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Show and Tell: Terminus (1961)
Introduction English (1) English (2) Art Music  
English (1)
image from Terminus (1961)
AuthorLaura Evans
ThemesNarrative, documentary, authorial voice

Terminus (1961) offers a way into exploring the construction of narrative in film. After watching the film, ask students to discuss its structure and the various stories that it tells. What links the various characters together? How does the filmmaker use time? What recurring characters do they notice? Can they identify any particular themes, such as new beginnings or farewells?

There is also the question of the score. Music plays an important role in structuring the film and providing a sense of atmosphere - the scene in which the prisoners are transferred is a particularly good example here. Why not focus on a couple of scenes that demonstrate a clear transition in the score, inviting students to generate adjectives to describe the different music?

Having explored some of these issues, ask students to think about what the filmmaker is trying to say. Approached a different way - why do students think that British Transport Films chose to fund a film like this? What does Terminus suggest about railways? Challenge students to summarise their ideas in a single sentence - what would the tag-line of the a Terminus DVD be?

The film is also particularly interesting for the absence of narration. Ask students to choose a short portion of the film and write a voice-over to accompany the moving images. A selection of these can be narrated in front of the class as the film plays. How does the addition of a narrator change the style and tone of the film? Why do students think the filmmakers chose to only use only on-location sound and music?

You might want to develop this exercise by defining the type of narration you want students to produce. Ask some pairs to write a formal, informative voice-over that they think British Rail (the sponsors of the film) would be happy with. Ask other pairs to write a more imaginative narration that is in keeping with the visual and auditory tone of the film. It might be a good idea to watch some examples of different types of narration to help guide students - Airport (1934) and Gallivant (1996), both available in on BFI Screenonline, exemplify two very different approaches.

Terminus also affords the opportunity to explore the concepts of documentary and authorial voice in a little more detail. What evidence can students find of the film's 'author' or director? The film is shot in an observational documentary style, yet many of the stories that we see unfold were guided by Schlesinger. Are the characters we see his creations, and to what extent is the film a 'true' record of a day in the life of Waterloo Station? This discussion could be extended to include a comparison with a non-fiction text or piece of journalism. What is the role of the director, author and journalist in these contexts?

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