Colin Low I

film 4 of 9

City of Gold

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 28, 2015

This essay appears in the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge (2006). 

The National Film Board of Canada’s City of Gold (1957) is one of the most celebrated short films ever produced, and one of the most decorated. Its numerous international awards, as well as its influence on the historical documentary and on noted contemporary filmmakers, testify of its real merits and innovations. The use and frequent mention of these endorsements by commentators and distributors alike says a great deal about the present status of the subsidized documentary film within an increasingly commercial global film economy. The substance beneath the ad copy suggests the continued validity and importance of this beleaguered kind of production.

City of Gold relates the history of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. The origins of the film lie in the 1949 discovery of several hundred Klondike era photographs in Dawson City, Yukon Territories. These images, preserved on 8X10 glass plate negatives, had been stored and forgotten in a sod roof cabin, and were only found by chance upon its demolition. They were largely the work of A.E. Hegg, an American photo-journalist and entrepreneur, who captured the ferment of the Gold Rush with extraordinary vividness.

In ensuing years, through numerous means, these remarkable images attained wide circulation. In 1955 Board director and animator Colin Low saw them at Ottawa’s National Archive. He had been working on a Gold Rush project, and saw quickly that these photographs might provide his film’s centre. The challenge for Low and his collaborators was how to render this windfall of static imagery in some kind of dynamic cinematic fashion.

The solution to this problem came in the form of a mechanism devised by Roman Kroitor and Brian Salt, which enabled Low and co-director Wolf Koenig to plot and execute the most minute camera movements with complete precision, and to explore their fixed images with unprecedented flexibility and fluidity. It is for this innovation that City of Gold is most cited today, but the film would doubtless remain a mere technical footnote were it not for the material that the machine served, and the sensibilities that informed its arrangement and presentation.

Low and Koenig were the film’s directors, but City of Gold is definitively a collaboration. In its production there was a democratization of roles and relationships and a neutralization of film elements, resulting in an impressively integrated work of art and information. These characteristics and qualities were strongly associated with the Board’s legendary Unit B, of which City of Gold is perhaps the most famous product. In the ideal Unit B production the ego of individualism was subordinated to the needs and values of the creative community, and, as behooved a publicly funded institution, of the larger community the creators served. The idea and actuality of Unit B at the Film Board was not without contradiction and controversy, or romanticization. Still with this film, and with many others besides, the ideal and the real seem to have been largely correlated, and even identical.

This culture of collaboration hearkens back to the early days of the British documentary movement, but City of Gold features refinements matched by few EMB and GPO productions. It is extraordinarily well made. There is a telling tension between the stasis of present-day Dawson, as illustrated by the film’s live action prologue and epilogue, and the dynamism of the still photographs that preserve the vivid past. The contrast is emphasized by the exquisite transitions between the two periods. Much of the credit for this seamless assembly goes to editor—and Unit B head—Tom Daly.

Daly has mentioned that the edges of the photographs were never shown, leaving audiences with the illusion of extended offscreen spaces. This quality had been integral to realist filmmaking for some time, but what was remarkable was how that space operated in a photographed context. As Erik Barnouw observed, it was not only space that was expanded in City of Gold, but time as well. The vividness of the images, and the superb coordination of their rendering, opened up the documentary film to the times and events that pre-dated it.

Some of the credit for this must also go to Eldon Rathburn’s superb score, as adventurous and important in its way as the work of Virgil Thomson with Pare Lorentz, or Hanns Eisler with Alain Resnais. The immediacy of the historical is also aided by the film’s narration, co-written and delivered by Pierre Berton, a Dawson native who was on the brink of becoming Canada’s most prolific and popular historian. The voice that he presents, that of the native son who did his homework, combines the scholar’s rigour with the citizen’s affection and commitment. This combination communicates a concrete sense of past realities as well as a clear sense of their relevance to the present.

Low and Koenig’s film appears at an important juncture in the development of the North, and in the Canadian identity as it related thereto. It had ever been a place with a “silence that bludgeons you dumb” (Robert Service), and dire notions of the inhospitable and the impossible had long pervaded northern representations. Inevitably these pictures had affected the perceptions and self-concept of the nation as a whole. But competing voices had also spoken for the necessity, even the inevitability of successful community in this savage environment. In the light of more recent events (the Leduc oil strike of 1947, the subsequent establishment of the Canadian pipeline system, the opportunity this opened for the airing of native grievances, the dissemination of native cultural ideas and aspirations) this idea had assumed even greater importance. For the sake of its own economic and social development, there was need for a more nuanced, more optimistic view of the region.

In telling its story then, City of Gold filled a number of present needs, and it continues to resonate in more contemporary contexts. In parallel to the organization that produced it, the film recalls how individual pursuit within a strong community has led to great prosperity in the midst of environmental and geographical constraint. It presents a model for peaceful relations between Americans and Canadians, in which the values of both sides are defended and combined to greatest mutual advantage. It affirms the importance of history’s obscure, for whom difficulties are assured—we do not always find the gold which we seek—but whose flexibility and decency in the face of inevitable frustration presents a worthy model for living, and for representing life.