The rugged travails of Robert Flaherty’s early years read like an adventure story by Jack London. Blessed and cursed by a love of nature and the Great White North, young Flaherty left his safe Upper Peninsula Michigan home to travel with his father, exploring forbidden lakes and investigating islands around the northeastern wilderness of Hudson Bay where, according to him, no white man had previously set foot.
Along the way Flaherty made friends with local Eskimos and grew to appreciate the customs and simple beauty of their lives. Flaherty found these indigenous people to be very different from the American Indian, in a large part because they did not subscribe to the wasteful habits of the white man.
While working with the Canadian Northern Railway in the 1910s, Flaherty was given access to a movie camera. Given the area’s limited subject matter, Flaherty decided to film the activities of his Eskimo friends. By 1918, Flaherty returned to the United States with four years-worth of footage. But, while editing the film for a group of prominent geologists at Harvard University, Flaherty accidentally dropped a cigarette on the master print sending the nitrate stock up in flames.
He would salvage enough of the film to realize he could do much better, but it would be another two years before Flaherty would get another chance to create his vision.
Settling down in Connecticut and living off his legend, if little else, Flaherty finally caught the ear of Revillion Frerers, a rich entrepreneur who offered to fund another film making trip to Hudson Bay. Once established again in the icy north, Flaherty handpicked three local hardies to act as a crew then set about finding his leading man and family who he would follow with his cameras for one year. He settled on a famous local, Nanook, an arrangement which would prove fortuitous when it became apparent his protagonist was perfectly willing to fudge reality to capture cinematic essence.
Even with Flaherty’s experience in the great white north, this would be no easy shoot as evidenced by a fruitless, six hundred miles trek north to find a she-bear. After a year’s filming Flaherty finally had enough footage of his noble subject building igloos, hunting and slaughtering walruses—all in an effort to provide for his family. Once Flaherty had pieced it all together it became clear his Nanook Of The North was a humane and humorous glimpse at a primitive, yet self-sustaining culture.
Still, Nanook was turned down by several distributors before finally catching on with jazz age audiences to become a huge success. Flaherty’s methods of staging action have always been suspect to the documentary film community, especially those in the fashionably-earnest John Grierson school which was more committed to gritty social realism than visual poetry.
In truth, this so-called father of the documentary film was more of a narrative storyteller who hoped his audience would react and sympathize with his subjects. Still, conscientious filmgoers would be challenged to question Flaherty’s sincerity and liberal intentions as each film in his small but distinguished oeuvre is about the Little Man butting heads with nature, progress and the combine.
Flaherty’s next film, Moana – A Romance of the South Seas
(funded by Paramount Studios), gave the director, his collaborator wife Frances and their small family an opportunity to visit the other side of the world—this time to the distant island of Samoa. Settling in the small village of Safune, Flaherty received permission from a local chief to film the day to day life of the tribesmen.
Accustomed to the hardscrabble life of the great white north, Flaherty was a fish out of water in this laid-back, tropical environment. He managed to insult the local elders when he chose a girl from a rival tribe to be the film’s “heroine”. Then Flaherty had to pay off the young man who played Moana to get the very necessary ritualistic piercings on film.
Flaherty halted filming when he made the discovery he was getting much more vivid results using panchromatic film stock and threw away nearly a year’s worth of footage. Yet, all the tribulations proved to be worth the effort as Moana holds up as a lush and earthy portrait of a people living harmoniously in a tropical paradise. But, this time the public rejected Flaherty’s exotic vision and he returned to the east coast to await his next offer. Very few were coming.
In the meantime Flaherty completed a short film about New York City called Twenty-Four-Dollar Island, a silent symphony of skyscraper construction and shipping industry threatening to gobble-up the Big Apple. Flaherty’s camera takes in the immense scene with wide-eyed admiration but the belching smokestacks and jackhammers add critical commentary to modern man’s triumph over nature.
Finally in 1928, Flaherty accepted an assignment from MGM to make a feature film based in familiar climes, White Shadows In The South Seas. Flaherty was very pleased with the idea of shooting a big-budget film on a Tahitian locale, but he grew unhappy with the source material (a mediocre travelogue) and his producer’s urging to create an epic featuring “wall to wall tits”. The hired hand began to agonize over trying to find a less-compromised way of telling the story.
With production costs spiraling, the frustrated studio gradually gave control to Flaherty’s economically-minded assistant director W.S. Van Dyke. Stripped of his autonomy, Flaherty resigned from the project and returned to Connecticut.
Around this time in California, the great German director F.W. Murnau was mulling his career options. Having had several blow-outs with the Fox studio over artistic differences he was looking to branch out and become his own producer. Murnau made fast friends with Flaherty’s brother David who he asked to convince Robert to join him on a grand odyssey to Tahiti where they would co-direct Tabu.
Initially, these two poets of the cinema hit it off well. Since Murnau had all the Hollywood connections and footed the bill for the film, Flaherty was willing to let his new collaborator call the shots. But, uneasiness set in while they awaited money and a crew from California.
Once cameras began to roll, it became clear the earnest Flaherty resented Murnau’s Expressionist sensibility and commercial way of telling a story. Wearying of Flaherty’s procrastination and methodical approach to work, Murnau relegated his collaborator to the role of cameraman and refused to let him work on the editing process. Desperate for cash to support his family, Flaherty was forced to sell his rights to the film to Murnau with the quantification he would not speak negatively of Tabu in print.
It was a sad conclusion to legendary collaboration. While Murnau deserves the lion’s share of credit for creating a haunting masterwork, a good bit of Tabu’s primitive poetry and visual majesty can be attributed Flaherty’s unwavering eye.
Flaherty spent the next two years in England and Germany trying to resurrect his career. He was hired by John Grierson to make Industrial Britain, a short film about workers in the coal, glass, steel industries in the UK. Flaherty’s slow, methodical approach to the documentary ultimately got him fired but, thankfully, several wonderful sequences involving the glassblowers, artisans and the common workers elevate this informative piece above much of the drab stuff being produced by Grierson’s unit. Next, Flaherty flirted with the idea of making films in the Soviet Union but nothing panned out.
All along Flaherty was obsessed about filming a story he heard about an extremely poor community that lived on Ireland’s unforgiving Aran Islands. Sponsored by his aesthetic rival John Grierson, Flaherty raised just enough funds to set off to Achill Island where he would live for two years filming Man of Aran. The director knew if he had filmed the everyday existence of his fisherman’s family, it would make for a dreary documentary. So, Flaherty casted a striking trio of locals (Colman Tiger King, Maggie Dirrane and Michael Dillane) to play the little family that has to work together to stay alive on the barren island.
In search of visual poetry, he shot endless takes of his “actors” perched high on cliffs watching in awe and resignation as the wine dark seas wreak havoc with their lives. Flaherty even asked the islanders to take up the lost practice of shark hunting for one of the film’s most exciting sequences. As in Nanook the family learns to make do with what little they have as they are forced to break rocky ground in search of precious topsoil for planting. The community somehow survives and bonds together in the thrilling finale when the men take their flimsy boats into the stormy sea on a lifesaving mission.
This lyrical film was shot silent and dubbed with incidental sound which actually added a documentary-like ambience. Nevertheless, Man in Aran was criticized in England for the liberties Flaherty took with the truth, but he was redeemed by the esteem the film brought to the British film industry overseas. Nowadays, such criticism seems petty and a strong case can be made for the breathtakingly beautiful Man of Aran as Flaherty’s masterpiece.
Nearing fifty, Flaherty began to look for a property which would make enough money to give his family security. He forged an unlikely partnership with the Hungarian-English director-producer Alexander Korda to film his most ambitious film yet, Elephant Boy. Flaherty was sent to India to film the exotic locales and exterior shots, but after seven months on location he had precious little footage to show Korda.
The crew was called back to England where Alexander’s brother, Zoltan Korda took over the shooting and finished a charming, coming of age adventure story. With Flaherty’s professional reputation at an all-time low, he returned to America.
In 1939, Flaherty was contracted by the U.S. Agricultural Department to make a documentary to be called The Land. Flaherty spend two years in the South, Midwest and the Dust Bowl filming unscripted depictures of how the land had been eroded and nearly ruined by careless farming methods. But, with little in the way of a storytelling theme, Flaherty left his editors the impossible task of trying to piece together a film that simply wasn’t there. The Land was ultimately completed but The Agriculture Department feared the film’s critical nature would hurt the war effort, so Flaherty’s documentary was only screened to selected groups of farmers.
After a brief, unhappy stint with Frank Capra’s newsreel footage team for the US Army, Flaherty went into a semi-retirement in Vermont. Soon after the war he was approached by Standard Oil to make a film of his choice…just as long as it was a positive story about the development of the country’s oil resources. Flaherty and wife Frances combed the southwest to find the right locale before arriving in an idyllic Louisiana bayou just in time to see rigging from an oil refinery moving in.
Louisiana Story would be the story of a young Cajun boy (Joseph Boudreaux) to whom the swamplands is a world of discovery and wonder. When big oil drilling machines show up, the boy is troubled by this invasion of his oasis but, in time, he gets to know and like the regular guys who run the rigs and even offers to apply his own form of special magic so they can make the big strike.
Despite the irony of a big corporation funding his vision, a relaxed Flaherty was able to turn in a little gem filled with southern lyricism, wide-eyed beauty, and few pointed jabs at an uncaring combine. It was a fitting finale to a career and life dedicated to chronicling man’s struggle on earth and his need to co-exist with nature and other men.
Books on Flaherty:
The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty – Arthur Calder-Marshall **** An affectionate, well-research and winning take on a filmmaking genius who comes across as both garrulous and child-like. Flaherty’s life was truly an adventure story and the anecdotes told here are wonderful. Out of print.
Films by Flaherty:
1922 Nanook of the North ****
1926 Moana ****
1927 Twenty-Four-Dollar-Island ***1/2
1928 White Shadows of the South Seas ***1/2 (completed and signed by W.S. Van Dyke)
1931 Tabu ***** (story and cinematographer only, directed by F.W. Murnau)
1933 Industrial Britain ***1/2 (co-directed and edited by Arthur Elton and Basil Wright)
1934 Man of Aran *****
1937 Elephant Boy ***1/2 (second unit direction, directed by Zoltan Korda)
1941 The Land ***1/2
1948 Louisiana Story ****1/2