The Top 20 ...Scottish movie moments
Category: Dear Frankie News | Posted by: DaisyMay
Article Date: March 29, 2007 | Publication: Scotsman.com (Blog) | Author: AlistairHarkness
WELCOME to our Top 20 Scottish film moments of all time. The first thing you're probably wondering is: "Why film moments and not films?" The short answer is: we thought it would be more interesting. That's not to say that many of the films you would expect to appear on a list of the top 20 Scottish films won't be featured - they are - just that by looking at key moments, rather than the film as a whole, we thought we could offer an alternative slant on what makes some of these films important and memorable. The other reason, of course, is that it would also allow us to look beyond Scottish films (however you care to define the term), at movies that have either had an effect on how Scotland is perceived around the world or films that have reflected ideas about Scottish identity in interesting ways.
That's fairly broad criteria, so I'm much indebted to the panel of experts who managed - after a week-and-a-half of vigorous debate - to pull together a comprehensive and diverse list of Scottish moments in film. These are: Janice Forsyth, presenter of BBC Radio Scotland's The Movie Café; Brian Pendreigh, a particular authority on Scottish film who has written books on Ewan McGregor and Mel Gibson; Metro Scotland film journalist Eddie Harrison; Mike McCahill, a film reviewer for this paper; and myself, The Scotsman's film critic. I'd also like to thank Mark Cousins, author of The Story of Film and director of the Cinema China film festival. His hectic schedule meant he couldn't be involved in shaping the final list, but he made some valuable suggestions and contributions.
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In compiling the list we did set ourselves some ground rules. Though these moments didn't necessarily have to feature in Scottish films, they did have to have an identifiable Scottish connection on screen rather than just behind the camera. That ruled out many prominent American films made by Scottish directors, but did allow us to consider international films featuring Scottish actors or characters. We also wanted to avoid any film featuring on the list more than once, so, while we considered plenty of scenes from Trainspotting, only one made the cut. Oh, and there's only one big Sean Connery moment too, though you can probably guess which it is. (Clue: it's not Zardoz.)
We also had to keep in mind that this wasn't a "best films" list. Some of the movies featured are of debatable quality, but they made the list at the expense of better movies because of what they reflect about Scotland. Some of these moments will already be burned into your memories, some of them you may never have seen before and some might leave you asking, "What the hell were we thinking?" That's all good. Hopefully our choices will encourage a bit of debate, maybe convince you to track down the more obscure films, or look at the more famous ones in different ways. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy it.
PANAVISION CAMERAS SWOOP OVER GLASGOW'S NECROPOLIS , DEATHWATCH, BERTRAND TAVERNIER, 1979
BRIGADOON and David Niven as Bonnie Prince Charlie aside, Scottish cinema really hit its stride circa 1979 with Bill Forsyth's That Sinking Feeling and the swoop of a Panavision lens over the skyline of Glasgow's necropolis at the start of Bertrand Tavernier's thriller Deathwatch. Based on David Compton's novel The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, or The Unsleeping Eye, this French/West German co-production's imaginative conceit is that Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has a miniature camera implanted inside his head by a reality television company that wants to boost ratings by recording a death on camera. Specifically, Roddy's mission is to befriend the dying Katherine (Romy Schneider), so that her last days can be broadcast to a watching television audience. Deathwatch is that rarest of things, a futuristic science fiction film set in 1970s Glasgow, a landscape of cold, deserted streets and muddy, desolate waste-grounds. As well as the atmospheric opening shot, the film offers gamey glimpses of Glasgow city centre, replete with dated sights such as corporation buses or a svelte Robbie Coltrane during a marketplace chase. Yet the focus on reality television could hardly be more prescient, with the numbing processes of the modern media accurately anticipated by Mortenhoe when she concludes: "Everything's of interest, but nothing matters."
LIZZIE READS FRANKIE'S LETTERS ON THE BUS, DEAR FRANKIE, SHONA AUERBACH, 2004
SHONA Auerbach's unsentimental drama was based on Andrea Gibb's script about single mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, inset) whose withdrawn son Frankie (Jack McElhone) believes his father's absence from his life is because he's serving in the navy. But when the ship Frankie believes his father is on is scheduled to arrive in port in Greenock, Lizzie attempts to protect her son's feelings by hiring a stranger (Gerard Butler) to pretend to be Frankie's father. Whether sharing a fish supper or splashing through the surf on the beach together, Butler's scenes with McElhone exude a tough but tender form of gruff machismo that's more Scottish than the gift shop at the Edinburgh Tattoo. The knockout punch comes when a final scene reveals the secret that Frankie's been keeping - so stop reading now if you haven't already seen it.
Frankie's mother comes across the boy's unsent letters, and discover that her son knew all along that the Stranger wasn't really his father. The revelation of Frankie's unimagined tenderness and sensitivity towards his mother provides the single most heart-breaking moment in recent Scottish cinema, winning Dear Frankie a 15-minute standing ovation in Cannes and a less well publicised outbreak of mass sobbing at a press screening earlier the same day.
'THIS IS THE NIGHT MAIL CROSSING THE BORDER', NIGHT MAIL, JOHN GRIERSON, 1936
PRODUCED by John Grierson for his GPO Documentary Film Unit, Night Mail is the story of the London to Scotland mail train. His genius captures the extraordinary feat of organisation as half a million letters are uplifted, sorted and delivered en route. But the film's triumph is the lyrical finale when the tone shifts completely, as the Postal Special reaches Scotland. The wind whistles as the camera pans slowly across bleak moorland. Suddenly the iron horse comes round the bend, steam belching, gearing up for the ascent of Beattock. WH Auden's words are accompanied by music by Benjamin Britten, the pace and rhythm matching the frenetic pace of the brilliantly edited visuals.
The emotional resonance of the whole undertaking is ratcheted up with the line "All Scotland waits for her", as the rhythm slows and a final, long panning shot takes us to a bridge over the Clyde and on into Central Station where the sun shines on railway workers polishing locomotives. With echoes of Eisenstein and Vertov, it's a landmark work that's still exhilarating 70 years on.
FROM 20TH-CENTURY NEW YORK TO 16TH-CENTURY SCOTLAND - IN ONE CAMERA MOVEMENT, HIGHLANDER, RUSSELL MULCAHY, 1986
HOLLYWOOD has often been guilty of perpetuating Scottish stereotypes, but no other film has done so with quite the same playfulness as Highlander. American teenager Greg Widen was awestruck by the drama of the Highlands when he visited them on holiday and he drew on various myths in a screenplay, originally written as a student assignment, that mixed elements of swashbuckler, thriller and fantasy.
Highlander opens with French actor Christopher Lambert watching professional wrestling at Madison Square Garden, occasionally inter-cut with scenes of a Scottish clan battle. He fights a duel with swords in the car park and decapitates his opponent, releasing some sort of mysterious energy, at which point the camera pans up, as if headed back to the wrestling. Instead we find ourselves in the Highlands in 1536.
And there is Lambert, now with long hair and kilt, riding out over the causeway of Eilean Donan Castle, picturesque, dramatic and itself a bit of a phoney. He is off to battle, with the rest of the Clan MacLeod. Lambert was playing a Scot, who is part of a race of immortals - well, almost immortal; it's a bit complicated. Sean Connery is his mentor, who perversely is supposed to be an Egyptian... from Spain.
How could anyone resist such a wonderful mish-mash? The critics did and so initially did the public. But Highlander got a new lease of life on video, acquired a cult following, spawned a string of sequels and television spin-offs, and did much to reinforce the international image of the Scot as a race of fierce Highlanders in kilts.