Grierson's "First Principles of Documentary" in Night Mail (1936)

The UK General Post Office, or G.P.O., production Night Mail was released under the direction of Basil Wright and administration of John Grierson. Grierson, often referred to as the father of documentary film, created the G.P.O. Film Unit as an attempt to increase the spread of modernity and worker morale within the United Kingdom (“Night Mail”, 2017). Before taking office, Grierson wrote his “First Principles of Documentary” as a manifest of the newly described documentary film and its power of using reality as opposed to the studio approach, as well as the need for the “creative treatment of actuality” in documentary. Through analysis of Basil Wright’s Night Mail, the spectator can see the influence of Grierson’s “First Principles of Documentary”, as well as the opposition to these principles, within G.P.O. films. In order to provide a thorough discussion, this essay will focus primarily on Grierson’s second principle of documentary, as well as Night Mail’s “interpretation of the modern world” between the small, or individual, scale and Grierson’s desired large, or impersonal social, scale.

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As his second principle of documentary, Grierson writes, “We believe that the original (or native) actor, and the original (or native scene), are better guides to a screen interpretation of the modern world . . . They give it power of interpretation over more complex and astonishing happenings in the real world than the studio mind can conjure up or the studio mechanician recreate” (Grierson 101). Wright’s Night Mail enacts Grierson’s declaration through the film’s decision to display “modern world” laborers working on a postal train. These workers are not actors, rather they are actual employees of the General Post Office filmed in their “native scene”, the world of postal trains. During the film’s opening title sequence, Wright even credits the night mail laborers with “. . .Workers of the Traveling Post Office [and] workers of the L.M.S. Railway” (Wright, 1936). The attention given to employees within Night Mail stresses the importance of the individual in the modern world and the attainability of satisfaction offered through hard work. Night Mail’s sequences are often statistical in both quantitative and qualitative measures. The spectator hears the worker’s process through dialogue, “. . . five-hundred bags must be unloaded, one-thousand loaded, engines changed . . .”, while seeing images of urgent faces and determined young men (Wright, 1936). By showing the regality of the postal train, Night Mail’s focus on the small scale individual encourages G.P.O. employees’ dedication.

Filming “native” postal train employees in their “native scene” coincides directly with Grierson’s second principle of documentary, that a story must be inspired by “…happenings in the real world” (Grierson 101). Documentary film should not be forced to fit a stereotypical Hollywood mold. The agency Grierson places on his discussion of Robert Flaherty’s work is reflected in Wright’s film. Grierson states, “Hollywood wanted to impose a ready-made dramatic shape on the raw material. It wanted Flaherty, in complete injustice to the living drama on the spot, to build his Samoans into a rubber stamp drama of sharks and bathing belles…” (Grierson 102). Grierson’s idea of the “living drama” is shared in Night Mail. Rather than using famous Hollywood actors, Wright made the decision to keep the film small scale and, more importantly, attainable to common audiences by using real people to tell a real story. Not only does Night Mail work to introduce society to the G.P.O.’s influence on modernity, Wright’s film also constructs the large modern world to appear less intimidating through effectively juxtaposed sequences of mail being delivered to both the United Kingdom’s countryside and city. Even though spectators’ relatives may live across the country, Night Mail shrinks the scale through the visual assurance of rapid and reliable communication.

As Grierson reaches his discussion of symphonists in “First Principles of Documentary”, the individual scale discussed thus far begins to be revealed in a controversial light. In regard to symphony films, Grierson writes, “But by their concentration on mass and movement, they tend to avoid the larger creative job. What more attractive . . . than to swing wheels and pistons about in ding-dong description of a machine, when he has little to say about the man who tends it, and still less to say about the tin-pan product it spills?” (Grierson 106). Only on the surface level of the film’s analysis does Night Mail avoid Grierson’s criticism due to its visual dissection of the postal service train. The exemplary workers of the film can be assessed in their “actual” portrayal of real life. In this instance, “actual” is placed in quotes due to Night Mail having scripted dialogue, which some documentarians may see as an ethics issue, even though Wright features real employees. An entire essay could be written solely on the subjected problematic “creative treatment of actuality”, which when proposed as problematic is in opposition to Wright’s views of documentary film. Continuing with the initial analysis, instead of only focusing on the exterior beauty of fast trains and modern technology, it can be argued that Night Mail welcomes its depiction of the often-ignored working class. For example, in Night Mail’s mail sorting scene, we see workers with unkempt shirt collars and dirtied clothing. The camera’s open visibility can be contrasted to the pristine, statuesque women of other G.P.O. films, particularly The Coming of the Dial.

Although a convincing argument is made for the spectator to be satisfied with Night Mail’s celebration of the worker, through subsurface analysis the spectator draws an antithetical conclusion. While the raw laborer is shown in Night Mail, the film’s small scale focus on the individual creates conflict within Grierson’s continued stance of his modern world interpretation and documentarian principles.

The first challenge Night Mail poses to Grierson’s documentary principles is the focus of the individual scale and the film’s lack of commentary on the impersonal social scale. Grierson’s desire for the larger, impersonal social scale is experienced throughout his “First Principles of Documentary”, but becomes transparent in his expanded dialogue on Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. Grierson writes, “When he draws your attention to the fact that Nanook’s spear is grave in its upheld angle, and finely rigid in its down-pointing bravery, you may, with some justice, observe that no spear, held however bravely by the individual, will master the crazy walrus of international finance” (Grierson 103). This statement critiques socially unconcerned symphonists and reprimands documentarians for often ignoring the larger social picture. Night Mail may show the actual worker, but the film avoids to comment on any conflict within the postal train system. The spectator is only exposed to what Wright chooses to show in Night Mail and this neglecting of society’s issues is troublesome. When Night Mail was completed, working-class wages were falling for G.P.O. laborers (“Night Mail”, 2017). Wright’s film does not show the likely unrest among G.P.O. employees at the time.

The spectator is allowed a single instance of actual opinion among workers in Night Mail, but the moment is extremely coded and quickly transitioned away from. As employees are exchanging shifts on the train station platform, one worker greets, “Good morning, hope you enjoy your tea” and another responds, “I know what that means, no water” (Wright, 1936). Although initially perceived as pleasantries among workers, this dialogue can be read as alluding to a much larger problem than tea. Arguing an impersonal social perspective, the tea dialogue can be interpreted perhaps as a conversation about the lack of a break for employees that day. Wright’s film uses the accessibility of G.P.O. employees to their advantage. Although Night Mail explains the job of a postal train sorter in depth, the film does not address the labor climate.

The second challenge arising from Night Mail and “First Principles of Documentary” is Wright’s filmic aesthetics and Grierson’s clearly stated distaste towards symphonists. Grierson argues that a concentration of “mass and movement” is “. . . the most dangerous of all film models to follow (Grierson 106). Yet, Wright’s film is full of symphonist flair. The chugging movement of a train is naturally monotonous. Scenes of “industrial England” are accompanied by the percussive audio of striking metal and the visuals of Night Mail emphasize the repetitive rhythm of the railway postal system, creating a symphonic appearance.

In an attempt to excuse Wright from his “mass and movement” heavy work, Grierson acknowledges Wright’s aesthetics through a surrealist lens. The excusal seems to be loaded, benefiting Grierson’s reputation for hiring surrealist filmmakers to make G.P.O. films. For Grierson, Wright’s films are poetry. Grierson explains, “There is an over-tone in his work which . . . makes his description uniquely memorable . . . His movements . . . conceal, or perhaps construct, a comment” (Grierson 108). Grierson also discusses the ability for rhythm to have a climax. In Night Mail, the sequence when the workers are counting down the exact moment to drop the leather mailbag from the postal train can be identified as the epitome of dramatic climax within the film. The mail drop sequence builds tension as the spectator sits, almost helplessly, to quick, repetitive cuts of the speeding train, banging mail contraptions, and concentration within the workers’ eyes. The spectator is allowed to breathe only when the mail bags are shown secured in the train and the shots transition to views of the country landscape. According to Grierson’s own principles, Wright’s Night Mail fits perfectly as a poetic and surrealist documentary. “Normal” documentaries, or lecture films, “. . . do not dramatize, they do not even dramatize an episode: they describe, and even expose, but in any aesthetic sense, only rarely reveal” (Grierson 100). Although addressed, Grierson’s excusal for Wright’s “mass and movement” appears extremely subjective, especially with Night Mail as an example.

While Wright presents a surrealist inspired poetic and “creative treatment of actuality” in Night Mail, the film fails to interpret the modern world in Grierson’s larger and more impersonal social scale. Wright’s Night Mail remains in a balance between agreement with and opposition to Grierson’s “First Principles of Documentary.” Although Grierson’s second principle of documentary is present during moments of worker depiction, Wright lacks in discussing any of the greater social problems present for G.P.O. workers of 1936. Night Mail is thoughtful, but it should be remembered that the film was produced as “propaganda” for the UK General Post Office and rapidly spreading modernity. As a spectator, one must be aware of Night Mail’s agenda in order to appreciate its status through a Grierson-esque lens. The viewer questions, through analysis, whether it is too much to expect a deeper social perspective from a G.P.O. commissioned film.

Works Cited

Grierson, John. “First Principles of Documentary.” Grierson on Documentary, pp. 99–111.
“Night Mail.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Oct. 2017.
Wright, Basil. Night Mail. General Post Office Film Unit, 1936.

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