Man of Aran

Director: Robert Flaherty
Screenplay: Robert Flaherty
Features: Colman “Tiger” King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dillane, Pat Mullin, Patch “Red Beard” Ruadh, Patcheen Faherty, Tommy O'Rourke, “Big Patcheen” Conneely of the West, Stephen Dirrane, Pat McDonough
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1934
Country: UK
Man of Aran

Robert Flaherty, who is widely regarded as being responsible for developing the feature documentary genre with his 1922 masterpiece Nanook of the North, spent two years of his life filming the residents of the rocky islands of Aran off the western coast of Ireland. The resulting film, Man of Aran, which is a heady mix of documentary realism and mythical exaggeration, is a spellbinding look at an extreme way of life. Flaherty was as much an adventurer as he was a documentary filmmaker; in fact, his films are not so much authentic documents of his subject matter (he was widely known to stage action for the cameras) as they are testament to his pioneering spirit, showmanship, and willingness to explore corners of the world where few would venture.

Man of Aran is a typical Flaherty film in that it explores in mythopoetic terms the conflict between humankind and their environment. As Nanook of the North chronicled the experiences of an Intuit family surviving in the Arctic and Moana (1926) explored the lives of Polynesian natives on a Samoan island, Man of Aran is an account of how a community of people make their lives on the islands of Aran. As an opening title card informs us, the islands of Aran are “three wastes of rock … without trees … without soil.” And, because of their particular formations and location, they are pounded by the ocean almost mercilessly, which Flaherty captures with the scope and drama of an epic.

Flaherty’s black-and-white cinematography accentuates the desolation of the environment. If there is any vegetation to be found, it is lost amid the craggy lines of the rocks that dominate the landscape. His use of long focal-length lenses makes the ocean appear even larger and more impressive, at times literally swallowing up entire portions of the island with crashing waves almost too big to be believed. Flaherty juxtaposes the swirling waters and ocean spray with the weathered look of the people who live on the islands, suggesting that they, like the rocks on which they live, have been literally shaped and carved by their environment.

Like many of his other films, Flaherty centers the narrative around a family, in this case an island blacksmith, his wife, and their 12-year-old son (actually, they weren’t a real family, but are portrayed as such). Large portions of the film are dedicated to the daily routines necessary for survival, including fishing from the precarious cliff faces high above the ocean, hauling seaweed in order to make soil for growing potatoes, and patching the bottom of a boat with cloth and tar. A significant chunk of the film chronicles the harpooning of a basking shark that is at least as large as the fishermen’s boat, and the suspense and action Flaherty generates is indicative of his thorough understanding of both the art of film editing and the commercial needs of a feature film (Flaherty was a natural showman, and Man of Aran was, in fact, a significant hit in theaters).

Above all, though, Flaherty was, at heart, a romantic, and Man of Aran paints a highly selective portrait of life on the islands. For instance, there is virtually no record of the islanders’ religious lives, family life, or the economic conditions under which they live. Yet, this is not a detriment to the film because Flaherty wanted it to be a portrait of survival, and in this sense the film is true to its aim. He never intended it to be a complete exploration of lived experience on the islands, but rather a poetic hymn to the solidarity of people who chose to live their lives in a “desperate environment” so that they could maintain their cherished independence.

Man of Aran DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsHow the Myth Was Made 1977 documentary
“Looking Back”: Interview with Robert Flaherty
“Flaherty and Film”: Interview with Frances Flaherty
Excerpt from 1971 documentary Hidden and Seeking
“Outside the Frame” photo gallery
DistributorHome Vision Entertainment
Release DateMay 20, 2003

Man of Aran is presented in its original 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio in a good-looking new transfer. The film certainly shows its age, as several scenes have speckling and minor instances of damage and there are a few portions that seem noticeably grainy. Despite its age, though, the image maintains strong detail through a wide range of grays, allowing us to fully appreciate the severity of the environment.

Man of Aran was Robert Flaherty’s first sound film. The musical score sounds extremely good, even with the limited fidelity of early monaural. The sound effects are not so good, which is a result of the original soundtrack, not the transfer. Flaherty made the decision to overdub all the voices in English, instead of the islanders’ native Irish Gaelic, which results in some rather awkward instances of clearly canned dialogue that doesn’t match the people’s mouths.

Home Vision has outfitted Man of Aran with a healthy array of supplements. By far the most intriguing is How the Myth Was Made, an hour-long documentary made in 1977 by filmmaker George C. Stanley, who can trace his own family roots back to the islands of Aran. In the documentary, he returns to the islands to explore the changes that have taken place since Flaherty was there in 1931–32 and also the film’s impact on the people living there. It includes interviews with several people who worked on the film, as well as Maggie Dirrane and Stephen Dirrane, who both appear in the film. Other supplements include “Looking Back,” a five-minute excerpt from a filmed interview with Flaherty some time in the late 1940s; “Flaherty and Film,” an interview with Flaherty’s wife and collaborator, France Flaherty; an excerpt from the 1971 documentary Hidden and Seeking, which features France Flaherty in her later years, a fiery environmental activist at the ripe age of 87; and “Outside the Frame,” a gallery of production stills, behind-the-scenes photos, sketches, and publicity photos.

©2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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