The Brothers / Floodtide Review
This month sees the release of two Scottish-set rarities from the 1940s courtesy of Park Circus. The Brothers, directed by David MacDonald and released in 1947, hit the shelves this week, whilst Floodtide, a gentle romance from 1949 starring Gordon Jackson, is out on the 20th. In both cases this represents their first showing on disc, Floodtide having never previously been available in a home media format. (The Brothers had a VHS release in the nineties courtesy of VCI.) Furthermore, television screenings have been similarly scarce meaning that for many these particular discs will mark the first opportunity to have seen either - which, incidentally, is also true in my case. They’re the latest in a wonderful run of British obscurities cropping up on disc in 2011 to rank alongside those in the BFI’s Flipside strand, Odeon’s Best of British range, the various quota quickies Renown have been putting out monthly and sundry others from a variety of labels, whether it be Optimum issuing a newly restored print of early talkie The Flying Scotsman or Network and their extras-packed Blu-ray of Ron Peck’s Empire State. The back catalogue of homegrown cinema really is a treasure trove full of forgotten gems and wonders; the fact that so many companies seem willing to delve makes this a particularly pleasurable time for audiences similarly inclined.
Part of the appeal of this raiding of the vaults is the ability it allows not only to reconsider the films themselves but also the driving forces behind them. This has been especially apparent of late with the critical rehabilitation of John Krish, resulting in appearances of his films on various DVD collections, a cinema touring programme, a dedicated Blu-ray set and an Evening Standard Film Award. Arguably the men behind both The Brothers and Floodtide are less receptive to such a rethink or rediscovery, though in both cases they remain intriguing figures. David MacDonald, the director of The Brothers, started out working with Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood before returning to England to work on a handful of quota quickies and, subsequently, various military film units during the war years. The best known and most widely seen of his documentary work is Men of the Lightship, which can be found on the BFI’s third GPO Film Unit volume, although he also produced the Boulting Brothers’ Desert Victory and Burma Victory. The Brothers marked his return to fiction filmmaking following demobilisation and was swiftly followed by a series of lesser works which still crop up regularly on British television: Christopher Columbus, Cairo Road, The Bad Lord Byron, and so on. According to Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane’s The British ‘B’ Film, “rumoured personal difficulties” led to a gradual descent into a return to the quota movie - some of which, such as Devil Girl from Mars, remain appealing - and work on episodic television. He would make only more ‘A’ picture, the Stewart Granger swashbuckler The Moonraker, another which occasionally appears in the television schedules. Prior to viewing The Brothers I’d always perceived MacDonald as a minor talent. Having now watched the film it’s more tempting to mark as a lost talent; his subsequent work takes on a different air given the many riches and qualities of the particular feature, but more of that in a moment.
Floodtide’s director and co-writer Frederick Wilson was less prolific than MacDonald and would helm only four pictures. He remains known primarily as an editor with his name popping up on films as diverse as Caesar and Cleopatra, Doctor at Large, The Quiller Memorandum and Michael Winner’s Lawman. His move in direction came about thanks to his setting up, alongside David Rawnsley and his fellow Floodtide screenwriter Donald Wilson, of Aquila Film Productions. Their output totalled just four features, two of which Wilson directed whilst Donald Wilson (no relation) and Michael Barry, respectively, handled duties on the others. The presence of Rawnsley is significant as he invented the ‘Independent Frame’ technique, a form of back projection that would, it was hoped, cut production costs as entire features could be filmed at Pinewood. The first Aquila venture was also the first for Independent Frame, the romantic comedy Warning to Wantons (which was the one Donald Wilson directed). IF was also used on Wilson’s Floodtide and Poet’s Pub, made the same year, in the case of the former allowing the Clyde shipbuilding setting to be integrated into the action more easily. (Don’t Ever Leave Me, a non-Aquila IF film directed by Arthur Crabtree has just been issued onto disc by Odeon.) In many ways, the story of Independent Frame - its lack of success (having been abandoned after a handful of flops) and its prefiguring of Pinewood Studios’ place at the forefront of effects production (as seen most obviously with the James Bond pictures) - is a more interesting one than that of Wilson’s career. Yet a release such as Floodtide is welcome nonetheless for the insight it provides into such a minor figure. Were it not here Wilson would likely fall only further into obscurity.
Placed side by side The Brothers is arguably the superior work and certainly the richest. Other than the Scottish setting, and the reliable presence of John Laurie, the two films are very different. Indeed, whereas Floodtide goes for the contemporary setting of shipbuilding on the Clyde, The Brothers slips back to the turn of the last century, a shift that allows it mine more interesting territory. Both are essentially romances, yet if Floodtide’s is generally straight-laced and rather uncomplicated (save for a couple of twists and turns to flesh out the narrative), then The Brothers is able to moor its romantic elements within a landscape that is both rich and strange. The setting is the Isle of Skye and the drama plays out amongst two feuding families, the MacRaes and MacFarishes. Patricia Roc is a young woman of marrying age who enters the lives of the MacRaes (elderly father and two sons) as their servant. Orphaned and convent educated, she is warned against sinning by the local priest upon arrival but nevertheless attracts male attention from both sides of the feuding parties. This set-up has clear potential for melodrama, yet the wealth of surrounding detail is such that it never falls into easy categorisation. This is a place of thick mist and illegal whiskey production, where informers are sentenced to death by a bizarre ritual in which a fish is tied to their head so that a passing bird will crack their skull, where John Laurie has the second sight (and ups his wild eye-rolling to emphasise as much) and men tussle in waterfalls. As one of the characters puts it early on Roc represents “a daffodil growing in a dung heap” and so naturally her newfound home has its effect. Not only does she inspire tensions between the already warring families but also amongst the MacRaes themselves. The sense of brooding sexuality is present throughout, though never more apparent than in the scene of Andrew Crawford spying on Roc taking a naked dip. It’s also quite remarkably risqué for the time with clear sight of Roc’s - or perhaps that of a stand-in’s - behind as she strips off before taking to the waters.
Such extraordinary moments are tempered with the occasional lighter distraction - scenes of drunken comedy, a bit of business involving Will Fyffe and his accordion - but the overall feel of The Brothers is considerably dark and moody. The ending, especially, is incredibly downbeat. Arguably the shifts in tone are not always beneficial; it can seem as though the broader likes of Will Hay vehicle The Ghost of St. Michaels or the Will Fyffe-starring Owd Bob (which has also just made its DVD debut) have suddenly invaded Michael Powell’s evocative The Edge of the World. Yet such occasional inconsistencies never prove too detrimental and the brooding melodrama continually holds sway. Indeed, the overall results are really quite impressive, to the point where you feel that David MacDonald’s subsequent choices and assignments - or at least those which I’ve had the chance to see - demonstrate a palpable waste of talent. They’re not all outright terrible and oftentimes have certain elements with which to recommend (Dennis Price as Lord Byron, for example, has an in-built appeal, whilst Devil Girl from Mars is fascinating simply as a low rent science fiction populated by the likes of John Laurie, Hazel Court and Adrienne Corri). But then none seem to demonstrate the knack MacDonald has for creating truly atmospheric drama as so plainly evident in The Brothers. It’s a fascinating film and one fully deserving of this particular re-release. Hopefully this newfound availability will prompt some reconsideration and allow The Brothers to find its rightful place as a terrific piece of forties British cinema. And maybe the likes of Odeon and Renown will follow suit and excavate some of MacDonald’s later works - surely that talent didn’t go entirely to waste and some other gems remain awaiting rehabilitation.
In comparison to The Brothers’ riches and genuine sense of rediscovery, Floodtide is simply a pleasant experience, nothing more and nothing less. Whereas the former taps into some of the Scottish mythology, here the Clyde shipbuilding setting is simply a backdrop and nothing more. Having recently reviewed the BFI’s Tales from the Shipyard set and Panamint Cinema’s Blu-ray edition of Faces of Scotland (which contains the definitive documentary record of the Clyde, Seawards the Great Ships), it’s hard not to see this as a major loss. The combined atmosphere and history of those various factual records from across the years is reduced to a mere back projection; Gordon Jackson, John Laurie and others clearly occupying a stage at Pinewood whilst David Rawnsley’s Independent Frame method does the technical wizardry. As such it never truly integrates with the narrative proper - the basic set-up is that Jackson becomes an apprentice at the shipyard thanks to his kindly Uncle Joe (Laurie, much more restrained than in The Brothers) and works his way up thanks to his talent, enthusiasm and a romance with the boss’ daughter - and, indeed, the Clyde could easily have been replaced by some other industrial setting.
In the absence of any genuine sense of place Floodtide is best taken as an engaging tale of one man’s success through hard work and a reasonably cute romance. With regards to the latter the love interest is played by Rona Anderson, who would soon marry Jackson after the pair met on set. Any extra frisson doesn’t really translate to the screen, however, much like the rest of the film. Ultimately Floodtide is rather ordinary, telling a fairly predictable tale with a standard romance. Qualities are there and, overall, it remains a well-made and well-played piece - as it should be given the reliable presence of Jackson, Laurie, Elizabeth Sellars and, in a particularly engaging turn, James Logan. In many ways this is perfectly acceptable as any example of solid filmmaking would be, although it doesn’t really mark out director Frederick Wilson as some hitherto ignored talent (unlike the claims The Brothers makes for MacDonald). Connoisseurs of vintage British cinema will nonetheless find plenty to interest and engage, although if you’re torn between deciding which of the two Park Circus discs to go for, The Brothers is undoubtedly the more rewarding.
The Brothers and Floodtide are being released separately by Park Circus but in many ways their respective DVDs share the same qualities and flaws. Both have been encoded for Region 2 PAL, present the films in original Academy ratios and mono soundtracks from decent enough prints and come with scant extras totalling only brief image galleries in each case (production stills, behind the scenes shots, posters). The lack of special features is forgivable seeing as readily available contextualising pieces on either film would undoubtedly be hard to come by - although booklet notes would have been welcome - but then this does place a burden on the presentation and, admittedly, neither is perfect. As said, the source materials appear to be in generally good shape; blemishes and the like are few and far between, to the point where you barely notice. Yet the transfers in each case can be problematic, albeit for differing reasons. The Brothers suffers from blown out white levels which have resulted in a lack of clarity during long shots (close-ups remain wonderfully detailed however) and some prominent edge enhancement. It’s arguably not a massive problem, but it nonetheless disappoints given the quality of the print - had it been handled better The Brothers would look little short of terrific. Floodtide on the other hand has much better contrast levels although the source materials appear somewhat softer than those of The Brothers. Detail remains good and, again, damage is minimal as are signs of age, but there is a frequent instability to the image that can become trying on the eye. Watching certain sequences frame by frame you’ll notice movement in the entire picture which translates to a moderate judder when played at correct speed. Once again it’s not massively problematic and only genuinely apparent during the occasional shot or scene, but still the situation remains whereby the transfer could have been handled a little better. The soundtracks in both cases, meanwhile, are generally favourable: Floodtide demonstrates no untoward issues, whereas The Brothers has occasionally inconsistent levels between dialogue and score, although it is perfectly reasonable to assume that these were inherent in the original materials. As for subtitles, none are present, English or otherwise.