John Grierson was extremely interested in modernist art, which he thought expressed the energies of a new age. He was attracted to 'city symphony' films - such as Manhatta (USA, d. Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921) and Berlin: Symphony of a City (Germany, d. Walther Ruttman, 1926) - because of the way they portrayed the modern city in a poetic manner. He was most interested in Soviet films, however, particularly those of Sergei Eisenstein.
Drifters premiered at the Film Society on November 10, 1929, on the same bill as The Battleship Potemkin (USSR, d. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), which was receiving its British premiere. Grierson had previously helped to title Eisenstein's film for an American showing and its influence is clearly revealed in Drifters. Like Potemkin, Drifters employs montage in an expressive manner, creating dramatic tension in the absence of any psychological characterisation. Both films also use 'types' (non-professional actors) instead of actors in order to create a more 'authentic' reality, and both films make use of extensive location shooting. Grierson, nevertheless, always stressed that he was keen to make a film with distinctively 'British' characteristics, which he saw as moderation and a sense of human importance. Drifters is, therefore, slower paced than Potemkin, and focuses on more mundane, less inherently dramatic events.
The focus on a modern, industrialised Britain is also a feature of Drifters and, in the absence of a strong cause-and-effect narrative, one of the central themes is the tension between tradition and modernity. Thus, at the beginning of the film, titles read: 'The Herring fishing industry has changed. Its story was once an idyll of brown sails and village harbours - its story now is an epic of steel and steam. Fishermen still have their homes in the old time village - But they go down for each season to the labour of a modern industry'. This link is also implied at the end of the film, as the catch is delivered to a modern, international market.
Grierson clearly sides with modernity, hence his constant focus on the machine parts of the trawler's engine. However, the focus on natural elements (sea, birds, fish), and the rather perfunctory attention given to the marketing of the fish at the end of the film, imply that his feelings about modernity are ambivalent. While the film celebrates industrialism as an evolutionary stage in history, it also respects the links between man and nature.
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