The Land

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USA, 1942

Directors: Robert J. Flaherty with Frances H. Flaherty

Production: Agricultural Adjustment Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture; black and white, 35mm; running time: 42 minutes. Though it has been shown non-theatrically, the film has never had a general release; its premiere showing was in April 1942, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Filmed summer 1939-March 1940 in the American South and Midwest.

Screenplay: Robert J. Flaherty; commentary: Russell Lord; photography: Irving Lerner, Douglas Baker, Floyd Crosby, and Charles Herbert; editor: Helen Van Dongen; sound engineers: A. Dillinger and Reuben Ford; music: Richard Arnell; consultant: Wayne Darrow; research and field assistance: W. H. Lamphere and Lamp Hart.

Cast: Robert Flaherty (Narrator).



Lord, Russell and Kate Lord, Forever the Land: A Country Chronicleand Anthology, New York, 1950.

Gromo, Mario, Robert Flaherty, Parma, 1952.

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Film, New York, 1952.

Griffith, Richard, The World of Robert Flaherty, New York, 1953.

Flaherty, Frances, The Odyssey of a Film-Maker: Robert Flaherty'sStory, Urbana, Illinois, 1960.

Quintar, Fuad, Robert Flaherty et le documentaire poétique, Paris, 1960.

Rotha, Paul and Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now, New York, 1960.

Clemente, Jose L., Robert Flaherty, Madrid, 1963.

Cuenca, Carlos Fernandez, Robert Flaherty, Madrid, 1963.

Calder-Marshall, Arthur, The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J.Flaherty, London, 1963; New York, 1966.

Klaue, Wolfgang, editor, Robert Flaherty, East Berlin, 1964.

Agel, Henri, Robert J. Flaherty, Paris, 1965.

Snyder, Robert, Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, Norman, Oklahoma, 1968.

Barsam, Richard, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History, New York, 1973.

Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, New York, 1974.

Wright, Basil, The Long View, London and New York, 1974,

Napolitano, Antonio, Robert J. Flaherty, Florence, 1975.

Murphy, William T., Robert Flaherty: A Guide to References andResources, Boston, 1979.

Weaver, Mike, Robert Flaherty's "The Land," Exeter, Devon, 1979.

Hardy, Forsyth, editor, Grierson on the Movies, London, 1981.

Rotha, Paul, Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography, Philadelphia, 1983.


Griffith, Richard, "Flaherty and the Future," in New Movies (New York), January 1943.

Pandolfi, Vito, "Documentare a lotta per la vita," in Cinema (Rome), 15 December 1950.

"Gli uomini hanno fame mella terra de Flaherty," in Cinema (Rome), November 1951.

Rucon Turconi, Davide, "Il film proibito di Flaherty," in Biancoe Nero (Rome), no. 2, 1962.

Van Dongen, Helen, "Robert J. Flaherty," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1965; and in Non-Fiction Film: Theory and Criticism, edited by Richard Barsam, New York, 1976.

Achtenberg, Ben, "Helen Van Dongen: An Interview," in FilmQuarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1976.

Strauss, Theodore, "The Giant Shinnies down the Beanstalk: Flaherty's The Land," in The Documentary Tradition, edited by Lewis Jacobs, New York, 1979.

Lee, R., "Robert Flaherty: Free Spirit," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 65, no. 1, January 1984.

Leacock, Richard, "In Defense of the Flaherty Traditions," in FilmCulture (New York), no. 79, Winter 1996.

* * *

The Land, the least typical, least known, and most controversial of Robert Flaherty's films, depicts a vast and vague territory across the southern and midwestern United States. Here, in the period between the Depression's end and the beginning of World War II, abandoned farmhouses lined dusty roadways, and forgotten farm people had almost ceased to hope for a better life. On the face of it, The Land might have become the earthly counterpart to Pare Lorentz's The River, easily the best known and most widely praised American documentary film. But as it turned out, The Land pleased few people, least of all Flaherty himself.

As head of the new U.S. Film Service, Lorentz had invited Robert Flaherty (perhaps at John Grierson's suggestion) to make a film on the New Deal's efforts to restore American farmers and farmlands to their productive fullness. Flaherty and his wife collaborator, Frances, welcomed the chance to explore their homeland as they had previously explored many distant corners of the world. Flaherty's brief experience with government sponsorship while making Industrial Britain, or most of it, for Grierson's E.M.B. Film Unit in 1931 had not prepared him for the frustrations and troubles that lay ahead.

To make The Land Robert and Frances Flaherty travelled some 100,000 miles, shooting 25,000 feet of 35mm film—all silent (narration and music were added later). "A long and gruelling job," Flaherty later described it. While he was still filming, Lorentz started a new film of his own (The Fight for Life) and in his absence Congress abruptly dismantled the U.S. Film Service. The Land was shunted to Henry Wallace's Department of Agriculture. All through the summer and fall of 1941, the Department's experts tinkered with Flaherty's footage, trying to make it conform to the government's rapidly changing needs and policies. As the U.S. came closer to entering the war, unemployment gave way to a farm labor shortage, mechanization became part of the solution to the farm problems rather than a threat. It fell to Helen van Dongen (who had edited Joris Ivens' later European films, and his just finished Power and the Land) to find structure for Flaherty's random footage and make sense of the changing government directives.

The film's most memorable scenes are those in which Flaherty (narrating the film himself) briefly dramatizes poignant human incidents: a young couple with two small children packing their pitiful belongings on an old mule cart; an old Negro man living alone on a once-abundant plantation, wondering where everyone has gone; a boy sleeping, while his mother explains that his hands move because he thinks he's shelling peas. Flaherty conceded that the film had no specific solutions for what the camera saw; he found it amazing that so critical a film could be made at all. "It shows that democracy can face itself in the mirror without flinching," he told an interviewer a short while before the film's intended release.

Within a few short weeks, however, democracy flinched. With the U.S. now at war, government officials feared that so dismal a picture would serve mainly to aid the enemies' propaganda campaigns. A prestige premiere was held at the Museum of Modern Art in early 1942, but the film's release was permanently denied. (The Museum still distributes 16mm prints for study purposes. Calder-Marshall's The Innocent Eye, Appendix 4, contains the final narration, written by Russell Lord based on Flaherty's comments, interspersed with critical descriptions of each sequence by Paul Rotha and Basil Wright.)

Critical opinion about The Land has been divided, then as now, into two more or less exclusive areas: style and content. Basil Wright has called it "the most important film in Flaherty's development as an artist . . . a cry of protest . . . impressive because of its passionate incoherence." Siegfried Kracauer found its "plot" lacking precision and failing to get hold of the very problems it attacked; its true merits (deep honesty, the beauty of its pictures, and its avoidance of hasty conclusions) added up to "fragments of a lost epic song." Frances Flaherty did not mention The Land in her book, The Odyssey of Filmmaker considering only their four "free" films as bearing the true Flaherty mark.

Although the first credit after the main title on The Land reads "Directed by Robert J. Flaherty in collaboration with Frances H. Flaherty," her name often does not appear in books listing those credits. Richard Griffith, in The World of Robert Flaherty, details the nature of the Flahertys' "filmmaking partnership" in creating a film method which Frances later called "non-preconception," which she championed after Flaherty's death through her writings and her talks, and through the Flaherty Seminars which she founded in 1955.

The Land was Flaherty's major effort to align himself with the social-minded documentarists. If he failed, it was no more or less a failure than his efforts to become part of the commercial movie world. Like the great Sergei Eisenstein, Flaherty was a man of mythic vision; his films were mythic too, despite earnest efforts to conform to pre-determined rules and counter-regulations. At Flaherty's death in 1951, Grierson re-assessed Flaherty's "handful of lovely films" with the thousands of educational and propaganda productions, made by the "documentary people who went the other way," financed by the million in government services all over the world. "I look at it all today and think with the gentler half of my head that Flaherty's path was right and the other wrong." Certainly Flaherty's path was right for Flaherty, if for no others.

—Cecile Starr

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The Land

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