In an interview with Robert Gardner at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1960, Francis Flaherty, wife of the great filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, who died in 1951, reads from a letter sent by Standard Oil of New Jersey proposing a film that would be: “A classic—a permanent artistic record of the contributions in which the oil industry had made to civilization. A film that would present the story of oil with dignity, the epic sweep it deserved, and assure the story of a lasting place on the highest plane in the literature of the screen. The film would also be such an absorbing human story that it would stand on its own feet as an entertainment anywhere. Because of its entertainment value it would be distributed theatrically, through the regular motion picture houses, both in America and abroad.” The result of this proposal, later followed by a check for $125,000, resulted in the propaganda piece the Rockefeller’s company wanted, and for posterity a hauntingly beautiful film laced with heartbreaking irony.
Louisiana Story was released in 1948, when the United States was beginning its ride of post-war global industrial supremacy and absolute belief in the rightness and vigor of its enterprise. Underlying this spirit was the assumption that nature was infinitely exploitable and renewable—we had the richest, the most beautiful, the most varied land on the planet. The natural world sustained and reassured us. Our expansive, generous, bold national identity was a reflection of the land itself. From sea to shining sea, America the beautiful. Our great cities were also part of this vision, entrepots of industry, commerce and culture receiving the nation’s bounty, mostly via a vibrant rail system connected to faraway places where strong American hands operated the miracle machinery of the day.
This Whitmanesque vision of a triumphant, infinitely bountiful land coupled with the indomitable spirit and resourcefulness of its people held Robert and Francis Flaherty in its thrall no less than it did the executives and advertising department at Standard Oil. The meeting of machine and nature resulted in the happy confluence of the two great forces that defined the country. Thus as the war was coming to an end we find Francis and Robert driving around the country looking for a suitable dramatic locale to shoot their oil film, becoming increasingly frustrated until, one day in Louisiana, near a bayou: “Suddenly, over the heads of the marsh grass, an oil derrick came into our view. It was moving up the bayou, towed by a launch. In motion, this familiar structure suddenly became poetry, its slim lines rising clean and taut above the unending flatness of the marshes. I looked at Francis. She looked at me. We knew then we had our picture. Almost immediately a story began to take shape in our minds. It was a story built around that derrick which moved so silently, so majestically into the wilderness; probed for oil beneath the watery ooze, and then moved on again, leaving the land as untouched as before it came.” In a review for the New York Times in 1948, Bosley Crowther says the film shows, “…recognition that the machine can be a useful friend of man, no more rapacious, in some way, than primitive man or nature themselves.” Putting aside the silliness of attributing rapaciousness to machines and nature (and implying that “primitive man” had a capacity for destruction equal to our own), Crowther’s words are yet another example of the spirit of the time. Our genius was great, our purpose benign and noble, our land and waters self-renewing benefactors.
In the Peabody interview Francis Flaherty says correctly that her husband was a visual poet, a haiku master of film. Not overly concerned with dialogue or narrative structure he had the mystic’s relationship with camera and subject, trusting, as his wife says, the camera to see more than he did, a trust founded in the deepest awareness of the mystery and interconnectedness of all things. The camera is held lovingly on images of lily pads and water nymphs, herons and alligators, old cypress trees and swaying marsh grass, the brilliant Louisiana sky and clouds as backdrop.
And he was a dramatist. The silent, gliding appearance of the oil derrick “so majestically into the wilderness…suddenly…poetry, its slim lines rising clean and taut above the unending flatness of the marshes” becomes a graceful foreshadowing of the workmanlike triumph of the melding of machine, man and nature. Flaherty captures this brilliantly in his nighttime sequence of tough men mastering the derrick’s clangorous, awesome machinery as the film’s main character, a Cajun boy, watches, at first fearfully, then gaining confidence as the men’s control becomes evident. Even obstreperous nature is ultimately corralled. When in a subsequent scene the drill hits a gas pocket and a blowout ensues (an actual event filmed at another location) the crew gets it capped after 11 days. At last oil is struck and at movie’s end the crew installs a “Christmas tree,” a device resembling a complex fire hydrant full of valves and gauges attached to the pipe for controlling the flow of oil, to be utilized at a later time. It sticks out of the pristine bayou water, protect by a wooden enclosure, clean and glimmering in the sun. The boy, holding his pet raccoon, clambers atop the Christmas tree and happily waves goodbye to the crew who smilingly wave back, off to the next destination.
Accompanied by Virgil Thomson’s beautiful score, Louisiana Story is a paean to more innocent times, a propaganda film turned to art. It is also a testament to the seemingly infinite human capacity for self-deception, blinded by greed and the brilliance of our clever inventions. Long before Flaherty made his film Louisiana wetlands were being steadily depleted by the Mississippi River levee system, robbing them of the sedimentary deposits needed for their renewal. With the wholescale invasion of big oil after Flaherty’s day, the cutting of thousands of miles of canals through the wetlands hastening the erosive process, the countless befouling leaks and spills, large and small, the refineries and chemical factories spewing their carcinogens, the thousands of ugly, grimy, flaming oil rigs blighting the Gulf with their armadas of attendant machinery, the irreplaceable loss of a unique culture and ecosystem, and now, with the apocalyptic BP/US gusher delivering its kill shot to the Gulf and the coastal wetlands, we have in full Dynamax 3D the 21st century sequel to Flaherty’s quiet little film. It is a spectacular fit for our empty, violent age where the pornographic stakes are raised higher and higher. The old Louisiana Story just wouldn’t make it today, but rest assured the new version will be a box-office smash.
RICHARD WARD lives in New Mexico. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography
Edited by Jay Ruby
University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia 1983