What message does John Grierson want to transmit in his films Night Mail and Drifters? John Grierson (1898-1972) was a British intellectual who believed in the political role of the artist and emphasized social purpose through the creation of documentary films. Grierson is considered to be the father of documentary film. I am going to discuss two of his films: Night Mail (1930) and Drifters (1929). Night Mail is one of a number of films associated with his work, who led a group including Basil Wright, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha and Arthur Elton.
Night Mail was the first of its kind in terms of Short Film with documentary styling. The film promoted a government agency, the GPO that was a monopoly that covered mail and telegraphs as well as other new electronic systems linked to defense and national security. The GPO film unit made documentaries to promote British industry to the British public. The film was under the direction of Basil Wright and Harry Watt working with John Grierson as a producer.Order now
The film documents the struggle and processes gone through by the Royal Mail Train Delivery service that travels from London to Scotland in the 1930’s. Night Mail is a propagandistic film that looks at various things such as the way the post was sorted, dropped and collected from various places by catching the bags at high speeds in retracting net and the teamwork spirit of the post office employees. The journey that the train does provides the narrative structure of the film and the places that the train passes through are used to construct a particular representation of Britain.
However, in what the film seems more interested about is in persuading and promoting the ideas of the government. The film is trying to show us how reliable the mail delivery is as it can deliver the mail on time, how powerful and useful the service is and how caring the government employees who do their task are. Night Mail is a didactic, inspirational and propagandistic documentary with the intention of revealing and informing about how efficient the government employees are. It uses propaganda techniques in a more indirect way than the audience might have expected.
The train works in both a political and social function. The film focuses on the skill of workers and the importance of their role for maintaining Britain’s success as a world power. Through the shots of the trains carrying the post overnight and their arrival in different cities as well as the hard work of the workers doing their best to process the mail on time, Grierson invites the audience into the realistic representation of the postal service working class and their dedication towards the British nation.
A completely proud positive statement is made in this film about working life in Industrial Britain and it’s achieved through the union of poetry and realism. Night Mail starts with a voiceover commentary describing how the mail is collected. Then, as the train continues with its journey, we can see the different railway stations at which it stops to collect and drop the mail. Grierson explains every meaning of the postal service to the audience showing various scenes like the bags of mail exiting and entering the train.
The characters of the film had a scripted dialog and they communicated with each other which add to its nature of being a film that pushes for a social issue to influence its viewers. In this film Grierson wants to present the working class as heroes, he doesn’t show much about the characters personality and hides their personal lives (how much they earn, how they eat or how they live) and this just makes the audience realize that what’s important in this film is not the workers lives but the dedication they have towards Great Britain, and that’s what Grierson wants the vital message for the film to be.
This short documentary wants to impress its viewers and influence them into thinking of the industry as strong and well positioned to be a world power. “It doesn’t happen by accident, films are designed to have effects on viewers ? (Bordwell and Thompson, 2008). The audience never gets to see the commentator but he is present through the whole film. The narrative is unique and the voiceover tries to tell to the audience exactly what journey the train does and how the workers do a great job collecting and sorting out the mail, the images on the screen therefore just emphasize the narrative.
W. H. Auden’s poem is spoken by Pat Jackson and while he reads the poem he imitates the rhythm of the train’s wheels as they go over the track sections which begin slowly but gains speed and by the time he is reading the penultimate verse he is almost out of breath. The film uses a lot of interesting camera angles, using point of view shots and shots of outside the train, which gives the audience a sense of speed, and the shots of above the train that give its viewers a sense of direction as we see the winding track in front of us.
The juxtaposition between the man and the train, the close up shots of the moving wheels on the track, the point of view of the engine involving its viewers in and the good timing of the workers getting the bags of mail out of the train while listening to the sound of the wheels as their going over the train track shows the audience a poetic and artistic skill. The editing is relatively rapid, it uses fades and dissolves and sometimes some unexpected cuts from close-ups to long-shots, creating a rhythm and an interest for the viewer and making the film appear to be more than just a short documentary.
The shots rarely last more than eight seconds and in some scenes, for example the scene where the train passes the track workers, includes shots of two seconds long. If you look carefully you can tell which scenes have been filmed in the studio and which ones have been filmed as they were happening. The scenes filmed in the studio make the dialogue of the workers talking to each other sound scripted.
For example, in the first dialogue scene, when they are sorting all the bags of mail on the train you can tell that they are not acting like themselves but they have a script to follow. The film lacks truth as it does not represent the reality of the event it is trying to transmit. Night Mail’s appeal was partly due to the combination of modern cinematographic developments using the experimentation in sound and visual style. I find that the representation of actuality does not complete the duty of evidence for the representation offered us.
Actuality is used in order to create a story, rather than a story created in order to represent actuality. “Documentary re-presents the historical world by making an indexical record of it; it represents the historical world by shaping this record from a distinct perspective or point of view. The evidence of the representation supports the argument or perspective of the representation ? ( Nichols, Introduction to Documentary) Drifters (1929) is John Grierson’s first approach to documentary film.
Grierson is the director of only two films of which Drifters is the most well known and many considered that this film started a new era in documentary film making. It’s a silent documentary and it tells us the story about herring fishing in the North Sea. The film shows us the hard work of the fishermen in the North Sea and follows the daily routines of a group of fishermen that start with their early preparations and end with the eventual sale of their catch at market.
The film follows the boat and its crew through the journey out to the fishing grounds showing us the whole life cycle of an industrial process and it contains many shots showing us the skills and techniques of the manual activities, such as catching the fish, unfolding the nets, the transport of the fish to the market and the barreling of the fish. Drifters illustrates the effort of the working class through the use of dramatization, giving them serious attention rather than a comical outlook.
Instead of dramatic camera angles and scripted dialogues like in Night Mail, the fisherman in this documentary are actually doing their real job and without any kind of acting or scripted dialogue. The film shows the audience how much the fisherman work and how hard and tiring their job of catching fish and selling it at the market actually is. The film focuses more on the working-class rather than the middle-class and the scenes that are set in the market place have a different atmosphere and signification from those shot on the fishing boat.
The market is a social space, less moral and worthwhile than the communal life of the boat. You can see that the film is shot mainly on location, on the sea and in all types of weather. The film lies less in the narrative and more in the images themselves, the good quality of many of the shots and the careful juxtaposition of them, which together strengthens the potential of the documentary as a creative form. For example, the opening scenes of the film show a nice and pleasant rural landscape, while other shots stay on the group of seagulls that follow the boat in the hope for food.
The editing of this film consists of various individually filmed shots that when they are put together produce a coherent story creating a montage or a sequence. What I find that is special about this documentary it is not just the realism of the events happening in the images, but the way the footage is put together and how it creates something fascinating. Grierson puts together effective montages that cut between the pulse of the boat’s machinery, the hard work of the fishermen doing their job and the bad weather that doesn’t help with the fishing.
The film doesn’t have any tension or drama but it has a beauty in its imagery that makes it hard to look away from. Because of the constant focus on machines and Industrial Britain, Grierson clearly sides with modernity. However, the shots keep jumping back and forth between the fisherman that are struggling with the weight of the nets, the instruments going all over the place and with uncompromising weather shows that his feelings about modernity are ambivalent and all combined it shows the audience the fantastic relation between man and nature.
I find that the film is a bit slow and I think that there’s a frequent repetition of various shots that there’s no point in having, for example the shot where you can only see the fisherman’s legs and boots going down the stairs in the boat, I find that the shot shouldn’t be repeated so often. Grierson doesn’t show much about any of the crew members and I think he could of made the film more interesting by showing a bit more of them, especially of the captain of the boat who lies awake at night and the cabin boy who is learning how to cook for all the fishermen.
These two characters seem to have natural and strong personalities that Grierson should have taken advantage of and would have made the film more interesting to the audience because the result of the film is not entirely satisfying. However, apart from the film being a bit to slow, I think that the film is shot and edited in a very artistic way and I especially like the close up shots of the fishes and the seagulls following the boat. I think that the film offers the viewer a different kind of visual pleasure that shows the directors commitment to experimentation with form.
The narrative of the documentary allows the audience to get close to the fisherman in order to observe their unseen activities. In this film Grierson shows the fascination that he has for the natural world: for the fisherman and for the seagulls, for the weather changes and for their strange moods and untold stories. I think one of the best scenes of this documentary and the one that makes the film stand out is the fishing scene where the small boat and the sailors have a showdown with the dangerous North Atlantic ocean.
In conclusion, I think that Grierson makes it very clear to the audience what the message he wants to transmit in his films. What Grierson seems more interested about his films is in persuading and promoting an idea of the government and showing the audience the dedication of the working class towards the British nation. He presents the working class as heroes and he purposely hides the characters personality and their personal lives making the audience realize that what’s important in his film is the dedication that the workers have towards Great Britain.
A completely proud and positive statement is shown in both of the films about the working life in Industrial Britain and how useful and caring the government employees who do their task are. Grierson’s films have a constant focus on machine parts and industrial Britain and this shows us how he clearly sides with modernity. Both films have an artistic style and they both use a lot of close up shots and point of view shots. I think overall that the visual imagery in both films is fascinating and shows how Grierson was a master of his trade.
Bordwell, D and Thompson, K (2008) Film Art: An Introduction, Eighth Edition: University of Wisonsin.
Nichols, Introduction to Documentary.
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