A while ago now I ordered a copy of a film that I thought was going to be perfect for ‘You Have Been Watching…’ as even though I had never heard of it, nor had anyone else I spoke to (possibly because what I was describing to them didn’t exist). The film is the 1934 film Man of Aran. A bit like my approach to The Dark Night Rises, I didn’t read any reviews as I wanted to approach it fresh; my first mistake. Look at the picture to the left and you will spot my second. In my haste to uncover a lost Scottish classic I overlooked the lack of a second ‘R’ until the VHS copy that cost me more than I’m willing to tell you popped through the door.
This Aran, as I’m sure any fule kno except the one writing this, is a group of small islands off the west coast of Ireland, not the larger one over the sea from Ardrossan that I assumed it to be. But I don’t see why my stupidity should stop you hearing about what turned out to be a truly amazing film.
It is about the fragile nature of the relationship between man and the elements that accompanies much of island life in Northern Europe, and it centres on the family of Colman ‘Tiger’ King who is the Man of the title. He lives on this desolate place with his wife, son and various other fisherman. The land gives up little except potatoes, so they rely on the sea to provide them with almost everything else. There are many scenes with Tiger’s wife carrying her own body weight in seaweed, and we are left in no doubt that life is hard for everyone. It also makes it clear that there is a strong connection between the islanders and the land. There would have to be.
But the most memorable presence is that of the Atlantic Ocean as it batters the island and those who inhabit it. You can see from this film how ancient civilisations though that the sea was charged by the whims of gods, punishing those who had dealings with her if they became too greedy or showed a lack of respect. This is all filmed in documentary style, and it shows that the greatest special effects and CGI cannot match what a great cinematographer can capture in the real world. A major part of the film (it is only 76mins long) is of the men of Aran stalking, capturing and killing a basking shark, and it is one of the most exhilarating pieces of footage I can think of due to the very real threat to the men in the boat. It is likely that some scenes were filmed elsewhere, but there is no escaping what they are dealing with is a real, and huge, shark even if it is a toothless one. Spielberg take note, forget the mechanics, this is how you do it.
There is very little dialogue in the film but the visuals speak for themselves, and the last 15 mins in particular are astonishing. A helpless Tiger and his family marvel at the power of the sea as it batters the island relentlessly as though it is angered by what has been taken from it. I cannot overstate how extraordinary these scenes are. The individuals seem insignificant as the elements rage, and you can sense the danger that was faced every day. If you are a fan of the Bill Douglas Trilogy then you’ll recognise and appreciate Flaherty’s style, but the film it most reminds me of is Michael Powell’s debut feature The Edge of the World which was made in 1937. It was filmed on Shetland as they weren’t allowed to use the original location of St Kilda, and it shows the decline of the fishing industry in the Western Isles of Scotland. Like Man of Aran it depicts island life as bleak, although they are fishing herring rather than hunting shark. It also has a fantastic performance from a young John Laurie.
The style of A Man of Aran is described as fictional documentary, which does ask questions about what is real and what was filmed for effect. An interesting piece of trivia which may or may not be true is that the Aran men had not hunted shark for generations, and an Inuit hunter was brought in to teach the current islanders to do so. This makes those scenes even more extraordinary than I first thought, and makes you wonder why they agreed to do it. The islands themselves are prehistoric in their brutality, and this is not just a snapshot of another time, but another world. At a time when there are all sorts of magic tricks at work in our cinemas, Man of Aran is a reminder that if you know how and where to point a camera you can create a magic that needs no embellishment. Here’s a clip of the film followed by a short video of basking sharks shot just off Whiting Bay on the other Isle of Arran. See, it all makes sense in the end:
Just as an aside, the recommendations from YouTube as to what people who watched the first video may also enjoy includes a fantastic collection of clips from the likes of Man Ray, British Transport Films, Basil Wright and more from Flaherty himself. You can find them here. It’s evocative stuff.