Thirteen year-old Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour's capricious pursuit of an alligator in the bayou of Petite Anse is interrupted when he befriends a driller and his boilerman as they search the swamplands for oil.
In 1944, Robert Flaherty was invited by the Standard Oil Company to make a mainstream docudramatic movie about the dangers and difficulties involved in drilling for oil. Arriving in the Mississippi Delta, Flaherty saw a derrick being towed by a motor launch and was immediately inspired by the rough poetry of both the interloping industry and the backwater locales in which it was pursued.
Having recruited cameraman Richard Leacock (a future Direct Cinema pioneer) and editor Helen von Dongen, Flaherty chose his cast according to typage from among the Cajun locals and prepared his locations on Avery Island. Standard came up with a budget of $175,000 and a contract that enabled Flaherty to keep the distribution rights with no obligation to refund any surplus costs (which was as well, as he went through another $83,000 as the shoot sprawled over 10 months). Flaherty's personality is evident in every frame of a film that's as much about his own childhood as it is about an Arcadian kid's blithe acceptance of both the perils of the wilderness and the intrusion of industrialisation upon his idyll. It's also something of a summation of Flaherty's filmic fascination with the untamed nature that had also informed Nanook Of The North, Moana and Man Of Aran. Yet, the power and poignancy of the action came as much through Von Dongen's adroit editing of footage that Flaherty had a habit of filming as the whim took him rather than with any preconceived design in mind. Thus, the sinister lyricism of the wetlands opening and the atmospheric potency of the nighttime drilling sequence are primarily Von Dongen's creation and their impact is heightened by the evocative beauty of Virgil Thomson's score, which became the first film music to win a Pulitzer Prize. You only have to compare Joseph Boudreaux's performance with that of Enzo Stoiala in Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (which was released the same year) to realise Flaherty's directorial limitations. But this prime example of American neo-realism confirms his genius for locating humanity within its environment and for making us care about both.
Humane American neo-realism with a pulitzer-prize winning score.