Ill Fares the Land (Bill Bryden, 1983)
BY PABLO DE CASTRO
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
This blog is usually devoted to Spanish films, mostly in the domain of social cinema, so an entry discussing a Scottish film about St Kilda is a rarity and will need some generosity from the editors to get it published. This said, this is a very special and little-know film: the Wikipedia entry for the islands of St Kilda (checked on the 6th of May 2018) mentions this film “is not currently on commercial release”. There is in fact no official poster for this film, just this.
This is not a total surprise – the film is a kind of TV documentary that its director shot for Channel 4 in the early eighties. It was his first film and although its title is a reference to a well-known poem by Oliver Goldsmith, it’s hard not to see in a film called ‘Ill fares the land’ a not-so-subtle reference to the general state of affairs in Britain at the time this work was prepared and carried out. This may or not be accidental — the poem is read at the end of the film and totally fits the events described in it, which are restricted to St Kilda and its people — but it may well have played a role in its subsequent obscurity (a Google search for ‘Poor Cow Loach’, also a first film and not such a different one in tone, yields 69,100 results, while one for “Ill fares the land Bryden” produces 26,700, most of them devoted to the famous book that Tony Judt wrote in 2011 with the same title). There are almost no online reviews for the film, and all those available seem to have copy-pasted the same couple of paragraphs – if that many.
Now a rare screening of this ‘Ill fares the land’ was held at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on May 5th, 2018 within the Folk Film Gathering 2018, which this reporter had the fortune of attending. The copy that was screened was not perfect and the intertitles between each of the four reels that make up the piece were clearly visible — it looked as if the copy had been rescued from some dusty TV archive. However, the film was screened at the Filmhouse Room 1, which is massive. And the room was completely full.
This defies all the rules of modern film marketing at a time when almost as much budget is spent on advertising as in the actual making of the film – and is at the same time a quintessentially Scottish phenomenon. Almost everyone in the room seemed to be aware that this film is a masterpiece, but it’s still very rarely screened and barely mentioned anywhere. Michael Powell’s ‘The Edge of the world’ is world-famous, as it is Flaherty’s ‘Men of Aran’. Both have countless online reviews, often excellent, that help new generations rediscover works that become effectively immortal in the process. Even John McGrath’s ‘The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil’ with its very political, almost propagandistic style gets frequently screened, if often in the ‘black market’ of alternative venues with precious little publicity. But ‘Ill fares the land’ is not political, but mostly an invaluable piece of anthropology (Jean Rouch is the inevitable reference for the genre) and at least as good as ‘The Edge of the World’. Still, Scots just prefer to keep it to oursels – boasting is not something we do over here.
Since this is supposed to be read by fans of Spanish cinema, think the film-within-the-film footage of Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ in ‘The Spirit of the beehive’ or think the short films that those blessed souls engaged in the paedagogical missions during the Second Spanish Republic screened at godforsaken villages that had never witnessed a projection. This powerful construct is also there at ‘Ill fares the land’, very much in the style of ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ but under far more doomed circumstances: the first film ever screened in Hirtha is a funny Chaplin sequence with a stepladder, and we have the privilege of being there watching the awkward expressions on the islanders’ faces.
There is so much more than this in the film though. One may need to have a soft spot for unusual semi-documentary films like Guerín‘s ‘Innisfree’ to adequately value this gem ignoring – even appreciating – the flaws in the copy. Or one may perhaps need to be Scottish or Irish.
Only it’s not true. When the 36 remaining inhabitants of St Kilda were evacuated in 1930, Michael Powell caught sight of the small notice in the newspaper and realised the power of the story: after millennia of permanent human presence in Hirtha, the whole community left there at the time was to be transplanted to the mainland. St Kilda used to be called ‘the loneliest island in Great Britain’ and only saw two ships a year (“three if lucky”). Powell did not make a documentary though, or not exactly – there is far more of a dramatic plot in “The Edge of the world” than in “Ill fares the land”. The latter seems to have been conceived as a humble TV documentary – it’s not easy to tell as there seem to be few traces left, at least when checking online sources.
‘Ill fares the land’ was shot in the proper locations, something that was denied to Powell in the 1930s. There is a resonance of Walden in the story and utter respect for the community that 1920s Glaswegian newspapers described as ‘living in the past’. This community is doomed (perhaps not every member of it) and we the spectators know it, but then times have changed enormously ever since, and Glasgow is no longer the place of never-ceasing noise and wages that it was then. Strangely enough, the pendulum of history is moving back to the side of those islanders that were living in the past, that were received as a zoological curiosity upon their arrival to the mainland and half of which died of TB shortly afterwards for lack of any immune defence. The film does not go out of its way to present them as the innocent natives – this is a documentary with its rock-solid duty of authenticity. If anything, there is this old-school trait of ancient testament fundamentalism not unlike what we see in Reygadas’s ‘Luz silenciosa’. But there’s above all this love for the ‘characters’ (you would call them characters if this were a fiction film, which it’s not), this deep empathy towards the all-too-human community we all recognise as our common past. And while not at all political, there’s also an inevitable undercurrent of socialism in it. A very Scottish one for all that.
Pablo de Castro works as Open Access Advocacy Librarian at the University of Strathclyde. He is passionate about cinema and Cinema City.