Man of Aran (1934)
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
I’ve heard of Man of Aran, but never watched it. Essentially a silent movie from the 30s. It’s pioneering filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s love letter to the often brutal and beautiful Aran islands off the coast of Ireland. Men toiling with the sea, toiling with the land. Aran looks like a tough place, harsh and unforgiving. It could be interpreted as documentary, but it’s cut in dramatic fashion and it is very dramatic. Waves crashing, young fishermen wresting nets in the surf. I’m guessing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this where the inspiration for that classic Guinness advert with the horses galloping out of the waves. The film follows the inhabitants of Aran in their daily lives. If the power of the sea seems relentless, the same can be said for the rocky landscape inland too. It’s a barren place, with fertile soil harvested like gold from the ground in cracks between the rocks, then used to create man made fields to grow their diet of potatoes. Some of scenery is staggering, even in old slightly blurry black and white. A young boy fishing with a line off a ridiculously high cliff, 100ft or so. To my modern safety conscious eyes it looks crazy. He looks completely free though, independent, in control, full of joy, fearless. It’s called Man of Aran and the cast is overwhelmingly male, but there’s one matriarchal figure who if there is one, is the lynchpin. She’s the one pulling the strings if not the nets of ores. Between her and the young boy we feel the connection to the place. The men are almost indistinguishable, but these two, bound to the land, feel like our eyes. The boy wants to go to sea, but isn’t allowed. Staying home instead with his mother, in a stone dwelling, heated by fire, lit by oil lamps, wrapped in tough work clothes. Indeed Aran sweaters, but you wouldn’t find these in a catalogue. Everything is practice, although all the men do wear nifty matching bobble hats. I’ve watched this twice. The first with the sound of the film off, instead playing British Sea Power’s ‘Man of Aran’ album, designed to score the film and boy does it! You’ve got to be careful to get it lined up properly, but being shot in the 30s, there are title cards that introduce each new scene and these help keep you in time. Their score is gorgeous, utterly majestic. Reminiscent of GY!BE, the tone and atmosphere it brings is incredible. Beautiful haunting underwater sounds amplified through strings as the young boy spots a shark and driving percussion as he chases it along the rugged coastline. As a small fishing boat harpoons the creature and tries to bring it in, it’s stunning and spectacular. The boat twisting and turning with the movement of the beast and the band wrestling right along with the men in the boat. When watching with the BSP score, the score does take over. I’m fine with that, it’s gorgeous, but watching with the film’s original sound is a different experience again. Featuring a score by John Greenwood, based on Irish Folk songs. It’s much more immediate and literal. BSP have gone big, Greenwood has a lighter touch, music with a spring in its step. It’s a full orchestra too, which gives it a much more rounded sound. The opening scenes are gentle, focusing on the boy, his mother and a baby in a crib that I inexplicably missed first time round. The music sign posts nearly every action. What’s surprising after watching with the BSP score though, is here the music ebbs away as we get our first glimpses of the fishermen. The sounds of the sea are brought in, along with voices. It’s all added sound of course, no other way to do it in the early 30s recording process. The voices are used like gestures, not too many distinguishable words, partly because of the thick Irish accent, but it definitely adds that documentary feel. It also hammers home the mother’s dominance. This really should’ve been called Woman of Aran. There’s some truly mind-boggling cinematography and editing. Especially on the boats where the cameras must’ve been pretty unruly, with some fantastic shots of them hunting basque sharks, which look enormous compared to the small boats. Some sequences are cut so fast, they must’ve been mere slivers of film, it’s really a stunning piece of work. I guess I need to say which score I prefer. It’s an easy call really, British Sea Power’s. It’s got much more clout and has that powerful swell of sound that I love. Greenwood’s original score through feels more well suited. Yes it’s much more traditional and not especially inventive, but it helps the narrative much more, with its joyful sweeping strings. True it’s more sporadic, making way for the foley sound, but that only helps make it appear more considered. As it begins with the boy gently crab fishing, it ends with real dramatic tension as his father and two others struggle with a boat in a raging storm, desperately trying to get safely to shore. It’s edge of your seat stuff, genuine life and death playing out on screen. Man of Aran is a fantastic piece of early cinema. Whether you watch it with its original score and sound or with British Sea Power’s reinterpretation, it’s a treat for the eyes and ears.