As Scots go to the polls, the MostlyFilm crew bring you their favourite examples of Scotland on film.
The great day has finally arrived! Scotland decides whether to stay with the UK or pursue an independent path. We at MostlyFilm are a pluralistic lot; we include Yessers, Better Togetherers and neutrals. What we do agree on is that Scotland is a grand place, and will remain so, whatever the result of today’s vote. While we wait, here are some reflections on our favourite Scottish (and Scottish-set) films.
Highlander – Ricky Young
It’s not as if you haven’t seen Highlander. If every VHS copy of it was laid end-to-end, it’s quite possible it could surround about three fifths of Alex Salmond’s ego. It was a MASSIVE direct-to-video hit, and delightfully, has fuck-all to do with Scotland.
Yes, it contains some things that could pass for Scottish if pressed. Kilts. Bagpipes. Sitting round a fire having peat for dinner. Sean Connery. Getting punched in the face by James Cosmo – a rite of passage for every Scotchman, that, I’ll grant you. But with a few set changes and three, maybe four lines of dialogue altered, it could be called Chinaman. Or Uzbekistani. Or, ideally, A Welsh. Once our hero Connor McLeod is banished from the collection of huts he calls a home, the film descends into a bunch of people in New York who could just as well be aliens, fighting each other to try and stop being gods. And, as it turns out, the sequel tells us they actually are all aliens, so none of this film matters at all!
(Highlander nerds – a category that actually exists, as the film spun off into a number of crazy directions over the years – are probably hoisting themselves up to have a few choice words at this point, but let’s face it, I can outrun every one of them.)
That’s not to say it’s not still great – it’s fast, and flashy, and every five minutes there’s a bit you’ll remember really liking from the zillion times you watched it as a kid. But Wiki deliciously informs us that the echo in Connery’s opening voice-over is only there because he recorded it in the cludgie at his Spanish villa. That’s how Scotch Highlander is, in one delicious little anecdote. I’d give you another, but there can – of course – be only one.
The 39 Steps (1935) – Viv Wilby
The 39 Steps is, arguably, the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in which all of the director’s signature tropes come together in the same place. There’s the innocent man on the run, at once suave and resourceful; a cool blonde who can’t be trusted; an action sequence on a piece of iconic infrastructure (in this case the Forth Bridge); a bit of flashiness (that jump cut – a woman’s scream merges with the screeching whistle of the Flying Scotsman); and of course the MacGuffin, the little device of no intrinsic importance that sets the plot’s motor running.
Based loosely on John Buchan’s 1915 thriller, it tracks hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) from his home in London across the Scottish moors as he attempts to elude a shadowy spy ring, clear his name and expose their dastardly scheme.
Real Scotland only appears via a few second-unit shots of the Forth Bridge and the area around Glencoe, but Hitchcock makes effective use of the stature and scale of these symbols of the nation’s industrial and highland heritage. Scotland is a monumental place, intimidating and wild, with Hannay often reduced to a tiny figure, shinnying across the bridge or running through a glen. It’s as much a foe to be outwitted as the 39 Steps themselves.
But while the Scottish landscape may be harsh, its people are not. One of the film’s best scenes sees a tired and lost Hannay take shelter with a crofter and his young wife (played by John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft in a pair of terrific cameos). He’s dour and suspicious, she’s drawn to the charismatic stranger and offers him sympathy and help. Laurie’s crofter is an unfortunate national stereotype – mean and flinty and Presbyterian – but Ashcroft, as Margaret from Glasgow, dreaming of the lights of Sauchiehall Street and giving Hannay her husband’s Sunday coat, knowing how he will punish her, provides one of the film’s gracenotes.
Gregory’s Girl – Kate le Vann
After we got our Betamax I didn’t spend another day of my childhood outside. My big brother decided what we watched and there were films we saw hundreds of times. Some of them I liked (Smokey and the Bandit), some I hated (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), some I liked and hated (Tommy). I loved only one: Gregory’s Girl.
Well, now I’m the big brother and I can’t wait to make my daughters watch it. They’ll love it too, from the nurse’s brassiere, through Mr Menzies’s gentle strangeness, all the way to Susan’s beret. It’s not a feminist film: it’s about boys and the female characters are barely sketched out. The other male teachers are super dodgy. But there’s a really good football player who’s a girl. The Dorothy/Carol/Margo/Susan switcheroo teases the girls, but the line that runs through it: “It’s just the way girls work. They help each other” is hard to find today, when films mostly agree that girls will be rivals and some will be mean. And there’s this: Gregory and his friends are not bad boys, nice guys and geeks. Not commitment-phobic or laddish. They’re sensitive and sincere, with somewhat sophisticated, ironic patter. It hadn’t occurred to me at that point, despite having an older brother, that boys might be like normal people.
We’re a bit Scottish, me and my brother – my mum was born in Glasgow and both my grannies fed us Broons annuals and Edinburgh rock and passed down words that got us laughed at at school. At the time, the telly said being Scottish was Russ Abbott. Bill Forsyth’s films said otherwise, with their forceful mildness and hints of Italian exoticism, all of it quiet and clever. This made sense to us and the way we saw ourselves, as we waited for Gregory’s Girl to rewind so we could put Smokey and the Bandit on again.
I Know Where I’m Going! – Phil Concannon
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are justly celebrated for the extraordinary run of Technicolor marvels that they produced in the 1940s, but amid these fantastic works there are some pictures of equal brilliance that frequently get overlooked. While waiting for access to the colour cameras required for A Matter of Life and Death, The Archers headed north to shoot I Know Where I’m Going!, a deceptively straightforward romantic comedy that fizzes with just as much imagination and wit as their more acclaimed works.
In his magnificent autobiography A Life in Movies, Michael Powell says, “The Scots have a way of winning your heart”, and his affection for the land and its people is evident throughout. After a frantic opening section, I Know Where I’m Going! slows down when its headstrong protagonist Joan (Wendy Hiller) arrives in Scotland, where she intends to marry an elderly industrialist but finds herself stranded on a small island in harsh weather. This unexpected detour gives her time to fall in love with a completely different way of life, and with a charming naval officer (Roger Livesey); in fact, it often seems that the elements are conspiring to push these two people into each other’s arms.
As a film about Scotland, I Know Where I’m Going! is a bit of a cheat. After shooting some sequences on location, the team returned to London where the great production designer Alfred Junge recreated the island setting on a soundstage (in fact Roger Livesey, contracted to a play in London, never left the capital). Nonetheless, Powell’s vision of the country is irresistible, suffused with romance and mysticism, and it forms a great double-bill with the previous year’s A Canterbury Tale – both dazzling expressions of the director’s lifelong fascination with the poetic qualities of Britain’s landscape.
Shallow Grave – MrMoth
It might not look like it at first glance, but Shallow Grave is one of the most Scottish films of the 1990s. OK, so the director is English and one of the leads is an Englishman doing a Scottish accent. But it was written by a Scot, and it features Ken Stott and Peter Mullan, winner and runner up of the coveted “Most Scottish Man In Film” award at the 1996 Scotties. It’s set in Edinburgh but conspicuously filmed in Glasgow, meaning you get two Scottish cities for one. It has Ewan MacGregor in a tartan suit, dancing a reel (possibly at a Hogmanay party) then getting headbutted by DC Fraser from Taggart in a kilt. It could only be more Scottish if someone died of a heroin overdose, which oh they do.
It’s also brilliant, almost in an incidental way, much better than Trainspotting if you ask me. John Hodge’s debut screenplay is bursting with that snappy dialogue of the early 90s we like to call “Tarantinoesque” even if it’s nothing like Tarantino. The plot starts from a simple, staple premise (how far would you go for a suitcase full of money?) and winds fatalistically through its shocks and betrayals to what is almost a happy ending, if you’re kind of a dick.
Danny Boyle’s direction is all flash and borrowed influences, primarily Scorsese, but it works a treat – the gorgeous high-ceilinged flat filled with lush, rich colours that the lead characters live in is not only invaded by the cold harshness of the petty thugs after that same money, it’s also haunted by the increasingly dangerous inhabitant of the darkness above them. A brutal reality presses in hard on this unnaturally cosy bubble.
Culloden – Richard J
The site of the battlefield of Culloden itself is suprisingly tiny for such an ostensibly significant event, barely about two football fields side-by-side. The last squalid act of a disastrous failure, led by a man utterly undeserving of the trust put in him, used as a French ploy in a deservedly-forgotten cabinet war of the 18th century.
Somehow, in the years that passed, as the popularity of the Jacobites faded, this butchery in a swampy moor had become encrusted with romantic myths.
It is in this light, that even today, after forty years, the starkness of Peter Watkins’ Culloden still stands out to the modern viewer. Some aspects of the approach have dated; the RP of the unseen narrator, and some of the more stagey amateur performances, but it is the images that stick; the absolutely sodden boy and his father standing staring, waiting for the charge, his misery not entirely feigned; the use of closeup to capture the starkly lit faces (and incidentally disguise the tiny number of extras), all underpinned by the sympathy for the ordinary men and women caught up in the affairs of their betters.
It’s clearly a work of the early 60s, when even before Vietnam, memories of Malaya and Algeria would have been fresh in its audience’s mind. The character who sticks most in the mind is the casually brutal red coat, free of moral concerns, unwilling to think about anything other than the next day’s survival, and taking his pleasures where he can; for tomorrow he may die.
Culloden refuses to take any side between the Highlanders and the red coats; its clear contempt is for the men who led, brutalised, and later abandoned both sides. Again, this can come across as crude at times, but looking at the rest of Watkins’ work, it is sincerely felt, and the rage carries one past the more, shall we say, agitprop moments.
Easy to track down on Youtube, well worth the hour or so of time it takes to watch.
Death Watch – BlakeBacklash
‘Don’t go. You’ll be mugged. Your equipment will be stolen.’ This is the advice a shocked David Puttnam gave to Bertrand Tavernier when the director told him he wanted to film Death Watch in Glasgow. Tavernier was not to be dissuaded. The film was set in the near future but Tavernier has said he wanted to film somewhere that evoked ‘the beauty of the past’ and ‘the memory of the working class’. Glasgow offered him smoke-blackened sandstone tenements, 19th century architecture, silhouettes of cranes against pewter and silver skies.
But I should not to be too romantic. Tavernier also used Glasgow in the 70s to puncture his future with spaces that are decaying or neglected. His characters walk across forlorn patches of waste ground and past soggy, neglected football pitches.
This is, after all, a film about the way things end. Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) agrees to have her death filmed for television, then rebels and flees. But she doesn’t know that Roddy (Harvey Keitel), her companion on this journey, is filming her with a camera implanted in his eye. Tavernier’s use of steadicam to follow Katherine and Roddy on their journey immerses us in this run-down world. His long takes are mostly unshowy but he does allow himself this bravura couple of minutes, which anticipates how Alfonso Cuarón would approach similar material in Children of Men.
When I saw the film at the Glasgow Film Festival two years ago, I was struck by how it worked as both a document of a city that isn’t quite there anymore and an evocation of a place that may never exist. There is, though, one moment that shatters the illusion that this is anywhere but Glasgow in the 1970s. Listen-up as Keitel is walking past a group of kids playing on some swings and you can hear one of them ask ‘Hey mister! Can ma dug be in your film?’ I guess that line got left in because Tavernier couldn’t catch the accent. Or maybe that kid knew Keitel had a camera in his eye.
Comfort & Joy – Matthew Turner
Glaswegian writer-director Bill Forsyth is best known for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, but I have a lot of affection for his warm-hearted 1984 comedy Comfort & Joy, which delivers both elements of its title in equal measure.
Bill Paterson gives one of his best performances as Glasgow DJ Alan “Dicky” Bird, who plunges into depression when he’s dumped by his gorgeous kleptomaniac girlfriend (Eleanor David). After catching the eye of an attractive woman (Claire Grogan) in an ice cream van, Bird gets drawn into negotiating a peace treaty between two warring ice cream vendors: established Italian ice-cream patriarch “Mr McCool” (Roberto Bernardi) and former fish-and-chip man turned ice-cream-interloper “Mr Bunny” (as Alex Norton’s Trevor menacingly points out: “Formerly Mr Softy; no more”).
Forsyth drew on the real-life Glasgow Ice Cream Wars for inspiration and he has a lot of fun with light-hearted Godfather riffs throughout, particularly in conjunction with Mark Knopfler’s inspired score; he also has a great feel for characters and a wonderful ear for dialogue that makes this a joy to listen to. Highlights include a cleverly worked in “find the right flavour for your life” metaphor and a number of hilarious running gags, such as the constant damage to Dicky’s beloved BMW (“Have you ever tried to get ice cream out of velour upholstery?”) or the fact that Dicky’s station manager (Rikki Fulton) thinks he’s cracking up when he starts broadcasting coded messages on his radio show (“Does this Mr Bunny talk to you a lot?”).
Side note: the film also contains Patrick Malahide’s least sinister performance, as Bird’s best friend, surgeon and family man Colin. Basically, I defy anyone to come out of this film without a) a huge smile on their face and b) a craving for a “FrostyHot”.