No popcorn but a piano on-stage. Saturday mornings at the cinema just became a whole new experience. Or maybe we've been transported to a Twenties picture-house or 'Electric Palace' as they were billed. We were actually in Leicester's Phoenix Arts Cinema, a hub of local independent film-making in the digital age. But at 9am we settled down in the dark of Studio 2 for an inspired BFI homage to silent film with multiple features and live music.
I'd been seduced by a B&W photo of a 'full-rigged' ship in all its matchstick beauty with echoes of Shackleton'sEndurance from the same era. What I hadn't expected was a dark documentary wrapped in an English comedy. Moreover, this silent documentary filmed by two Australian journalists-turned-sailors had then had 'talkie' scenes inserted by London film studios. Apparently a movie mogul had demanded: 'Don't that ship ever get to no place, for god's sake! 20 seconds of that sea-stuff is enough for anyone!' A comedy writer was hired to pen a fictional script while a cast of earthy 'swabbers' delivered the conflict. Love interest was supplied by various cut-out women pinned by the sailors to their bunks. Open-air deck scenes were pure documentary. But it was the uneasy and quarrelsome comradeship of the sea that the resulting 1930 movie zoomed in on below-deck.
The mogul was wrong about 'the sea stuff' and the writer missed the extraordinary real-life drama of the Grace Harwar voyage of 1929. It was two Australians, AJ Villiers and Gregory Walker, who ditched their jobs on a Melbourne paper to make a cinematic record of the last of the full-rigged grain ships of the era. Indeed it amazed me that long after luxury Cunard liners and WW1 U-boats, these wooden ships with billowing sails were still undertaking a perilous journey from Australia to London via the notorious Cape Horn. Walker and Villiers, both in their 20s, spent their life-savings on two cameras and joined an inexperienced and unlucky crew of 13 for a voyage of disasters. Following a becalming in the Doldrums, near starvation and food-poisoning by piglets, Walker was killed during a storm. The traumatised crew also saw two attempted suicides and one nervous-breakdown before limping into harbour a month late.
Yet out of this disaster, Villiers salvaged a remarkable film, despite not knowing how to work all the equipment. The two journalists had no movie experience but Walker had had some flair with a camera. They were dedicated to capturing the fierce beauty of the high seas, and shots of giant waves rolling onto the decks and men pinned to the spars above wrestling with heavy canvas sails give the film a unique authenticity. To be fair to the Welwyn Studios who added all the below-deck talkie scenes, they created a claustrophobic atmosphere with constantly dripping bunks and convincing sound-effects of wind, wood and water. But the eeriest moment of the film is when the young hero, standing in for an unnamed Walker, is buried at sea. Real film footage of a harrowed crew grimly gathered on-deck is mixed with shots of studio actors and Grace Harwar's tragedy collides with a movie story-arc. In truth, the reason I found this film so affecting is because a pre-showing introduction by BFI speaker Laraine Porter framed the action with a history of the film's making. The intersection of Walker-Villiers raw footage, the 'sea-stuff', with an ensemble cast performance, made for a powerful maritime movie with a tragic undertow.
The Festival continues on Sunday 13th. Catch these rare cinematic gems while you can. I'll be looking them out in the BFI's store of DVDs along with Villier's book. More reviews to follow ...