The Land

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 28, 2015

It’s Flaherty’s The Great Dictator! Both RF and Chaplin had sort of taken on sound on their previous productions (we’ll skip Elephant Boy, which in the end was not really Flaherty’s film), but they’d done so on their own terms, and in a highly stylized fashion. This time, though, they’re speaking plainly, and in both cases the results are a little uncertain. In both cases the uncertainty makes itself felt in the films’ garbled ideologies. In Flaherty’s case the Depression conditions that had still been in place when he began production had given way to recovery, and then War. Sponsored as it had been by the US Film Service—which was legislated out of existence during the production of the film—The Land was to have reflected and supported official policy. But what was that, now? Add to this the fact that Flaherty was always much more of a poet than a politician, and the muddle only increases.

Interestingly, these contradictions actually add to the film’s authenticity and appeal. Tidyness can be reassuring, but it can also be false. The Land, with Flaherty’s own narration, reflects a conflict on all sorts of fronts. Documentaries of this period have often been criticized for their patness, for shilling for the policies of the current regime. This particular sponsored documentary carries that burden, and reflects that institutional reality. But it also preserves and reflects a wide-spread uncertainty, and a brave and poignant struggle in the face thereof.

Credit to Helen van Dongen, who made some sense out of RF’s usual preposterous excess of footage. Further credit to Richard Arnell’s fine, Virgil Thompson-like score. Acknowledgment to Frances Flaherty, who’s collaboration as writer reflects her lifelong attempts to help her elemental and deeply disorganized husband actually get something done. Finally, Flaherty himself, the supreme cinematographer, the man who could find and frame the most miraculously emblematic images: the Prepare-to-meet-God sign and those blighted people who stand staring at it, the old black man and the bell, the Job quote, the superbly detailed, restrained sequence of the family moving out for good. The devastating fragment of that poor gaunt boy, compulsively picking peas in his sleep. Both John Steinbeck and John Huston found in this one image the entire essence of this sorrowful struggle. And not just the Depression’s maybe. Man, born to trouble!