Friday, 10 May 2013

The Stars Look Down

'The Stars Look Down' isn't a particularly well-known film these days, but I think it's one of the best and most important this country has ever produced. Directed by Carol Reed in a style that encompasses both documentary and the poetry of silent cinema, it was adapted from a novel by A.J Cronin. Cronin had worked as a mine inspector in the nineteen twenties and had been appalled by the risks the private mine owners took with their worker's lives. Cronin believed that the mines needed to be regulated more closely and, as a socialist, saw the answer as Nationalisation.  

This is a set, the largest ever built in Britain at the time.

Redgrave, waiting for a Knighthood

A young Michael Redgrave plays Davey Fenwick, a miners son who has a scholarship in the bag and intends to get his degree and use it to help the miners, either as a Union official or an MP (although things don't quite turn out this way - Davey is hugely, almost comically unlucky in the decisions he makes, like a nineteen thirties Ricky Butcher).  

Davey's father, Robert, is the leader of the miners by virtue of experience and intelligence and when the mine owner, Mr. Barris, orders the men to work in a seam that Robert knows to be dangerous, he calls a wildcat strike. Three terrible months of attrition and slow starvation follow. Desperate, the miners loot the local butcher's shop. Robert is scapegoated and sent to prison.

In their absence the strike collapses and the men go back to the pit, working only a few foot away from a 'million tonnes of flood water' trapped in the abandoned workings of an older mine. Barris knows this, but values the contract more than the safety of his workers. The plans that would prove how dangerous it is are locked in Barris' desk drawer, and he intends to keep them there.

On a day when Robert and Davey's younger brother, Hughie, are at work, the 'million tonnes of flood water' breaks through, drowning dozens of men and filling parts of the pit with deadly gas. Robert's knowledge of the pit saves him, Hughie and some of his companions from the initial flood, and they manage to flee to the end of a higher tunnel. Here they are stay, trapped and with no option but to sit and wait to be rescued. The looks that the older men exchange are chilling - in a split second they silently confer and agree on the hopelessness of their situation. 

Mr. Barris leads the rescue effort, with Davey helping. The strain and the guilt are too much for Barris and he has a stroke. Later that night, he staggers to his desk and gets out the vital 'lost' plans which will speed up the rescue. On the way to the colliery he collapses and dies, and the plans fall from his hand and are swept away in the fast moving river. A little later, there is an enormous explosion and the trapped men (and boys) are killed. Davey finally takes a job with the Union, determined to fight the injustice and horror of the existing system.

'Stars Look Down' is a grim film, no question, but it's a realistic one (it was too realistic for the US market, who introduced a quasi-religious spoken preface and epilogue to try and cushion the blow). What most rankles, of course, and simmers and sparks throughout the film, is the sheer bloody injustice of the way the men and their families are treated, considered only as interchangeable components in the pursuit of profit, cheap to buy, easy to replace. Something in this reminded me of a passage in Dickens' 'Hard Times', also set in the millieu of heavy industry, albeit some eighty years previously:

'...the multitude of Coketown, generically called 'the Hands' - a race who would have found mere favour with some people if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs'. 

Despite the obvious injustice being perpetrated, the film doesn't simply beatify the miners as soft focus victims or plucky freedom fighters - it doesn't even portray them as united amongst themselves. Davey's mother, for example, calcified by hardship, coldly dismisses his father's idealism as weakness - all she knows is that it doesn't put food on the table. The biggest villain of all is ex-miner Joe, Davey's best friend, who derails Davey's life in order to get out of an awkward situation with a woman and then sets up the deal which will lead to the death of Robert and the other men (including Joe's own father). He's worse than Mr. Barris: the miners 'belong' to Barris and are, in his mind, his to exploit; Joe belongs to the very people he's selling. 

Mrs. Fenwick looks stoicly out of a window

Joe helps himself

In his short time at University in Tynemouth, Davey delivers a stirring speech as part of a debate about the mining industry. Whether or not you agree with the principle, his (and Cronin's) viewpoint is forcefully and eloquently put across -

The mines were nationalised in 1946. Wages and conditions dramatically improved, as did productivity, but the new system was still driven by profit, not idealism, and created its own hierachies and injustices at all levels. Greed and ruthlessness are, after all, human failings, and cannot be particularly attributed to one class or another, no matter how things sometimes appear. 


  1. I think you mean the mines were nationalised in 1946 (last para)?

  2. This is one of those films you come across on the telly by accident (at least I did) and can't believe what you're watching and why you hadn't heard of it before.