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Book Review: Nonfiction Film's Educationist

By Ray Zone

John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence
by Jack C. Ellis
Southern Illinois University Press
384 pps, (hardbound) $49.95
ISBN 0-8093-2242-0


In reviewing Robert Flaherty’s second film, Moana, for The New York Sun in 1926, John Grierson wrote, “Moana deserves to rank with those few works of the screen that have the right to last, to live...Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” That was the first use of the term “documentary,” as applied to the nonfiction film.

After writing that review, Grierson was to become the preeminent champion of nonfiction film in the 20th century. Among Grierson’s innovations were the use of institutional sponsorship—public and private—to pay for documentary filmmaking, and the creation of nontheatrical forms of distribution and exhibition for documentary films through schools and factories, churches and union halls. Behind these innovations was Grierson’s passionate belief that documentary film could help create an “educated citizenship” by informing the public about their nation and involving them on an emotional level with the workings of their government.

John Grierson often referred to himself as “an educationist.” Born on April 26, 1898, in the tiny village of Deanston, Scotland, he was the fourth child and first son of Jane Anthony Grierson, a free thinker from an Ayrshire family known for its radical outlook, and Robert Morrison Grierson, a Calvinist schoolmaster. Though conservative, the village schoolmaster showed educational films to his classes long before cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow knew anything about them.

From his mother, Grierson received a love of debate, politics and public service. Grierson’s entry into Glasgow University in 1915 at the age of seventeen as a Clark Scholar was abruptly interrupted by World War I. After serving three-and-a-half years in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Grierson made a difficult return to the university, but in the interim maintained his intellectual preparation by each day reading for four hours and writing a thousand words. Grierson’s two most personal films, Drifters (1926) and Granton Trawler (1934), would later draw on this experience at sea.

Through the university, Grierson acquired a broad understanding of social-political-economic analysis that, in his biographer Jack Ellis’ words, “would later prove an enormous professional resource in the many years and millions of dollars spent in producing films under government sponsorship.” While completing his graduate studies, Grierson was a preacher for two small Highlands churches—until he gave a radical sermon and was defrocked. He also taught night school in Scotland to young people who worked all day in the local coal mines.

On a Rockefeller Research Fellowship, Grierson spent 1924 through 1927 in America, where he wrote on art and film for such newspapers as the Chicago Evening Post and the New York Sun, and trade publications like Motion Picture News. In Hollywood, Grierson met Walter Wanger, Jesse Lasky, Josef Von Sternberg, Charlie Chaplin and Erich Von Stroheim. After meeting Robert Flaherty in New York, Grierson assisted in launching the Soviet masterpiece Battleship Potemkin in its American premiere. Potemkin had such an influence on Grierson that three years later he chose to screen it on a double-bill with the premiere of his own first film, Drifters, for the London Film Society.

After returning to Britain in 1927, Grierson was enlisted into the service of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), whose stated purpose was “to bring the Empire alive to the minds of its citizens.” For the EMB, Grierson made Drifters, about the herring fisheries, which proved a success and led to the formation of the EMB Film Unit. In Grierson’s words, the film “had the rarity of opening for Britain a new vista of film reference.”

Aspiring documentary filmmakers such as Arthur Elton, Basil Wright and Paul Rotha were enlisted to the EMB Film Unit, and when it was disbanded in 1933, they went with Grierson over to the General Post Office Film Unit to continue to produce documentary films. By the time Grierson departed for Canada in 1939, over 60 filmmakers made up the British documentary movement and had produced over 300 films.

The system that produced these films became a model for other countries. Grierson took his ideas to Canada, where he wrote the legislation for the National Film Board and became its first head. Under Grierson’s initiative, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa also established national film boards. Throughout the years Grierson expressed his ideas of film-educated citizenship in many major essays. It was Jack Ellis’ discovery of the collection of writings entitled Grierson on Documentary, edited by Forsyth Hardy (London: Collins, 1946) that gave him “a totally new view” of documentary film and led him to write John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence.

Along with library research, Ellis interviewed over 40 individuals, including Grierson himself and by 1968 had largely completed the work, but was reticent to publish it. “In my own biographical explorations,” writes Ellis, “I was taking a line a bit more critical of Grierson than the standard line—and, believe me, there was a standard line—and I felt deeply indebted to his friends and former colleagues who had been so very helpful.”

Following Grierson’s death in February 1972, Forsyth Hardy, who had produced a second edition of Grierson on Documentary, announced a Grierson biography. “Since he had known Grierson much longer and better than I,” says Ellis, “it seemed courteous, and perhaps politic, to wait and see what he had to say.” When Hardy’s John Grierson: A Documentary Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1979) was published, it seemed to Ellis that, while thoroughly researched, the biography “acknowledged sources very sparingly and limited the amount of detail in order to heighten the drama of Grierson’s advance through life.”

Ellis has attempted to build his Grierson biography on a “substantial scholarly foundation” and emphasize “differences of opinion, rather than synthesizing or reducing them.” The result is essential reading, a critical biography of a towering figure in 20th century documentary.

John Grierson: A Selected Bibliography

  • Aitken, Ian. Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement. London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Beveridge, James. John Grierson: Film Master. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
  • Ellis, Jack C. John Grierson: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986.
  • Evans, Gary. John Grierson and the National Film Board, The Politics of Wartime Propaganda. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
  • Hardy, Forsyth. John Grierson: A Documentary Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.
  • Hardy, Forsyth, editor. Grierson on Documentary. London: Collins, 1946. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947. Rev. ed., Berkeley : University of California Press, 1966.
  • Sussex, Elizabeth. The Rise and Fall of British Documentary: The Story of the Film Movement Founded by John Grierson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.