More a Piece of Art-house Cinema than a Documentary
"The Islanders" is one of a number of short documentary films made by the famed GPO film unit during the thirties and forties. Some of these, such as the well-known "Night Mail", were expressly made to publicise the work of the Post Office, but some, such as "Spare Time", take a much more general look at various aspects of British life.
Like "Spare Time", "The Islanders" dates from 1939, just before the outbreak of war. It was ostensibly made to show how the Post Office facilitates communication with remote islands off the coast of Britain and starts with a description of life on the Gaelic-speaking Hebridean island of Eriskay, showing how the local Post Office plays an important role in promoting trade and connecting the islanders with other island communities and with the mainland. It then moves on to Guernsey, which even in the thirties was a popular tourist destination. Its economy, however, did not depend entirely upon tourism; exports of granite from the island's quarries and of agricultural products, mainly dairy produce and tomatoes, also played an important role. The final offshore island covered is Inner Farne, a bird sanctuary off the coast of Northumberland.
As a documentary the film does not hang together well because of the lack of a unifying theme. The first section, dealing with Eriskay, does indeed concentrate on the film's ostensible theme, the role played by the GPO in the lives of the islanders. In the Guernsey section, however, this theme tends to get lost, and the script deals much more widely with the island's economy, not just with the Post Office. The segment on Inner Farne, which is uninhabited apart from the lighthouse-keepers, seems out of place, given that the title is "The Islanders", not "The Islands". And the final scenes, showing industrial productivity on the mainland, do not seem to have anything to do with the supposed theme at all.
Visually, however, this is an attractive film. The director Maurice Harvey is able to come up with some striking, even poetic, images, particularly the coastal scenery of Eriskay, the flickering lighthouse on Inner Farne and the final industrial scenes, and the overall impact is increased by an equally striking modernist musical score from the French composer Darius Milhaud. The result is that, today, "The Islanders" tends to work better as a piece of art-house cinema than as the documentary it was originally intended as.
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