dear Frankie (2004). In some cases, it is the harm done to the wife/partner that triggers male aggression. Thus Braveheart’s William Wallace is initially shown to stand aside from the rebellion until his idyllic love affair is cruelly shattered by the English. Rob Roy’s spirit is most tested when his wife is raped by the foppish Cunningham.
Some films do spotlight the stupidity of male machismo. John in Orphans seeks to get even with the local thug who wounded his brother Michael. Yet, he is told by Michael to drop the matter. At one point he is shown drunkenly picking a fight with a bus, having lost in jacket in another pointless show of aggression against a passing motorist. His final fight brings no satisfaction. All the macho men of The Debt Collector end up as victims of the cycle of violence they jointly unleash.
Scottish men can be weak and foolish. in Gregory’s Girl, the hero is constantly outmanoeuvred by the girls while his two friends fail at every attempt to get girlfriends. In the sequel Gregory’s Two Girls, he cannot be said to have advanced much. He is seen teaching at the same school where he first studied and his relationships with women have scarcely progressed either. Male mid-life crises are at the hear of One Fine Day. Men are depicted as unreliable and more trouble than they are worth in the Edinburgh-set Women Talking Dirty (2001), a sort of Scottish chick-flick odd couple. In One Last Chance (2004), produced by Dougray Scott, we see Scottish versions of the slacker generation with three rather dim Highland teenagers searching for fool’s gold (and there is the conventional Scottish hard man in the shape of familiar screen presence James Cosmo). The Acid House, manages to show men as failures (a cuckolded husband) and as vicious predators (his neighbour) in ‘The Soft Touch’, central story while in the first tale, ‘The Granton Star Cause’, the hero lurches from one disasters to another.
Advocates of the masculinity-in-crisis thesis will find much evidence in Scottish films. An obvious example is the struggling trio of brothers in Orphans. The male drug abusers of Trainspotting are clearly adrift from any constructive roles associated with traditional men. Further supporting facts might be culled from On a Clear Day where, heaven forbid, the wife aspires to be a bus driver and has to shield her economically redundant husband from this further emasculating fact.
But it is possible to show both violent men and much kinder ones at the same time. The nine year old boy of Dear Frankie (2004) is deaf due to physical assault when he was much younger by his brutal father from whom he and his mother have run away. He is kept in the dark about what really happened and, as part of his mother’s stratagem, a stranger is hired to pretend to be the man Frankie is led to assume is his long absent father. Yet this new man is shown to be kind and generous.
Though many cinema goers might think of male roles when asked about Scottish films, female characters have been central protagonists at times. Indeed one of the first was in the 1914 Hepworth film Heart of Midlothian. As noted above, there have been a string of Annie Laurie films as well. More recently films like Morvern Callar and Breaking the Waves have given women centre stage.
The women of Scotland tend to come in certain forms. There is the domineering mother seen in Whisky Galore (Mrs Campbell), the conceited but deluded spinster of the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (adapted from the Edinburgh-born novelist Muriel Spark). Scottish women on screen can be quite decisive. The heroine of Morvern Callar (2002) seizes the opportunity that her boyfriend’s death throws her way, though that certain Scottish bleakness is never too far away. The inn landlady of Loch Ness might not be so bold but she certainly knows her own mind.
Even the crofter’s wife in The Thirty Nine Steps is prepared to risk her husband’s ire and help Richard Hannay, the handsome outsider who comes into her life. But the film also shows another side to the lives of Scottish women, especially in the countryside: it is isolation and loneliness. Such experiences can be sensed in some of the older documentaries about rural life.
It could be argued that Scottish cinema, however defined, has largely failed to capture the working lives of Scotland’s women. Thus there are several films set in the shipyards and other industries. Yet little attention seems to have been given to the fact that women entered these once male preserves, especially in wartime. In real life women have played a leading role in other areas of society, including politics where Margaret Ewing played a leading role in the renaissance of the modern SNP. Such realities do not seem to have been caught in cinema.
That childhood too can be harsh can be seen in Bill Douglas’s My Childhood (1972) and My Ain Folk (1973). Teenage life too can be boring and sometimes worse. The Glasgow of That Sinking Feeling and Ratcatcher is clearly depicted as a dead-end city, not withstanding the comic elements. It might be noted in the latter film that the scenes away from the tenements offer a glimpse of something better. Indeed most indigenous Scottish films eschew any sentiment about growing up in working class estates and terraces as can be seen in Lynne Ramsay’s Gasman (1997).
The teenage heroes in Restless Natives (1985) may embark on a spirited comedy adventure in the Highlands but the Edinburgh in which the film opens offers them little. Perhaps there is an element of nostalgia and innocent childhood in My Life So Far (1999), the story of a young boy growing up in a seemingly idyllic family country house in rural Argyll in the late 1920s, with a cast of eccentrics (apparently based on the real early life of Denis Forman).
Scotland has long been home to ethnic minorities (apparently there are now two Asian/Scottish tartans and in the Indian community bagpipers sometimes play at weddings). Their stories too have surfaced in Scottish films. True North (2006) addresses both the economic difficulties of Scottish fishermen and the sordid trade in Chinese illegal immigrants. Love across the divide is of course at the very heart of Ae Fond Kiss. The relations between Glasgow chip shop owner Chan and his neighbours are a sub-plot of On a Clear Day.
Craig Ferguson rather lightweight Big Tease (1999) at least recognised that Scotland is not just composed of tough heterosexuals. Its hero certainly has a brave heart but wields nothing more threatening than a pair of scissors since he is a gay Glasgow hairdresser mistakenly invited to a Los Angeles competition. Springing Lenin had the virtue of spotlighting another social group often overlooked in films from many sources, not just Scotland: the more aged section of the population. This author has not done a statistical sample but it does seem that actually the age profile of society is better reflected in Scottish movies (just look again at Local Hero, for example) than in, say, the output of Hollywood.
Political & economic landscapes of Scotlands
Economically, modern Scotland was built on coal, steel and ship-building. As in other parts of Britain, deindustrialisation has taken a severe toll of such old heavy industries. Documentaries that charted attempts to save shipworkers’ jobs were noted above. A number of fictional films from the 30s onwards also charted the problems of the industry. In the case of Red Ensign the blame seems to be put on fiancé capital (as opposed to honest industrialist) though rival firma who do not play fair are also indicted. The 20th Century Fox Shipyard Sally with Grace Field suggest that the redundant Clydebank workers of the story will get their jobs if they stay loyal and true, adding the even more implausible notion that the government will listen to petitions from ‘honest’ working folk (see http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=76epZXpOO3U ). National unity and patriotism rule here. Duncan Petrie’s discussion of The Shipbuilders suggests that class collaboration (paralleling wartime political consensus) is the best way forward, though it might be noted that, in reality, industrial strikes were becoming more common at the time.
Films like On A Clear Day show that the threat of redundancy still hangs over many Scottish workers. It lurks in the background of several films, not least as the root cause of the poverty and community breakdown on view. Films about coal mining and shipbuilding, plus those on crofting, give a somewhat distorted view of employment patterns in Scotland. For many decades, the working lives of actual Scots have been centred on the civil service, the professions, retail and light industry. A cumulative picture of Scotland as a nation of colliers and shipbuilders, rural farmers or mass ranks of the unemployed is a misleading one.
To be fair, documentaries like Wealth of a Nation (1938) did anticipate the need to find alternatives to heavy industry even if things did not turn out so smoothly as hoped. The rundown of the mining industry, for example, was marked by some bitter industrial disputes (e.g. clashes at Longannet power station in 1972). Though other sectors of the economy have expanded, often they create only ‘dead-end’ jobs as Late-Night Shopping (2001) makes clear.
Scotland also has a long military history, with regiments like the Black Watch, Gordon Highlanders and the Royal Scots becoming world famous. One early documentary, Scottish Regiment on Manoeuvres, brought this tradition to the big screen. The real life experiences of Scottish soldiers were, in part, the basis of scenes in films like Joyeux Noel (2005), the Longest Day and (as prisoners of the Japanese on the Burma railroad) To End All Wars (2001).
Cinema has not treated this aspect of Scotland reverentially. Jock Sinclair of the 1960 Tunes of Glory — and the traditions he represents — are rather damned in the film: the children shown shouting “kilty cold bum” cannot be said to have bought into Scottish military values. In the main narrative he is shown to be ignorant and disloyal. Even less deference is shown in Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland (1935) and Carry On Up the Khyber.
Though there has been considerable public debate in Scotland about the axing of those old regiments, the attitude of most of the characters seen in Scottish films of the last thirty years probably could be summed up thus: ‘big deal!’ This would indeed reflect another strand of Scottish life: radical politics which has included anti-militarism as well as anti-capitalism. The country has indeed a long history of radical dissent, religious (especially the Covenanters) and, more recently, political (primarily full-blooded socialism). Such non-conformity was also reflected in the greater staying power of the Liberal Party north of the border.
Though the events of ‘Red Clydeside’ during World War One and its aftermath have been sometimes hyped up on the Left, it is still true that the government of the day was so panicked by what it saw as revolutionary stirrings that armoured cars were deployed on the streets of Glasgow. More recently some well-known radical activists such as the campaigning journalist Paul Foot found their political feet in Scottish politics. At election time, Scottish voters have consistently voted to the left of their English neighbours while another radical force, the Greens have got a toehold in the Scottish Parliament (albeit helped by its proportional representation system)
Overall, indigenous and foreign film makers have downplayed this distinctive political history, albeit with significant exceptions. The longest-running issue in Scottish politics, the concentration of land ownership in exceptionally few hands, has only surfaced in the odd film (notably Trouble in the Glen and the 1993 Shepherd on the Rock) and then with little political sharpness. Large parts of Scotland have been militarised (nuclear bases etc) and there have been many protests against the process but the issue is again ignored, except for the mild whimsy of Whisky Galore’s unsuccessful sequel Rockets Galore!
In many recent films, there is even less mention of any kind of politics. It may be assumed that the characters have a fatalistic ‘plague-on-all-your-houses’. Thus in Trainspotting, Renton’s take on Scotland is that it is “a shite state of affairs”. The siblings of Orphans may rage about the state of their lives but they have been orphaned from the political traditions of their forefathers. Typically when one of the brothers, Michael, is hurt in a fight, all he can think is a scheme to defraud his employers by pretending to have been injured at work. Here, as in many other films, there is no sense of collective struggle, let alone formal political engagement. The film does recognise the on-going role of Catholicism in modern Scottish life.
Ironically the director of Orphans, Peter Mullan, is well-known for his Marxist politics and has been a coruscating critic of so-called New Labour. His first involvement in film-making was in Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1990) and he gained widespread recognition for his lead role in the same director’s My Name is Joe (1998). In On a Clear Day, he plays a strong, silent type laid off from the shipyards but the narrative shifts to the purely personal, losing sight of the bigger issues. It rather mixes the loss-of-pride caused by redundancy as seen in shipyard films like Shipyard Sally and The Shipbuilders form the 1930s and 40s with 1990s touchy-feely culture. Mullan has made a scathing attack on the Irish Catholic Church as director of The Magdalene Sisters (2002) but it is as an actor, playing the Irish Marxist James Connolly in the forthcoming film from Dublin-based Irish Rascal Films, that his political self and cinematic work have come closet together.
Loach to the Left
Mullan acknowledges the influence of Ken Loach and there is perhaps a double irony in that it is this Englishman who perhaps has done the most to keep alight in cinema the flame of Scottish socialist politics. There are no sweeping statements about Scottish history in the manner of the 1995 Land and Freedom (Spanish Civil War) and his 2006 The Wind Shakes the Barley (Irish ‘Troubles’). More in keeping with his naturalistic films such as Kes and Raining Stones (some of which use non-professional actors and feature unscripted scenes as part of their ‘realism’), his ‘Scottish’ films try to capture the real world of ordinary citizens, as opposed to the ‘great and good’. His is a committed cinema that celebrates the strengths of working class folk and supports their struggles as well as denouncing those he sees as their enemies, from loan sharks and cold-hearted bureaucrats to spineless trade union leaders and Labour politicians.
Carla’s Song (1996) was his first full-scale foray into Scotland, though he had worked with Scottish actors like Robert Carlyle before. Here Carlyle plays a bored bus driver, George, whose involvement with a Nicaraguan woman living in exile in Glasgow gives his life new meaning as he sets out to help her. His experiences educate him politically while the film gives its audience a lesson in the evils of American foreign policy. In the 1998 My Name is Joe, Loach lifted the lid on the harsh world of many Glaswegians in contrast to the glossy images of official Glasgow (1990 European City of Culture etc). Within the film, there is a huge gap between Joe’s working class milieu and the middle class lifestyle of health worker Sarah. A similar divide can be seen in earlier films like David MacKane’s Gorbals Story (1950)
Poverty also stalks his Sweet Sixteen (2002), set in Clydeside tenements but, true to form, Loach treats the harsh environment of his characters not as some accident or consequence of their own failings but as a direct by-product of the current socio-economic system. But Loach is not blind to the failings of ordinary citizens. In Ae Fond Kiss (2004), a drama about a love affair between Casim, a Glaswegian lad of Pakistani descent, and Irish Roisin, makes clear the prejudices they — and Casim’s sister — face in both their communities.
Loach is not alone in this approach. Other directors like Lynne Ramsay similarly treat their characters and their adverse circumstances with warmth and sympathy. They challenge stereotypes about scroungers and wasters. Conversely films like Shallow Grave ask sharp questions about the lives and values of seemingly ‘successful’ players in the modern rat race. But perhaps only Loach draws out a consistent political thread.
Some directors may have addressed the blight of human communities but not one has paid significant attention to the degradation of Scotland’s ecology. Those heather-strewn moorlands seen in feature films, TV tourism adverts and on holiday postcards are in fact the end result of intense environmental degradation. One of the best examples known to the author is actually on an OS Map cover. It shows a ‘pretty’ Highland scene full of rhododendron bushes yet these are invasive alien plants which are so damaging that expensive clearing operations are now in hand in the very area where the photograph was taken.
The ruination of Scottish land by rampant deforestation, overgrazing, dam construction, poisoning of wildlife and other human activities has been raised by individual Scots, notably the famous ecologist Sir Frank Fraser Darling (who gave a celebrated 1969 Reith Lecture on “Wilderness and Plenty”. The author cannot find any movie, foreign or indigenous, that has addressed such matters, with the exception of the rather cloying Ring of Bright Water (1969). Local Hero might also be given an ‘ecological reading’ though nature conservation is made dependent in the narrative upon an eccentric American millionaire.
There have been several documentaries that have looked at land use issues. Most seem to accept dominant ‘development’ strategies seldom question the goals and impact of such plans. Partly this reflects the identity of the commissioning body and partly the a more general mindset regarding what constitutes ‘progress’. Thus there are several ‘hymns’ to road’ construction e.g. New Scotland (1960) or Young in Heart (1963) which uses traditional scenic imagery to celebrate car production) but little questioning of such transportation options.
A number of 1930s and 40s documentary films took quite an optimistic view of coal mining which in the light of its human and environmental costs was unwarranted. But the 1952 drama-documentary The Brave Don’t Cry (Philip Leacock) was based on a mining disaster of two years before when 13 men died. Yet, in 1939, Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down from south of the border had more political edge, firmly addressing the issue of private ownership. The fact that the more recent oil boom is based on a finite and highly polluting resource has not been seriously taken on board. Similarly, though there are several documentaries about the fishing industry, not least the tough lives of trawlermen such as the 2006 feature film True North, they do not really get to grips with the deep unsustainability of large-scale trawling. The damage done by fish farming has been largely ignored too though Battery People an episode of the TV series Doomwatch (1970) did manage to squeeze a story out of it.
There is, however, a forthcoming American sci-fi film Doomsday, from Rogue Pictures (an ‘indie’ wing of NBC), which is set in Scotland and whose back story is the threat from genetic engineering. Though events take place in some future post-apocalypse scenario, this modern film still relies on traditional Scottish ingredients such as misty mountains and lonely castles (in this case Blackness) . Indicative of the challenges faced by Scottish cinema, much of the film was shot in the cheaper production environment of South Africa.
There have been several documentaries about urban regeneration. Most follow the party line of the councils and developers behind them. As noted above there have been independent film makers who have criticised such policies such as the ironically named 1952 film by the Dawn Cine Group, Let Glasgow Flourish. However, the failings of the vast new housing schemes that ring cities like Glasgow have been largely exposed in the gritty feature films discussed above. Nobody seems to be telling stories about more sustainable options in marked contrast to the ferment of such activity elsewhere, especially the USA (see for example, http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/ednla.html ) The main exception seems to be Reforesting Scotland (http://www.reforestingscotland.org/pubs/videos.php ) and Scottish Natural Heritage.
Scotland in view
For many years Scotland was an ‘object’ in films. In other words, film makers tended to use the country as a picturesque background for their stories or exploit colourful characters and events from her history and from her literature and legends. Actual Scots did not have much say in the process, the main exception being locally made documentaries. The makers of Brigadoon did not even shoot their movie in the country where the story was set. Instead they took what was actually a German tale and decked it out with an iconography of ‘tartanry’ which bore little relation to the real Scotland.
The tradition persists. Though there is much to enjoy in Braveheart, Mel Gibson and his associates perpetrated a comprehensive ransacking of the real history of William Wallace and the Scottish Wars of Independence. They might reply that they were not making a documentary. Yet the actual events of that period were so dramatic that it is difficult to see any justification of what were literally hundreds of separate errors of fact.
More recently, Scotland has become more of a ’subject’ in that a new wave of local film makers and script writers have started telling their stories about their own country and its people. Bill Forsyth deserves much credit for his pioneering role in this process, though the commercial success of Trainspotting obviously was a real fillip. The development cannot be separated from broader changes, part of which has been the resurgence of nationalist sentiment (something that goes beyond specific support for the Scottish National Party).
Reactions to the pictures painted of Scotland in film will depend partly on the viewer’s own experiences and values. It cannot be denied, for example, that in recent years, films about Scotland and especially ones by indigenous film makers have painted a rather bleak picture of the country’s urban environment.
Some local figures do protest about this. David Cairns, MP for Greenock (setting for Loach’s Sweet Sixteen) was quoted in the Sunday Herald (02/June/2002) thus: “it’s all very well for Ken Loach to come swanning up here from London and perpetrate the image” (of urban deprivation). He further argued that there were “too many depressing Scottish films”. He singled out the damaging effect of such imagery on potential investors and tourists.
VisitScotland estimates that films like Braveheart and Rob Roy were responsible £15 million in terms of increased tourism. Trainspotting is said to have attracted more visitors to Edinburgh, though it must be doubtful how many would visit Greenock even if it were depicted in a more attractive light. Even ‘depressing’ films like The Magdalene Sisters aided the local economy of S.W. Scotland where much of it was shot.
Playwright Peter McDougall, who has written TV plays Down Where the Buffalos Go and Just a Boys’ Game with themes of drugs, violence and crime, criticises Scottish film makers for depending too much on storylines about hard men and drug dealers (see the same Sunday Herald article). It might be argued that there is actually more varied fayre on offer, especially when short films are taken into account. There are some strikingly unusual offerings such as the delightfully titled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (Peter Capaldi, 1993). Indeed the catalogue of indigenous companies like Young Films is quite wide-ranging (see http://youngfilms.typepad.com/blog/foighidinn.html ). Part of the problem is that local film makers find it hard to get money for other projects. Leading local production companies like Antonine Films and its predecessor Black Cat Films have folded because of inadequate financial support. Financial deals with American distributors might mean, of course, a more homogenous with distinctively Scottish qualities compromised.
Though there have been several screen outings for figures from Scottish history, it could be argued that actually this source is somewhat under-represented. After all, there are no films directly about the dramatic tales of Flodden, Montrose, Bonnie Dundee, or, for that matter, the real Macbeth. A film with a strong woman at its centre would be the life and times of the remarkable Flora MacDonald but she too seems to have been overlooked. Presumably the uneven performance of historical epics at the modern box office discourages such explorations.
Certainly indigenous Scottish film makers have escaped Scotland’s past and planted their feet firmly in the here and now. In some ways, their efforts build on the gritty realism of the New Wave kitchen sink drama of early 60s British cinema. That said, film makers like Peter Mullan and Lynne Ramsay might be said to be closer to their working class subjects than were those rather posh Angry Young Men of that earlier period. Yet that slice-of-life grittiness of Ratcatcher, Orphans and their cousins must be measured alongside the surrealism of Trainspotting and ‘magic realism’ of Local Hero and the pastoral world of Venus Peter. Moreover, the grim worlds of Ratcatcher retain life-affirming elements and avoid any condescension about their subjects.
Reel Scotland is certainly a rich world.
© Sandy Irvine, 2008
Anderson, L (2004). Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood. Luath pr.
Pendreich, B. (2002). The Pocket Book Scottish Movie Book. Mainstream Publishing. The author also regularly writes for The Scotsman newspaper whose columns are another invaluable source of information.
McArthur, C. (2003). “Brigadoon”, “Braveheart” and the Scots: Distortions of Scotland in Hollywood Cinema. I.B. Tauris
Petrie, D. (2000). Screening Scotland. BFI. Any study of Scottish cinema cannot but stand on the shoulders of this comprehensive and highly informative book. Its appendix lists funding sources in Scotland as well as short films they have helped to bankroll.
Smith. M (2002). Trainspotting. BFI Modern Classic.
The past awards and screenings of BAFTA Scotland help to spotlight movies that might otherwise and undeservedly pass unnoticed. See http://www.baftascotland.co.uk/
The same is true of Scottish Screen. See http://www.scottishscreen.com/
The BBC is a good source of information about documentaries.
The BFI Screenonline covers feature films and documentaries set in Scotland. See:
The National Library of Scotland is host to the Moving History collection. See:
A variety of useful links can be found @ http://scotlandinter.net/cinema.htm and
Locations used for film-making in Scotland can be traced via:
Perhaps it is also revealing that the study British Historical Cinema, edited by Monk and Sargeant (Routledge, 2002) do not seem to think that Scotland had much of a history since it is only mentioned in passing. The same is true of its companion, British Crime Cinema, edited by Chibnall and Murphy (Routledge, 1999). Sue Harper’s chapter in The British Cinema Book edited by Robert Murphy (BFI, 2001) makes some amends.
Review of ‘The Mountain’
By Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band
(Music CD, Grapevine Records, 1999)
Any diagnosis of the popular music scene based on the evidence of MTV videos, the Eurovision song contest or the Top Twenty charts could only conclude that this aspect of human culture is in a pretty parlous state. Cultural degradation seems to be marching in time with environmental despoliation. Modern music tends to alternate between utterly pasteurised Muzak, the musical equivalent of McDonalds, on the one hand, and, on the other, equally empty but even more tuneless disco beat, as painful on the ear as it is on the mind.
Yet there are exceptions and one is the latest CD from the American musician Steve Earle, a veteran of the country and folk rock scene. It sees him teaming up with the premier bluegrass band built around the three McCoury brothers on guitar, banjo and mandolin, with fiddler Jason Carter and double bass player Mike Bub, plus assorted guests.
Earle’s life has had its ups and downs, with more than its share of drugs, divorce and general disorder, including a spell in jail. Yet, somehow, he has survived and is producing work light years away from the bland commercial pap of so-called New Country artists like Garth Brooks. This CD is dedicated to the memory of the great bluegrass artist Bill Monroe and surely he would have been pleased with the results. (An exception might be the CD sleeve which is illegible in parts due to poor layout and typesetting)
There are several reasons why ecologically minded listeners should lend an ear to The Mountain and to Earle’s work in general. Some readers, for example, might have seen the group performing on BBC 2’s Jools Holland Show. Part of the degeneracy of contemporary music-making is its sheer artifice, not least its dependence on technology such as mixing desks and backing tapes as a substitute for actual talent. By contrast, on that show Earle and its partners gave a classic exposition of what musicianship is all about, grouped around a single microphone, giving individual instruments prominence simply by leaning forward. Refreshingly, music-making, not ego-boosting, came first.
But it is also the content of the music that is so refreshing, not just the way it is performed. All the songs on the CD are written by Earle and the lyrics are deeply rooted in both place and history, mainly in this case the eastern mountains of the USA. Insofar as most pop songs contain any audible words, they reflect the self-indulgent, materialistic nature of consumerist society. Earle’s writing stands in marked contrast. It is as sharp as his voice, with a political edge far more cutting and focused than, dare I say it, the likes of Bob Dylan, whose political songs tended to stick to more fashionable causes. Sometimes, country and hillbilly music is stereotyped as redneck music. Earle’s work strongly refutes that label.
Listen to, for example, ‘Harlan Man’, a song about a Kentucky miner: “I took a union stand, no what the company said”. (Earle took a stand against Ronald Reagan’s assault on workers’ rights and, more recently, opposed capital punishment as well as supported Farm Aid). Earle’s songs are infused with a love of the land. In ‘The Mountain’, the lyrics open grandly but starkly, to a gorgeous melody: “I was born on this mountain a long time ago, before they knocked the timber and strip-mined the coal”. Other songs delve further into history such as ‘Dixieland’, the story of an Irish rebel fighting for the Union army.
Earle stands in the footsteps of such luminaries as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Earle follows Guthrie in tackling the Depression and the Dust Bowl disaster. His work similarly portrays an America scarred by injustice and heartlessness. But I suspect there may be a deeper ecological sensibility in Earle’s work, though, of course, there is the usual American litany of girls, cars, highways and roadside bars as well. Though Guthrie’s music in particular possessed an elemental rawness, Earle’s music too has a sharp edge and driving energy, not least due to his familiarity with rock idioms. Some of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, especially from his post-‘stadium rock’ period also touch upon the experiences of ordinary Americans (‘Tom Joad’ etc.). However, having seen him perform this material in concert, I have to say that Earle’s current music direction delivers more downright pleasure in sheer listening terms.
There have been rock groups that have consciously delved into the past. The most notable example to date has been mainly Canadian group, The Band. Its lead guitarist Robbie Robertson in particular continued that work after the group split in the early 70s, most recently exploring the Native American dimension. But their best work was nonetheless was marred perhaps by an excessively elliptical style while the strength of Earle’s lyrics partly stems from its very straightforwardness.
The only note of caution to sound here concerns the pressure to play loud, itself both a reflection and source of excessive levels of noise pollution in modern society. The McCoury sound is a comparatively gentle, subtle one and, sadly the ears of many record buyers have been so befouled by heavy metal, rap, drum ‘n bass, and blaring disco that such fine sounds may not get their listeners they serve. In turn, this may put an irresistible pressure on Earle himself to overcrank the wattage on his next outing. Sadly, the distinction between greater musical power and more decibels of sound is one widely ignored.
Perhaps Earle somewhat indulges himself in the ‘outlaw’ persona on some of his CDs. After all, one person’s ‘rebel rouser’ is another’s anti-social pest. There is a thin line between individual liberty, which he clearly cherishes, and a destructive licence, something exploited by bodies such as the gun lobby. That his music provokes such thoughts is a testament to its strength, a stark contrast to the barrenness of most music today.
Earle may not have been a model citizen but he certainly has served his time on the music scene and it is far richer for his efforts. The excellent CD, Car Wheel on a Gravel Road, from Lucinda Williams, a bluesier folk artist, was, for example, part produced by Earle. Globalisation and the commercial imperative together might be ironing out the once rich diversity of musical cultures around the world. But as long as Steve Earle and others ploughing a similar furrow (Ry Cooder first springs to mind) survive, there will still be riches to be found midst all the dross.
This essay from 2009 explores how the film industry and individual movies reflect certain worldviews about the Earth and sustainability issues. It also discuss how they may be encouraging certain perceptions as well as having more direct physical impacts.