Top 10 Welsh films: David

Image of a coal mine pit head

Last updated: 25 May 2010

David (1951)

Wales could not have submitted a better film than Paul Dickson's David as its sole screen representative for the 1951 Festival of Britain event on London's South Bank.

David, arguably the finest drama-documentary to emerge from Wales, was centred on a former pitman who achieved special dignity in adversity. It caught the mood of post-war optimism and residual respect for miners who had helped rebuilt the country's economy after World War Two.

Dafydd Rhys, a school caretaker in Ammanford, west Wales, is seen through the eyes of a former pupil in those days, who now elderly, narrates the story (a similar device was of course used in How Green Was My Valley). This protégé, the film implies, has clearly been imbued, like so many others, with the pitman's compassion and deep sense of traditional and community values.

We feel, with our narrator, the sickening sense of loss when the caretaker's son, once a school sporting hero dies and feel a quite disproportionate sense of disappointment (more perhaps than the miner himself) when his poem, an elegy for his offspring, fails to carry off top honours at the Eisteddfod. It's a defeat "with the quality of victory" as the film reminds us.

The film would be moving enough if we merely saw this pitman as representative. But Cardiff-born Dickson's tribute is a thinly-veiled portrait of DR Griffiths - brother of Jim Griffiths, first Welsh Secretary and ex-miner and union leader. DR was also a poet of repute, under the nom-de-plume Caradoc but his identity was concealed in the film and credits, however flimsily, no doubt to forestall any suggestion of Labour political special pleading.

No such genuflections seem necessary, for this is a meticulously structured study of a man too long in the shadows. In the film we're assured that his selfless deeds live after him, from his mining days when a cash collection from a volume of his poetry sent a miner to college, to the years spent as benign guide to generations of children.

At the film's finale David belatedly achieves a kind of recognition. The film tightens its grip on our emotions, never to be released, from the sublime moment DR lost in grief after his son's death is seen by our narrator from within the school, cleaning the outside windows. Water runs slowly down the pane between them - suggestive of their rift and its cause.

Earlier the boy has been pulled into DR's world when the old boy shows him the remnants of mine workings at the pit where he served his apprenticeship with miners often seen by the youngster clutching and reading books underground.

When Dafydd Rhys' pit days are ended with an explosion the pitfall is linked, in skilful montage, with his wife's birth pangs and delivery (emphasising the life force and the importance of continuity).

Dickson has drawn from DR, an amateur actor, a performance of great authenticity, though it could be that Griffiths was just being unaffectedly himself.

"He doesn't perform - he just is," Dickson said later. The cadence of Griffiths' voice and his stern, solid presence will linger long in the collective memory - and he justified the intuition of the BBC's Aneurin Talfan Davies who heard him on radio, decided that there he had been the voice of Wales and chose him for this low budget film to be the nation's image and heart on screen.

David, a film also drawing dramatic force from the music of Barry's Grace Williams, gained warm praise from Gavin Lambert in the magazine Sight and Sound when shown at the 1951 Edinburgh Festival. He thought it "not only one of the few authentic regional films" made in Britain, but a work which "reasserts the human values that documentary film has lacked so long."

David seems, today, a beautifully-judged, deeply refreshing, paean for lost values.

BBC Film

Mark Kermode

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