Bill Douglas Among the Philistines: From the Trilogy to Comrades (Preview)
by Kate Webb
A scene from Comrades
Until recently, the only way viewers in the U.K. could see Bill Douglas’s 1987 film, Comrades, was by stumbling across it during one of Film4’s rare, late-night broadcasts. American moviegoers were even less lucky, since the film was never released here. Thankfully, in 2009 the British Film Institute (BFI) released it on DVD, marking the first appearance in any video format of this three-hour historical epic. And in March of this year, the BFI released a dual DVD and Blu-ray all-region edition, so viewers worldwide can at last appreciate Douglas’s remarkable but largely neglected film.
Comrades tells the story of six Devon men who became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs when they were transported to Australia in 1834 as punishment for organizing one of the world’s first trade unions. The film was only Douglas’s second major piece of work for the cinema; it was also his last. Yet, together with the trilogy of autobiographical films he made in the Seventies about growing up in a deprived Scottish mining village, this “poor man’s epic,” eight difficult years in the making, constitutes one of the most important, and overlooked, canons in British filmmaking.
The reasons for his neglect were obvious to Douglas, and to those around him who recognized his rare talent and tried, against the odds, to foster it. Mamoun Hassan, who helped produce the trilogy(My Childhood,1972; My Ain Folk, 1973; My Way Home, 1978), also offered Douglas a teaching position at the National Film School when finance for his projects was not forthcoming. He recalls being told by Lindsay Anderson, an early admirer and encourager of Douglas’s work: “Remember, Mamoun, the English are philistines.” Douglas himself warned his friend, the novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan, that talent needed protecting but there was no system in Britain to properly nurture it. “He was a complete victim,” O’Hagan thought, of the “cultural intolerance in the British film industry of the noncommercial.”
At times this “intolerance” amounted to more than a refusal to fund Douglas’s work. (When he died of cancer in 1991, he left several finished but unrealized scripts, including a life portrait of the motion-picture pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge, and an adaptation of James Hogg’sConfessions of a Justified Sinner.) He was often the target of Establishment disapproval, his films deemed “hopelessly slow” (BBC film critic Barry Norman) and unfashionable. Nor did they fit comfortably into the categories of British storytelling, in which, conventionally, the working class or dispossessed are portrayed in a realist vein. The New York Times film critic, Vincent Canby, found Comrades “elaborately misconceived.” Even Sheila Rowbotham, the socialist historian, while applauding the film’s effort, criticized Douglas for a style she considered immodest for its subject: “The flaws of Comradesderive from the grandeur of Douglas’s cinematic ambition.”
As a child, Douglas spent as much time as he could at the cinema. Too poor to pay for a ticket, he’d barter his way in with empty jam jars. His love of film stemmed from a desire to escape the meager world he inhabited, where “it always seemed to be raining or grey… my heart would sink to despairing depths. I hated reality.” Illegitimate and orphaned (his mother became mentally ill after contracting puerperal fever, his father absconded), life was so austere that, even after National Service provided an escape route from Newcraighall, Douglas remained “obsessed” by his origin and the uneasy distinction he believed it conferred upon him. It’s not surprising, then, that when he came to make his first full-fledged film, he decided to portray the bitterness of the place and its people. The Trilogy, in its depiction of cruelty and indifference to children, has something of George Orwell’s “power of facing unpleasant facts,” although without ever succumbing to didacticism—perhaps because its view is that of an insider.
For the same reason, the three films have a degree of inwardness, seeming organic rather than shaped by the demands of character or plot. They are constructed as memory poems, assemblies of moments, feelings, and atmospheres that leave the viewer in the same position as the children they are watching: struggling to understand the behavior of inscrutable and alarming adults. Douglas’s scripts were similarly unorthodox, written without shot direction and reading more like works of pared-back prose. The first of these was initially titled Jamie, so as to disguise its autobiographical nature, but when Douglas sent it to Lindsay Anderson, he was advised to take a leaf out of Gorky’s book.My Childhood is set in 1945 and was filmed in the same windblown village not far from Edinburgh where Douglas grew up. Its portrayal of two brothers, Jamie and Tommy, scavenging for coal, without a coat even in the iciest of Scottish winters, sears itself onto the mind. No one witnessing Stephen Archibald, the boy who plays Jamie, could forget his harrowed face.
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