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Axe and the Lamp, The (1963)


Main image of Axe and the Lamp, The (1963)
35mm, colour, 7 mins
DirectorJohn Halas
Production CompanyHalas & Batchelor
Made with the assistance ofBritish Film Institute Experimental Film Fund
ScriptPaul Dehn
PhotographyRon Taylor
MusicJack King
NarratorRobert Robinson

Examines in detail the way Pieter Brueghel's painting, The Nederlandish Proverbs illustrates over 100 proverbs and allegorises a whole world of sin and folly as relevant today as in the 16th century.

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Funded by the BFI's Experimental Film Fund, The Axe and the Lamp was intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of the rostrum camera in illustrating aspects of art history.

The film consists of an exploration of 'Nederlandish Proverbs' (1559) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a typically teeming canvas that simultaneously illustrates dozens of traditional Flemish proverbs (scholars have identified over a hundred), the aim of the entire painting being to illustrate the folly of human stupidity. The film's title is explained at the start: the painting attacks sin with the axe of satire, and illustrates folly with the lamp of pity.

Rather than present the film as a dry history lecture, producer-director John Halas makes use of a rhyming commentary by Paul Dehn (read by the TV presenter Robert Robinson) that highlights several of the proverbs, with the camera gliding over the canvas, constantly framing and reframing appropriate sections of the painting to bring its individual stories to vivid life.

Very occasionally Halas highlights a detail with a small amount of animation (a glint of steel here, a sputtering candle there), but the film's visual energy is mainly derived from a series of highly intricate camera movements that would be hard to pull off in a live-action situation.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Complete film (6:20)
Halas, John (1912-1995) and Batchelor, Joy (1914-1991)
The BFI and Animation