Robert J. Flaherty’s visual ironies contradict the propagandistic aims of Industrial Britain, a documentary paean to British labor of various kinds, from “the coal fields of England, Scotland and Wales” to British steel, which “is used to build bridges, dams and power stations across half the world.” The confident, borderline bombastic narrator’s passing mention of India suggests a hidden subject: the British empire, which links the present to the past in defiance of the First World War’s wobbling of Great Britain’s glory days. (The Second World War up ahead will be even more decisive in putting to bed the realities, and even many of the illusions, of empire.) At the close the narrator refers to “the individual skill of so many English workers” (emphasis added). So much for those pesky miners in Scotland and Wales!
The narrator assures us that “industrial towns aren’t as drab as they seem,” but Flaherty’s images—that pesky Flaherty, with an Irish name, from the colonies (I mean, States)—tell a different story. Drab doesn’t describe the half of it; sometimes white, sometimes black, smoke keeps belching away, polluting the heavens. Flaherty—see Louisiana Story (1948)—never had a Soviet-type romance with industry. The characterization of factory machinery in Industrial Britain tends toward abstraction; we see odd shapes, forms in relentlessly repetitive motion. At least, this interrupts the narrator’s efforts to forge a “continuity of English [that word again] craftsmanship and skill” connecting present-day Britain to the past. With humbug national modesty, the narrator explains that the English aren’t a superior race, but “our ordinary workmen have a tradition of skill behind them.” Indeed, it is fun to watch potters and glass blowers at work.
Yes, look at this brilliant film, on which Basil Wright and Arthur Elton assisted.
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