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Thames Film (1987)

This movie is an experimental documentary following the flow of the Thames out of London to the sea. It has a narration from John Hurt that takes the form of reading old manuscripts, books ... See full summary »




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Cast overview:
Narrator #1 (archive footage)
Narrator #2


This movie is an experimental documentary following the flow of the Thames out of London to the sea. It has a narration from John Hurt that takes the form of reading old manuscripts, books and news articles, and also a posthumous narration from poet TS Eliot reading from his own work, The Dry Salvages from the Four Quartets. Engravings, paintings, and archival film are juxtaposed against the contemporary footage, including Pieter Breughel the Elder's "The Triumph of Death" (c.1562) from the Prado Museum. Written by Matthew Scott

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river | See All (1) »







Release Date:

15 June 1987 (UK)  »

Box Office


£9,000 (estimated)

Company Credits

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Technical Specs




(16 mm version)

Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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User Reviews

The history and nature of the Thames
20 September 2010 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

This feature is out on DVD (Region 2) courtesy of the BFI and part of their series of "British Artists' Films". The DVD is titled "William Raban" and has five of his works on it. The longest is Thames Film, a 4:3 framed poetic documentary shot with funding from the Arts Council and Shown on Channel 4 in the UK in 1986.

I recently had an interesting discussion with someone online about the danger of metaphor (esoteric enough?), which is apt looking at this movie, which is for the most part a grand metaphor comparing the River Thames and its banks to Hieronymous Bosch's famous painting of the Triumph of Death in the Prado Museum. Having looked into Imagist poetry following the conversation, which relies on images only and eschews metaphor I feel a little uneasy about Thames Film's excess of metaphor and reification, and am not inclined to support this excess. Raban draws some clever parallels, for example, he uses the sound of water hitting baffles to mimic a drum beat (there is a skeleton beating a march in the painting where the living are being herded into the underworld), and also archival drawings of hanged men along the banks of the Thames (against hanged men in the painting), but his links should perhaps be taken as clever and playful rather than substantial, and perhaps they are superfluous.

The piece is unwittingly narrated from the grave by TS Eliot (master of classical reference and metaphor, again in stark contrast to Imagist principles) reading pieces of his own poetry including the famous opening of Burnt Norton from the Four Quartets

Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past. /If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable. /What might have been is an abstraction/ Remaining a perpetual possibility/ Only in a world of speculation./ What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end, which is always present.

And also the opening of The Dry Salvages, which is a brilliant piece of reification:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river /Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable, /Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier; /Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; /Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges. /The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten /By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable. /Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder /Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated /By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

This last piece of poetry is well synchronised with the images shown, of commuters crossing various London bridges.

A lot of the modern footage is juxtaposed with archive drawings and films from previous eras, mainly to show the decay. One example is at Purfleet where we see a great chalk hill in a picture, that has now been mined totally away for use in lime mills, and all that is left is slag. Aside from the references you do get to see plenty of pure unadulterated footage, a smouldering barge next to a giant yellow colossus of a crane and rotting, greening pier, guttered out ships, arc-lit dockyards at night, dead drydocks, strange Piranesian structures, sunlight reflecting off of the undersides of ships, wave-animated, dancing; a treaclish gold afternoon at a silent bend in the river by old warehouses, a flaming chimney at night, half sunken ships with wreck buoys warning away. There's one quite awesomely beautiful scene where the shot floats past a golden pier into milky nothingness.

John Hurt narrates the historical pieces, including a mention of the Dutch admiral de Ruyter and how he sailed up the Thames and burnt the English fleet. Most of the scenes you can't see any people and the Thames is ghostly, you're given to think about how it is a great cemetery, and also how as Eliot says it is a reminder of what men choose to forget. The river is a symbol of eternity, unchanging as an entity, whilst all its constituents are evanescent only.

Whilst perhaps not supporting wholeheartedly the way that Raban chooses to add texts to the film, which with its wonderful footage should be allowed to speak for itself (incidentally he's since abandoned this style in favour of a more pure Wiseman-ian approach), I think that it's so very beautiful that I can't do anything other than say that it's excellent. Others would happily condemn the tenuousness of Raban's metaphors, and write the film off.

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