Welsh people and culture in film

Film historians in Wales soon hit problems in trying to assess how cinema has reflected the Welsh people and its culture. For almost all the country's legacy of important silent films is lost, and those long-vanished films embraced most of the cinema features offering some insight into Welsh folklore and pre-20th century rural life in Wales.

Last updated: 27 October 2009

The topical or actuality films focussing on events in cinema's first two decades - such as the Royal Visit to Conway (1899) and Royal Visit to Bangor (1902), and other processions (Llandudno May Day 1907) gave us only the odd peripheral hint or a glimpse of the prevailing tastes, mores and modes of their time.

Perhaps the most outstanding surviving actuality film, cinematically, is Charles Urban's North Wales, England: Land of Castles and Waterfalls (1907).

In this spectacular short, the cameras visited a host of places in Wales and captured memorable images of castles, quarries, townsfolk - and locomotives under full steam heading through the landscape (Film of Chester probably accounts for the slightly curious title). The enthusiasm of holidaymakers and day- trippers was conveyed in the steamships footage of Mitchell and Kenyon in Liverpool and north Wales c.1900-02.

None of these, we suspect, would compare, as a compelling 'take' on Welsh rural lifestyles, superstitions and values with the three 'lost' fiction films made from best selling novels by west Walian Allen Raine (Anna Adeliza Evans): A Welsh Singer (1915), starring Hollywood's Florence Turner, and Torn Sails and By Berwyn Banks (both 1920).

These films, if generally faithful to the novels, would have given us a flavour of west Wales of the mid to late 19th century and A Welsh Singer certainly enraptured critics with its performances and photogenic settings.

Britain's Henry Edwards not only directed this Raine film but another Welsh subject, Aylwin (1920), from the novel by Theodore Watts-Dunton, drawing us into the world of the gypsies and a mythical, mystical Wales so seductive to visitors. Rural Wales had caught the imagination of many since writer George Borrow travelled the country, encountered Romanies and wrote Wild Wales (1862) a phrase that remained in vogue for years and supplied the title of an Edison actuality film of 1914.

A Welsh Singer is a particularly sad loss, based on a strong, though melodramatic novel written in Raine's brisk, deceptively simple style.

The quarry life of north Wales was barely touched on screen before Men Against Death (1933) and the 1935 Y Chwarelwr (The Quarryman) only partly remedied that. Y Chwarelwr, directed by Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards, took us into a family's life and gave an insight into the relentlessly arduous work and leisure activities of the quarrymen.

In the silent era there was barely a trace of south Wales industrial life found on commercial screens, or of the bitter strife between capital and labour from the founding of the South Miners Federation in 1898 to the Tonypandy Riots (1910).

The most impressive, poignant film of the early post World War Two period to deal with Welsh rural life and culture from several different aspects was Y Etifeddiaeth (The Heritage), made in 1949 by John Roberts Williams and Geoff Charles, a disarming short documentary which almost inadvertently, captured the end of an era just after World War Two, when some valuable and much-loved traditions were about to disappear for ever.

It was no accident that these two filmmakers should provide us with so much rich detail. Roberts Williams was a newspaper editor (with Y Cymro) and broadcaster for decades while Geoff Charles was one of Wales' most renowned still photographers whose legacy of thousands of images and negatives can be found in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Two years later came Wales' great Festival of Britain documentary David (1951) from Cardiff's Paul Dickson, allowing us glimpses of mining in west Wales and life in the community and grammar school at Ammanford. The film, made with affection, was sublimely structured and deeply felt, contained a fine score by Barry's Grace Williams and provided an unforgettable study of an unsung pitman and school caretaker whose values and example illuminated the lives of the pupils he encountered.

Of the wartime and immediate post-war mining films set in Wales, Proud Valley (1940) - though an unabashed vehicle for US actor-singer Paul Robeson - gave us a glimpse of the hardships of ordinary families, and Blue Scar (1949) from Jill Craigie (in her feature film debut) was remarkably courageous for its forthright comments on pits Nationalisation, and striking location photography around south west Wales.

The family scenes involving the gentle, hardy patriarch (Prysor Williams) and a maverick malingering son (played with sly relish by Kenneth Griffith) were the most convincing in a Welsh film up to then.

Ordinary life in a mining community (Cwmgiedd, west Wales) was also seen in Silent Village (1943), the film from Humphrey Jennings which transplanted a 1942 Nazi massacre of villagers in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, to Wales - and also used the story to draw analogies with the oppression of the Welsh language.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) will always be criticised by some who consider it unfaithful to Richard Llewellyn's novel but it was made with loving affection and reflected Ford's love of Celtic mythology and his gift for landscape, lighting and creating unforgettable colourful characters.

The film caught something of the Puritanism of the 1890-1910 period, both in the probity and gravitas of the minister Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) and the blinkered histrionics of chapel deacons. Dai Bando, the one significant role given to a Welshman (Rhys Williams), gave us a glimpse of the Welsh fervour for pugilism, which reached its apogee in the 19-teens with the success - caught by the cinema newsreels - of world champion fighters like Jimmy Wilde and Freddie Welsh.

The lack of Welsh language in most mainstream cinema films meant that Wales culture, with all its variety, could scarcely hope to be represented, but Emlyn Williams broke new ground with The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), persuading producer Alexander Korda to allow his north Wales villagers a generous supply of Welsh lines, adding greatly to the film's appeal and humour. Williams also dealt with a cultural phenomenon which was to become highly controversial in the 1960s, the drowning of parts of Wales to create reservoirs carrying water for England.

Aspects of cultural conflicts between England and Wales have tended to be seen more frequently since the launch of S4C to encourage Welsh language programming and ultimately (somewhat grudgingly) feature filmmaking.

Oscar-nominated Hedd Wyn (1992), directed by Paul Turner, caught the conflicting emotions of the Welsh poet Ellis Evans, faced with entering the First World War, which initially seemed remote from rural Wales. Thanks to Alan Llwyd's fine writing and fidelity to Hedd Wyn's poetry, we were soon made deeply aware of the Pacifist inclinations and emotional ambivalence of this Eisteddfod Chair winner, his grief at the waste of human life, and desire for right and justice.

Karl Francis' Boy Soldier (1986) was a fascinating examination of a Welshman in the British military in Northern Ireland discovering, in desperate circumstances, his shared affinity with the Irish 'oppressed" and using the Welsh language as a bridgehead, when required, but also as a weapon of concealment and secrecy.

The other Oscar-nominated Welsh film - again in Hollywood's Foreign Language category - was Paul Morrison's Solomon and Gaenor (1999), an arresting if flawed study of a fated love affair, against the backdrop of racist and industrial tension in a mining community around the time of the Tonypandy Riots.


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