This film from the new British Council archive is fascinating in many ways. It’s visually sumptuous – the first time I think the Hebrides, previously captured by sharp-eyed photographers like Werner Kissling in monochrome, was portrayed in glorious Technicolor.
It weaves a simple dramatic narrative with a semi-documentary portrayal of everyday life – a Hebridean “blackhouse”, creating Harris tweed and the Gaelic singing that went with it. No surprise that the cinematography was by Jack Cardiff, later to work with Powell and Pressburger on features like The Red Shoes. But the most interesting part is the screen notes – filed here as trivia, but trivial they are not.
It was released in 1942 yet alludes to a real-life torpedo attack which apparently happened later. The Ministry of Information insisted that the Western Isles should not be distributed abroad, as it was counteractive to the war effort.
“The Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, personally wrote to the British Council, claiming that the film was ‘living proof of Goebbels’ statements that the British are frivolous, or that they are fighting the war to perpetuate a way of living long since outmoded, or that they have lost the intellectual, moral and industrial lead which they once held’ ” the notes say.
Bravo to the British Council then for telling Bracken where to go and distributing the the film nonetheless. This was perhaps a foretaste of the more celebrated run-in with the Ministry and Churchill over The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp where Cardiff worked as a camera operator in 1943. And two years later, the Hebrides was centre stage for Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going.
But this isn’t just a question of what constitutes wartime propaganda or improperganda. What it actually says about official attitudes to Gaelic and island life at that time is also open for debate. It was the same Ministry, under John Buchan’s leadership, which had a hand in antagonising the Women of Royaumont in World War One.
Also worthy of note is the appearance of the doctor – who would be a part of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service (HIMS) which next year celebrates its centenary. And they had to get more funding because early shooting was affected by bad weather. Surely not? Well OK – maybe. Prolonged downpours didn’t impair Kay Mander’s charming film of the HIMS – Highland Doctor filmed the following year but they did delay the shooting schedule for making Whisky Galore in 1948.
Thanks to the British Council for this little gem – and for the excellent research on its provenance.