Wales, population 3 million, adjoining England and facing Ireland, is twinned with Lesotho, the first such national twinning. The small town of books Hay-on-Wye is twinned with Timbuktu in Mali. The Welsh, whose ancestors were the ancient “Britons” before the Anglo-Saxon (i.e English) invasion, originated in the Iberian peninsula. Welsh resistance to the combined might of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans was finally overcome in 1282 and the head of the last true Prince of Wales Llywelyn ap Gruffudd paraded through the streets of London. The rights of women in Wales under the enlightened laws of Hywel Dda were set back hundreds of years and for centuries Wales was considered little more than England’s unloved and unruly backyard, its language and culture suppressed. Wales was joined to England by the Act of Union (1536) in the reign of Henry VIII, son of Welsh-born Henry VII (whose victory at Bosworth ended the Wars of the Roses and started the Tudor dynasty). However Wales did officially regain Monmouthshire in the early 1970s and voted for its own Assembly in 1997 (unlike Scotland, Wales was denied the possibility of a Parliament).
Wales is a lovely little land of green hills and mountains, lakes, meadows, rivers and the sea. It may be known more for Rugby, singing and sheep than films, but i thought it might be worth jotting down something on the Welsh contribution to cinema.
FILMS AND WALES
William Haggar was an important early silent film pioneer. The first public performance of his ‘Bioscope’ show was on April 5th 1898 at Aberavon Fair in Wales. In 1901 he produced his first film of a train at the station at Burry Port where his show was playing at the time. It was the success of the 15-minute melodrama ‘Maid of Cefn Ydfa’, probably the first fictional film made in Britain, which launched him into his career as a filmmaker.
Over in the USA the millionaire Griffith j Griffith was instrumental in the development of Hollywood, creating the huge Griffith Park, and donating the Observatory. Had it not been for the, ahem, little matter of shooting his wife, blinding her in one eye, his name might be more prominent still. Another Griffith, D.W. the pioneering film great, boasted of his descent from Welsh princes.
A rediscovered and restored silent biography of a famous Welsh statesman, The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), is a major film. Its adulation of the prime minister and nationalist propaganda during World War I won’t suit everyone but its scope, crowd scenes, use of locations and sweeter moments are very impressive.
Other bios of Welshmen include Henry V (Branagh’s version is stronger than Olivier’s on his self-proclaimed Welshness, if memory serves) and Lawrence of Arabia. Henry Stanley the explorer (portrayed in Stanley and Livingstone) was from Wales. Spanish director Jesus Franco’s The Bloody Judge is loosely based on the infamous Judge Jeffreys. Jack Howells’ Dylan Thomas won the Best Short Documentary Oscar for 1961, while The Edge of Love is a surprisingly dark 2008 film with Keira Knightley about the famous poet and a scandal revolving round two women in his life. Based on a true infamous miscarriage of justice, Richard Fleischer’s film 10 Rillington Place has John Hurt as Welshman Timothy Evans, executed for a murder he did not commit. The Disney animation The Black Cauldron (1985) is based on the Chronicles of Prydain, heavily drawing on ancient Welsh tales such as the Mabinogion. Mr Nice (2010) stars Rhys Ifans as the Welsh international drug smuggler Howard Marks. Well known films with Welsh subjects include How Green was my Valley (adding to the mining singing stereotype), Zulu, with its again lustily singing brave soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, and Truffaut’s Anne and Muriel (with the alternative title Two English Girls.). Other notable Welsh-set classics include The Old Dark House, The Citadel, The Wolf Man, Tiger Bay, The Last Days of Dolwyn, Half Way House and The Corn is Green.
Sleep Furiously (2008) is a superb documentary by Gideon Koppel in sheep farming country in Mid-West Wales.
A Cow’s Drama (1983) is a lovely touching short documentary about a cow on a farm. Other indigenous Welsh films i’m fond of are the Oscar-nominated Hedd Wyn (1992), about a young poet in WW1, and Eldra (1997), about a Romany girl with a fox and owl for friends (various clips on youtube).
Both have their hearts in the right place and make use of pretty locations. I’m less keen on Twin Town and Human Traffic, while Solomon and Gaenor, also nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, is well meaning but a bit staid. Leaving Lenin, about a school trip to Russia, is pleasing and won the audience award at the London Film festival. Two other Welsh-language films Un Nos Ola Leuad (Endaf Emlyn’s version of a fine novel) and The Testimony of Taliesin Jones (a.k.a Small Miracles) are worthwhile, as is On the Black Hill (Andrew Grieve, 1987), about Welsh hill-farming twin brothers.
My dad helped author Bruce Chatwin with necessary local colour, information and anecdotes for the latter. Grieve was director too of the Hornblower TV series. Karl Francis’ Boy Soldier about a Welsh soldier in Northern Ireland who turns out ot be easy fodder as a scapegoat made a mark in the mid 80s. Francis also directed Above us the Earth about the pit closures of the 80s, and One of the Hollywood Ten concerning the McCarthy witch-hunts. Marc Evans has won some plaudits for the horror film My Little Eye , the drama House of America, the Canadian-set Snow Cake and the documentary In Prison my Whole Life which investigates racism, the US justice system and capital punishment. His Patagonia explores the links between that area- where a Welsh colony was created in the 19th century- and Wales. Ceri Sherlock’s Cameleon was an award-winner at San Francisco, one of many now thankfully added to mubi..
Super Furry Animals singer Gruff Rhys has co-directed with Dafydd Goch a playful and engaging 2010 documentary Separado!, centred on his quest to meet up with his lost long Patagonian uncle, musician René Griffiths.
Directed by Anil Gupta, starring Michael Sheen and based on a novel by Welsh poet Owen Sheers, Resistance (2011) imagines Wales under Nazi occupation, with a very different outcome to World War 2. The Englishman who went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain starred Hugh Grant in a light film about villagers determined their local hill will be classed as a mountain by gaining a few feet. Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) deals with contemporary racism in Wales. In Richard Aoyade’s Submarine (2010), a 15 year old boy’s main aims are to save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity. Well received, it has been chosen as Sight & Sound’s Film of the Month. Directed by Mike Leigh’s son, Swansea Love Story is a documentary on the world of heroin and drug-taking and comes recommended here. The summer blockbuster World War Z has its climax in Cardiff.
The 1920s animation Jerry the Troublesome Tyke (Bilby, Griffiths) is quite charming, should appeal to fans of Wallace and Gromit and Starewicz’ The Mascot. In the 1980s English-born Joanna Quinn came to the fore with her fluent feminist animations such as Girls’ Night Out (a raucous South Walian crowd for a male stripper) and the Oscar-nominated Famous Fred. More recently, there have been Russian-Welsh animation co-productions such as The Miracle Maker. Y Mabinogi/Otherworld was based on the great medieval tales.
Other Welsh films include House! (on the subject of Bingo) ,Branwen, Very Annie Mary and Emlyn’s The Maker of Maps (1995) a youthful adulterous rites of passage tale. Paul Robeson became a lifelong friend of Wales and the miners when starring in The Proud Valley. Humphrey Jennings’ The Silent Village is a 1943 film i’ve not seen that tells “the true story of the massacre of a small Czech village by the Nazis retold as if it happened in Wales”. According to Marc David Jacobs on mubi, with films such as David/Dafydd (1951), “Paul Dickson might well make a case for being the great lost Welsh documentary director of the 1950s”, while also on mubi, Ozufan has recommended Hattie Dalton’s debut Third Star (2010); here’s the imdb summary: “James and his three closest lifelong friends go on an ill-advised trip to the stunning coastal area of Barafundle Bay in West Wales. What follows is a touching and comical adventure dealing with friendship, heroism and love”
A documentary filmed at Grassholm island, and written by Welsh wildlife expert Ronald Lockley (whose book on rabbits influenced Watership Down), The Private Life of the Gannets (1934) was the first wildlife film to win an Oscar (for best short). Swansea-born Keith Allen’s controversial film Unlawful Killing about the death of Princess Diana, screened at Cannes and in other countries, has been indefinitely shelved in the U.K.
The Gospel of Us (2102) documents an extraordinary innovative theatrical three-day event (likely to become an annual one), the Port Talbot Passion, involving Michael Sheen and poet Owen Sheers, which received rave reviews.
Welsh directors include Richard Marquand (Jagged Edge, Return of the Jedi, Eye of the Needle), Terry Jones (Monty Python’s Life of Brian..), Jane Arden (The Other Side of the Underneath , Anti Clock) and Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract..); though his subjects tend to be more Anglo-Dutch, Tulse Luper Suitcases and The Falls do have clear Welsh links. Jane Arden’s The Other Side of Underneath (1972) is an extraordinary claustrophobic and disturbing journey into the minds of female psychiatric patients, not one for the faint hearted or easily offended.
Sally El Hosaini was born in Swansea, Wales, of Egyptian Welsh parentage, and raised in Cairo, Egypt; her critically admired London-set My Brother the Devil has won international awards.
Gareth Evans is a Welsh film director based in Indonesia. He is best known for introducing Indonesian traditional martial art, Silat, into world cinema, pairing up with Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais whom he discovered during the making of a documentary. The Raid and The Raid 2 have been rare subtitled successes at the Multilplexes.
John Williams has been resident and active in Japan, directing films such as Firefly Dreams. Anthony Hopkins has turned to directing with August, a sound but uninspired Chekhovian adaptation, and the apparently very strange, if not surreal Slipstream.
Emyr Glyn Williams’ 2008 film Saunders Lewis v Andy Warhol- 18 short films about late 20th Century Welsh language rock music- may be of interest to indie and rock fans. Monsters, the debut film of Gareth Edwards, a director of Welsh parentage was well received, a Sight & Sound film of the month, and his Godzilla was a hit. Based in South East Wales, Scott Barley, a mubi user, makes short Remodernist-influenced experimental films, e.g The Ethereal Melancholy of Seeing Horses in the Cold, Nightwatch.
Acting has been something of a strong point: Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, Howards End..), Ray Milland (Lost Weekend, The Uninvited), Hugh Griffith (Ben Hur, Tom Jones), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, The Mask of Zorro- she and Hopkins both as Mexicans- must be the Welsh Iberian ancestry) and Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street)- though it’s not clear whether he was born in Wales or London- have all won Oscars. Other notables include Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Becket), Roger Livesey (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) Jonathan Pryce (Brazil), Timothy Dalton (James Bond), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Christian Bale (Dark Knight), Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy), Michael Sheen (making a speciality of turns as famous people, e.g in Frost/Nixon, The Damned United and The Queen), Mervyn Johns (Dead of Night, Scrooge- as Bob Cratchit), his daughter Glynis Johns (The Court Jester, Mary Poppins), Stanley Baker (The Criminal, Eva, Zulu), Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy). Ruth “what’s occurin’?” Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame- which she co-wrote- has also appeared in several films.
Naunton Wayne was one of the cricket-loving duo in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Hardman Welsh international footballer Vinnie Jones has appeared in films such as Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. John Rhys Davies had colourful parts in blockbusters Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lord of the Rings. .
A Welsh cinematographer of note is Peter Biziou (The Truman Show, Mississippi Burning, In the Name of the Father). The famous author Roald Dahl (Fantastic Mr Fox, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) was from Cardiff, and also wrote the screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Bond film You Only Live Twice. Dylan Thomas was involved in the screenplay of the 1948 crime drama The Three Weird Sisters. The original Arthurian tales were Welsh, but have been appropriated in films and as a tourist attraction by the more powerful neighbour. Still, First Knight was filmed in North Wales, and there was Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois. Eye of the Needle was based on the novel by Ken Follett, Madame Sousatzka and the French Chere Inconnue/ I Sent a Letter to my Love on novels by Booker prize winner Bernice Rubens, while Dr Strangelove was inspired by Peter George’s Red Alert. Sarah Waters made a splash with lesbian Victoriana, e.g Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet. Cardiff-born author Iain Sinclair co-directed London Orbital and The Falconer, based on his writing. In Gone to Earth, Jennifer Jones plays a Welsh-parentage Romany, while in The Searchers, Jeffrey Hunter’s character is also part Welsh.
Singer Duffy featured in Patagonia, Tom Jones popped up briefly in Mars Attacks; both he and Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger..) have sung Bond theme songs, while the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan was prominent in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (with a young Christian Bale). John Cale has provided music for numerous films, occasionally acted and also made avant-garde films. Keith Griffiths is a producer of some excellent “arthouse” films, such as Faust (Svankmajer), the Quay brothers’ Street of Crocodiles, Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Haroun’s Dry Season and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past lives. He has also co-directed with the Quay brothers.
Wales itself as a location has stood in for other countries in Carry on up the Khyber (India), From Russia with Love (Yugoslavia), The Keep (Romania), The Lion in Winter, An American Werewolf in London (England), Moby Dick (USA), Tomb Raider 2, Inn of the Sixth Happiness (China).
Llyn Gwynant ,North Wales location for Patagonia, First Knight (among others). The area was also location for Inn of the Sixth Happiness- complete with “the yellow river”!- and featured in Rupert Bear books as his author lived in a cottage at nearby Beddgelert.
The great Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao was inspired by the Welsh industrial landscape from a visit to the country for Laputa, Castles in the Sky and his Howl’s Moving Castle was based on the book by the Anglo-Welsh Diana Wynne-Jones, which has a Welsh as well as central European feel with its wizard Jenkins, voiced in the English-language version by Christian Bale. The original hound of the Baskervilles was centred on Clyro in mid Wales, but transplanted to Devon for the Sherlock Holmes story and film. Richard Lester’s (comic!) post-nuclear The Bed Sitting Room was filmed in Wales, as were The Vikings and, recently, Snow White and the Huntsman .
Richard Attenborough was trying to create a rival to Hollywood and Bollywood with studios in South Wales- “Valleywood”- but this hit financial problems and has been delayed.
Some famous stars of Welsh parentage: Charlie Chaplin, Naomi Watts, Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Susan Sarandon, Bob Hope, Esther Williams, Myrna Loy, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, Teri Hatcher, Patricia and Rosanna Arquette, Robin Williams, Daniel Craig, Leslie Nielsen, Glenn Ford, Johnny Depp, Esther Williams, Julie Christie, Brad Pitt, Courtenay Cox, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, James Dean, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, Reese Witherspoon, Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame). Director John Huston, producer Howard Hughes.
Welsh Americans depicted on screen include Jesse James and explorer Henry Stanley, while Welsh pirates Henry Morgan and Bart Roberts have also inspired cinematic portrayals, the former in The Black Swan and Captain Blood among others. I’ll include the film Taliesin West, in the list, as the Welsh parentage architect Frank Lloyd Wright named it after a medieval Welsh poet.
Whereas several Welsh stars have left for Hollywood, Julie Christie and Oscar-winning cinematographer-director Chris Menges from England have set up home in rural mid Wales. Menges’ Second Best about a boy adopted by a postmaster and starring William Hurt, was filmed in the small town where i was brought up. William Randolph Hurst of Citizen Kane fame brought and renovated St Donat’s castle in South Wales: he and his mistress the actress Marion Davies would entertain stars like Chaplin and the Fairbanks.
TV + INTERNET
The cult TV series The Prisoner was filmed at Portmeirion, North Wales.
The Daleks (Dr Who’s old enemies) were a Welsh invention. I’m doubtful they would be so scary with Welsh accents. Superted is Wales’ very own superhero.
Oh and scientist Donald Davies, inventor of “packet switching”, was crucial in the development of computer communications, enabling the creation of the internet and its film possibilities…
David Berry: Wales and Cinema: The First Hundred Years
Peter Stead: Acting Wales: Stars of Stage and Screen
Not on Mubi:
The Life of Charles Peace
The Map of Love
Tân Ar y Comin/ Fire on the Common
Saunders Lewis v Andy Warhol
Swansea Love Story
Letter from the East
and a fine TV film, The Forgotten Voyage: Alfred Russel Wallace and his Discovery of Evolution by Natural SelectionRead less