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Islanders, The (1939)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Islanders, The (1939)
35mm, black and white, 21 mins
DirectorMaurice Harvey
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerJ.B. Holmes
PhotographyHarry Rignold
 Jonah Jones
MusicDarius Milhaud

How Post Office communications enable the islanders off the north-west coast of Scotland to continue their existence.

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In an article in the 1937-38 winter edition of Sight and Sound, JB Holmes, the producer of this film (who was part of the triumvirate that led the unit after John Grierson's departure in June 1937 - along with Alberto Cavalcanti and Harry Watt), takes stock of the GPO's achievements since its inception in 1933. While paying tribute to the quality and scale of work inaugurated by Grierson, he notes that one aspect of communications that had been "scarcely touched at all" was the relations between the Post Office and the remote communities of Britain. This is where The Islanders comes in. A film covering this subject had already been proposed and partly shot, Holmes reports. Presumably he was referring to North of the Border (1937), which was made by Maurice Harvey who subsequently directed The Islanders. Both films deal with life at the 'other end of the trunk lines', and beyond, and stress the role of GPO services in connecting remote communities with the industrialised world.

The Islanders masterfully welds poetry and propaganda in its depiction of the land, people and customs of three different islands off the coast of Britain. On the Hebridian island of Eriskay traditional customs prevail. Islanders still speak their old language, Gaelic, churn their own butter and comb sand flats for shellfish. The bustling St Peter's Port of Guernsey tells a different story of tourism and thriving exports, while the tranquility of Inner Farne, a bird sanctuary off the coast of Northumberland, is beautifully captured with the flicker of lighthouse warnings across the sound.

As well as describing the ordinary and the everyday, The Islanders incorporates big universal themes that cut across the boundaries of place and time. In this sense the film eschews Cavalcanti's theoretical 'single letter' approach which is best exemplified in Penny Journey (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1938). In contrast, Harvey's broader-brush style spanning prehistoric land shifts to the first intrepid settlers, to the contemporary export of Guernsey granite, strongly subscribes to another of the 14 principles of filmmaking laid down by Cavalcanti: "Don't forget when you are shooting, each shot is part of a sequence and part of a whole; the most beautiful shot, out of place, is worse than the most trivial." Jack Livesey's final words of commentary are aptly contemplative in tone.

The island severed by the prehistoric sea is reunited with the continents. A cycle is complete.

Katy McGahan

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (21:10)
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)
The GPO Film Unit: 1939