An island on the screen
Richard Boyle recollects the making of one of the finest documentaries on Sri Lanka- Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon

2004 is the 70th anniversary of the making of Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon, one of the finest documentary films ever produced. Sri Lanka has inspired some notable 20th century artistic masterpieces, from D. H. Lawrence's poem "Elephant" to Henri Cartier-Bresson's portfolio of photographs. Then there is Basil Wright's film Song of Ceylon, one of the finest documentaries ever produced. Made in 1934, it has been assessed as the film that has "best projected the image of the country, the soul of its people, and the endless beauty of the landscape with a subtle touch of magic."

Song of Ceylon was one of many outstanding documentaries produced in the 1930s by the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit in London as the result of the pioneering vision of one man, John Grierson. In 1929, Grierson had directed the influential film Drifters, the simple story of the North Sea herring fishery, which was the first example of the British Documentary Movement. In the studio-bound British cinema of the time, a film like Drifters was revolutionary.

Grierson was a theoretician as well as a film-maker. He first used the term "documentary" in 1926 in a review of Robert Flaherty's film, Moana. "Of course, Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value," he wrote, later defining the word as "the creative treatment of actuality." It was Grierson who developed the documentary movement "to bring alive to the citizen the world in which his citizenship lay."

Instead of directing other films, Grierson devoted his energies to establishing a documentary film unit at the Empire Marketing Board. He gathered around him a group of young men - Paul Rotha, Harry Watt, Edgar Anstey, and Basil Wright, to name a few - who were all destined to make their own distinctive contribution to the genre.

Song of Ceylon was one of many documentaries made with sponsorship from industry and government departments - in this instance the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. Director-cameraman Basil Wright was chosen to direct the four one-reelers that had been commissioned, while W. H. Auden was chosen to write the narration. Wright had started his directorial career with the parochial The Country Comes to Town and O'er Hill and Dale, both made in 1932. The next year he went to the Caribbean, where he demonstrated a penchant for exotic locations with Windmill in Barbados and Cargo from Jamaica.

The 27-year-old Wright, an advocate of small film units, arrived in Colombo with his assistant, John Taylor, on New Year's Day, 1934. He soon made the first of two important discoveries that were to have a significant influence on the production. It was only natural that Wright was eager to find a Ceylonese to assist him on location. The Chairman of the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board suggested Lionel Wendt.

It was an inspired recommendation, as Wendt was Ceylon's finest photographer and knew his country intimately. Years later, in 1949, Wright gave an interview for the magazine Mosquito. "I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived," he said of Wendt.

Wright stayed at the Grand Oriental Hotel. One morning Wendt turned up. According to Wright, the photographer was on the defensive at first, "But within five minutes we were both roaring with laughter." From the time of this propitious meeting of minds, Wendt played a vital role, accompanying Wright and Taylor almost everywhere they went during the seven-week shoot.

The unit travelled extensively, capturing some of the first moving images of the country, though the archives of the Library of Congress contain two earlier films, A Ramble through Ceylon (1905) and Curious Scenes in India (1912). The unit climbed Sri Pada, explored the hill country and ruined cities, and witnessed rural life in abundance. Wright filmed fisherman and farmers, Buddhist monks and coconut-pluckers, craftsmen and dancers.

Wright and Taylor returned to England in April 1934 with two Kandyan dancers, Ukkuwa and Gunaya, who had taken part in the film. They were to assist with the post-synchronisation, as no sound had been recorded on location. Later Wendt joined them in London. While the composer Walter Leigh worked on the orchestral score, Wright began editing. By the time he had completed a rough-cut of the four one-reelers, he understood that together they made a complete documentary.

Grierson invariably made a creative contribution to every film he produced, and Song of Ceylon was no exception. On being shown the rough-cut of the film Grierson remarked to Wright: "Absolutely marvellous. Except that there's something so terrible at the end that you have got to put right." Grierson was referring to a scene in which a pingo-carrier makes an offering of flowers at Gal Vihara. Wright had juxtaposed this reflective scene with an energetic Kandyan dance and they clashed. "It's a stupidity. It's a betise," Grierson told the director.

Wright had been working on the film for many months. He had become too involved and couldn't grasp Grierson's point. Producer and director proceeded to have their only serious difference of opinion during years of collaboration - "a bang up and down row" as Wright described it. Afterwards, Wright went home. The next day he refused to go to the studios.

The following evening he started to think about the film again and had an idea regarding an alternative ending. He drove to the studios and, as he recalled, "picked up a second take of the man reading that prayer on Sri Pada, chopped it up, and related these phrases to the shots of the men dressing for the dance, which I hadn't used."

When Grierson arrived at the studios the next morning, Wright was still there. The last reel was duly screened for the producer, who commented when the lights came up: "There, what did I tell you? There's absolute genius." Wright said of the episode, "He was right, and I was right because I found out how to do it."

In the end W. H. Auden did not write the narration. That was left to Wright during the post-production. It was then that he made the second discovery that influenced the outcome of the film. Although he was familiar with many of the important books about the island, he was unaware of Robert Knox's An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681). He stumbled on a copy and realised it would provide an ideal narration for the film.

Wright tried several voices but none satisfied him. Just four days before Wendt was due to return to Ceylon, Wright asked him if he could test his voice. Wendt read Knox's prose in his characteristic voice, described by the Mosquito interviewers' as "dry, precise and faintly sepulchral." It was perfect for Wright and subsequently Wendt recorded the narration for the film, reading it straight through in a single take.

Song of Ceylon, 40 minutes in duration, premiered at London's Curzon Cinema in early 1935. The most eloquent review of the documentary, which was reproduced in Alistair Cooke's Garbo and the Night Watchmen (1937), was by Graham Greene. "Song of Ceylon is an example to all directors of perfect construction and the perfect application of montage," Greene wrote. "Perfection is not a word one cares to use, but from the opening sequence of the Ceylon forest this film moves with the air of absolute certainty in its object and assurance in its method."

In the first part of the film, called The Buddha, the camera clings to a line of pilgrims ascending Sri Pada. At the summit, "as a priest strikes a bell, Mr Wright uses one of the loveliest visual metaphors I have ever seen on a screen," continued Greene. "The sounding of the bell startles a bird from its branch and the camera follows the bird's flight and the notes of the bell across the island, down the mountain side, over forest and plain and sea."

As Greene observed, the second part, The Virgin Island, "is transitional, leading us away from the religious theme by way of the ordinary routine of living to industry." This part includes a montage of activities relating to daily life. Wright's subjects pursue their activities and exchange banter with an extraordinary degree of naturalness, no doubt due to Wendt's presence.

"In the third part, The Voice of Commerce," Greene adds, "the commentary, which has been ingeniously drawn from a seventeenth-century traveller's account of the island, gives way to scraps of business talk. As the natives follow the old ways of farming, climbing the palm or guiding their elephants' foreheads against the trees they have to fell, voices dictate the bills of lading, close deals over the telephone, announce through loud-speakers the latest market prices."

Greene's description doesn't quite convey the experimental nature of this part of the documentary. The film unit had recently acquired sound equipment, and Grierson grasped the opportunity to demonstrate his belief that the soundtrack need not simply provide the obvious accompaniment in narration and music, but could make an individual contribution.

In the Nature of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1961), Siegfried Kracauer pays particular attention to this part of Song of Ceylon. "This sequence has the character of a construction; intellectual argument prevails over visual observation," he remarked. "Yet the whole sequence is embedded in passages featuring camera-reality. Thus it acquires traits of an interlude. And as such it deepens the impression of cinematic life around it."

Of the last part of the film, The Apparel of a God, Graham Greene wrote that it "returns by way of the gaudy images of the mountain, to a solitary man laying his offering at Buddha's feet, and closes again with the huge revolving leaves. We are left outside with the bills of lading and the loud-speakers."

Song of Ceylon received the first prize at the 1935 Brussels International Film Festival - mainly for its imaginative use of sound, which was far in advance of contemporary achievement. Its standing among the film critics of the era was such that Roger Manvell in his book Film (1944) rated it as "possibly the greatest British-produced film in any category up to 1935, and for unsustained beauty probably unequalled anywhere outside Russia."

It was once said of Grierson and his team that they were "not paid to tell the truth but to make people use the parcel post." Unfortunately the lyrical beauty of Song of Ceylon sometimes does obscure its social dimension. Yet, as Paul Rotha argued in Documentary Diary (1972), the film "carried implicit but nevertheless significant comment on the low industrial status of native labour in that Island."

Certainly Wright recognised the worth of Song of Ceylon. "That's the only film of mine that I can sit through today without blushing or wanting to run out," he said in the Mosquito interview, and ended his account of the making of the documentary with the perfect understatement: "The film just grew. It's like that in film work." The director added a tribute to Lionel Wendt, who had died in 1944. "Without him I don't think Song of Ceylon would have been what it is."

Wright directed several other documentaries, such as The Waters of Time (1950), a study of the River Thames, World without End (1953), a UNESCO film directed in Mexico by Paul Rotha and in Thailand by Wright, and Immortal Land (1958), about the glories of Greece. In 1965, he was invited to return to Ceylon to help rescue the Government Film Unit. However, as so often happens, bureaucratic indifference resulted in a consummate opportunity being squandered.

In addition, Wright became a distinguished film teacher, which was how I met him in August 1971 and had the privilege of viewing Song of Ceylon in his company. The brilliance of the film had an immediate impact on this young English film student. As I quizzed Wright about the fascinating island on the screen, I was unaware that I would make my first trip to Sri Lanka in two years' time (to work on Lester James Peries' God-King), or that I would settle down there and become a documentary film-maker myself. But that, as they say, is another story.

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