Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 21, 2018

Sunset Song

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

In my last post, I referred to Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment”, an exceptionally important film distributed by Magnolia that I discovered going through my 2015 backlog. Now working my way systematically through the 2016 Magnolia DVD’s, I have happened upon another jewel that should be of particular interest to Marxists, namely “Sunset Song”. The film was based on a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon that reflected his socialist beliefs. It is the story of a Scottish farming family that begins in 1890 or so and that culminates in the impact WWI has on Chris Guthrie, the sole surviving member of that family working their land. Despite the name, Chris is a woman who always corrects people when they refer to her as Chrissie. She says, “Call me Chris. I am not from the gentry.”

This deeply moving film was directed by Terence Davies, who like Rick Alverson was unfamiliar to me. As was the case with Alverson, “Sunset Song” will likely lead me to a survey of his work. Born in 1945 and still going strong, Davies was the youngest of ten children of working-class Catholic parents who broke with his religion. He is also a gay man who explored the gay experience in a number of films that number only seven in a long career, the explanation for which is that he refuses to compromise. Thank god.

One imagines that Davies decided to adapt Gibbon’s novel partly because the Guthrie family patriarch was an authoritarian figure who punched and strapped his teen-aged son Will for taking the Lord’s name in vain. In Davies’s first film, “Distant Voices, Still Lives”, there is a domineering father that he described as semi-autobiographical, a man that was described as “powerful, domineering, violent” in a book published by the British Film Institute. In a 2011 poll taken by Time Out to rate the 100 greatest British films of all time, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” came in third.

When I referred to John Guthrie, the father of Chris and Will, as a patriarch, I chose my word carefully since his household is a study in patriarchal oppression, especially over his wife Jean who appears to be in her forties when the film begins. Besides the teenagers, there are two young boys to raise. Not caring a whit about the burdens she carried by looking after the household that lacked electricity in the Scottish countryside, her husband was intent on increasing their numbers. When Jean told him that she would be opposed to becoming pregnant again, he raped her—bringing twin boys into the world. Driven to madness by her plight, Jean poisons herself and the twins.

With her mother’s death, Chris assumes the role of cook, housecleaner and farmhand despite not being able to continue with her college studies. Notwithstanding the hardships of farm life, she was content, even fulfilled, with her role. She felt a deep affinity with farm life and can even be seen in the opening moments of the film stretched out in a wheat field with a look of perfect bliss on her face. Gibbon’s novel, which is in the public domain,  conveys her spiritual ties to the material world she inhabits:

The sowing time was at hand, John Guthrie put down two parks with grass and corn, swinging hand from hand as he walked and sowed and Will carried the corn across to him from the sacks that lined the rigs. Chris herself would help of an early morning when the dew had lifted quick, it was blithe and lightsome in the caller air with the whistle of the blackbirds in Blawearie’s trees and the glint of the sea across the Howe and the wind blowing up the braes with a fresh, wild smell that caught you and made you gasp. So silent the world with the sun just peeking above the horizon those hours that you’d hear, clear and bright as though he paced the next field, the ringing steps of Chae Strachan–far down, a shadow and a sunlit dot, sowing his parks behind the steadings of Peesie’s Knapp.

Much of Gibbon’s novel can be heard as a voice-over in Davies’s film and works much better than it does in these circumstances. Key to that was the director/screenwriter’s careful selection of the most poignant passages, all contributing to the portrayal of a strong woman struggling to assert herself in a deeply patriarchal society.

When John Guthrie dies, Chris takes ownership of the farm and settles into the daily rhythms of milking cows, tending to the wheat field, and other chores. Then, unexpectedly, a man named Ewan, a friend of her brother who has departed to Argentina, begins courting her. They marry and bring a son into the world.

But this domestic bliss is broken by the calamity that swept across Europe in 1914. WWI became a gaping maw hungry for fresh blood, including Ewan. Sitting at home with their pacifist-minded friends, none have the slightest interest in defeating the Kaiser even though social patriotism has become an epidemic, even at the local church where the pastor delivers a blood-curdling speech about stopping the Germans. But peer pressure on Ewan becomes insurmountable and he has little choice except to enlist.

Throughout the film, there are set pieces of the Scottish celebrations of weddings and other festive occasions with the characters singing folk tunes and hymns beautifully. If you’ve seen either the 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” starring Julie Christie or the 2015 version that is just as good, you will get a sense of what tied people to the land even if farming life tends to be considered “rural idiocy” by many Marxists.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon (a pen name for James Leslie Mitchell) came into contact with this world as a reporter for the Aberdeen Journal in 1917 and later for the Farmers Weekly. This was around the same time he joined the British Socialist Party that would become one of the 3 groups coalescing to become the Communist Party.

For a very moving commemoration to Gibbon, I strongly recommend Paul Foot’s 2001 article from the Socialist Review titled “Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Poet of the Granite City”. He writes:

In 1917, at the age of 16, he ran away to Aberdeen and got a job as a cub reporter on a local paper. In Aberdeen he joined the trades council, which had a fine history and had welcomed many famous socialist speakers at its meetings. The official history of the trades council recalls with special pleasure the visit of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor and the magnificent rendering of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind by her friend Edward Aveling. Like many other British cities in 1917, Aberdeen had a new soviet, formed in solidarity with the Russian Revolution. The soviet’s most enthusiastic founder was the 16 year old Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Not much later the young socialist moved to Glasgow where he got a job on Farmers Weekly. He was sacked after a few months for fiddling his expenses so that he could make donations to the British Socialist Party, one of the three organisations that merged to form the Communist Party in 1920. He was promptly blacklisted by the newspaper employers in the west of Scotland, and could not get a job anywhere as a journalist. So he joined the army and travelled round the world as a not altogether loyal member of the Royal Army Service Corps. In nine years in the army (1919-28) he developed a taste and a talent for travel writing. His descriptions of faraway places have stood the test of time, and many of them have been reprinted.

“Sunset Song” can be seen on Youtube for a mere $2.99 as indicated the clip above. Don’t waste any time. This is a great film based on a novel written by a conscious revolutionary who deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you, Louis, for your strong recommendation for what appears to be a fine film, and possibly more importantly for an author whose verve, commitment, and humanity ought to merit more attention. The film’s on my list and the book will soon to be close the front of my reading queue (not surprisingly, the novel is not available at our local public library, although via the “e” root, I am able to enjoy his *Spartacus.”) With my quite uncommonly reading fiction, this one will probably tame a wee bit my non-fiction habit.

    Comment by Bill Boyd — January 22, 2018 @ 8:56 pm

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