Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
On The Black Hill (1987)

British Film Institute

Main image of On The Black Hill (1987)
DirectorAndrew Grieve
Production CompanyChannel Four
 British Film Institute
 British Screen
ProducerJennifer Howarth
ScreenplayAndrew Grieve
Original novelBruce Chatwin
Director of PhotographyThaddeus O'Sullivan
MusicRobert Lockhart

Cast: Bob Peck (Amos Jones); Mike Gwilym (Benjamin Jones); Gemma Jones (Mary Jones); Robert Gwilym (Lewis Jones); Jack Walters (Sam Jones)

Show full cast and credits

A portrayal of the lives and deaths of 80-year-old identical twin brothers from the Welsh border country.

Show full synopsis

On the Black Hill is a relatively faithful adaptation of the celebrated novel by Bruce Chatwin, although its introduction of characters with little explanation might confuse those unfamiliar with the book. But as a project that enjoyed the active support and involvement of the community it depicted, the film is unrivalled; Chatwin's novel was already popular with the people of Brecon, Hay-on-Wye and the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains.

Thaddeus O'Sullivan's photography impressively captures the bleak ('Black') higher land and the harshness of living on it and from it, but also highlights its beauty. Director Andrew Grieve's own screenplay and Bob Peck's often frightening performance convey the explosive, brutal temper of tenant farmer Amos - a man literally worked to death by the land - but also his tenderness, despair, and the conflicts between his Chapel belief and family experiences. The film portrays both the austerity and the benevolence of Chapel life.

In the film, but also in the book, the incidents along the twins' long life are a backdrop to the drama of the land; its famously changeable weather and long winters. But the film cannot match the novel's detailed record of the changes in agricultural life throughout the twentieth century.

The book ends on a life-affirming note, with much warmth for the twins' hill farm Chapel life and the way it enables them to come to terms with a late tragedy. This is not necessarily conveyed at the end of the film, which perhaps leaves the impression of little more than a string of tragedies, but the film too celebrates the people and land of the Black Mountains.

In its evocation of rural existence and struggle, the film stands comparison with notable adaptations like Sons and Lovers (d. Jack Cardiff, 1960) and Far From the Madding Crowd (d. John Schlesinger, 1967),as well as Claude Berri's Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both France, 1986) and the Irish rural saga The Field (UK/Eire, d. Jim Sheridan, 1990).

Ewan Davidson

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Production stills
O'Sullivan, Thaddeus (1947-)
Peck, Bob (1945-1999)
Channel 4 and Film
The BFI Production Board: The Features