THERE is sex, there is violence, there is nudity and there is one of the most shocking killings ever portrayed in a mainstream movie.
An informer, who has reported illicit whisky trafficking, is bound hand and foot, with cork floats under his armpits and a fish tied to his cap. He is then sent bobbing out to sea, to await a passing seabird that will spot the fish and dive hundreds of feet to pierce fish, cap and skull in a single fatal movement.
This is not the latest horror from the makers of Saw or Hostel, but a British film from the 1940s, shot on location on Skye and starring some of the best-known Scottish actors of the day, including Duncan Macrae, Finlay Currie and John Laurie, who would later achieve lasting fame as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army.
The Brothers (1947) is as bizarre and original as The Wicker Man (1973). But, while the latter is now rightly celebrated as a classic and a milestone of Scottish popular culture, the earlier film has been virtually forgotten.
Edinburgh’s Filmhouse is doing its best to renew interest by including The Brothers in its current Highland Reels season, alongside more obvious titles, such as The Wicker Man, Whisky Galore! (1949), Brigadoon (1954) and Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945).
Like the Powell and Pressburger film, The Brothers begins with a headstrong young woman heading for the Hebrides. But there all similarities end. IKWIG! is a comparatively light, fey affair, well-mannered, bourgeois and overrated.
The Brothers is its illegitimate sibling, the skeleton in the cupboard no-one talks about. It bears more resemblance to a Quentin Tarantino film than one by Powell and Pressburger.
I well remember the impact that Reservoir Dogs’ ear-severing torture scene caused at previews. Everyone was sure they saw it, though it is not actually on screen. It is a similar situation with that early killing on The Brothers, with David MacDonald, the film’s Scottish director, focusing on the facial reactions of the witnesses.
The film was based on novel by LAG Strong, and begins in 1900 with the arrival on Skye of Mary (Patricia Roc), an orphan brought up by nuns in Glasgow. She is collected by the local priest (a wonderful personification of purse-lipped sanctimony by James Woodburn).
He warns her to keep her mind “free from all mischievous and unclean thoughts”, while an old sea captain (played by Scottish music-hall legend Will Fyffe) suggests her presence as a servant in the house of widower Hector Macrae (Currie) will be “like a daffodil growing on a dung heap”.
Mary causes friction between Hector’s sons, handsome, young Fergus (played by Irish actor Maxwell Reed) and his scheming elder brother John, a role in which Macrae delivers a performance of mincing menace. There are further complications in that the Macraes have been embroiled for generations in a feud with the McFarishes, one of whom courts Mary and watches her swim naked in the sea.
Nudity was not exactly commonplace in British movies in 1947 and, although it is a long shot, it is close enough to confirm Roc really is naked. “Although it was August the loch was extremely cold,” the London-born actress told one interviewer years later, “and that’s the only time when I really quite enjoyed a whisky afterwards.”
Unusually for the time, much of the filming was done on location, at Loch Coruisk and the village of Elgol. Roc, who had just returned from Hollywood, enthused about her six weeks on Skye and regarded The Brothers as her favourite film, though she was already in her thirties and too old for the part. It plays like opera, overflowing with dark passions, raw sexuality and ancient superstitions. Laurie’s character claims second sight, and fans of Dad’s Army might spot the genesis of Private Frazer in his wide-eyed warnings of impending misfortune. “There’s a smell of death in the air,” he assures us. And few characters make it to the end credits.
Producer Christopher Young, whose Gaelic-language film Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle is included in the Filmhouse season, lives on Skye and organised a screening of The Brothers at the Gaelic College a few years ago.
He recalls they had a packed house of around 200 people, including three people who had been extras: “They said that at the time it was a huge event on Skye.” Young had wanted to show it because it was so little-seen and he was very impressed. “It’s slightly bizarre, some very good performances, fantastic cinematography, but quite a strange script, really quite dark. I thought it was very surprising it had never really been shown. I just don’t know why.”
At the time of release Dilys Powell, one of Britain’s leading critics, enthused about the film, saying it was “proof of the coming of age of the British cinema that we in this country are able to recreate so grim a poetic tragedy”.
But the film never really found its place in the Scottish cinema canon, despite occasional television screenings and a video release.
Director David MacDonald, who came from Helensburgh, is no better known, though he had already won an Oscar for best documentary for Desert Victory (1943). He went on to direct Christopher Columbus (1949), but, by the mid-1950s, was working largely in television.
Perhaps the film’s early disappearance was because it was so different, so daring, so out of step with cinema of its time. And in the final analysis it is melodrama rather than social realism, and melodrama has been a deeply unfashionable genre for decades.
But a culture that can enthuse so passionately about the originality of The Wicker Man should certainly consider extending its embrace to include another equally chilling portrait of Scottish island folk.
• The Brothers is being screened at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, on 29 December, 1pm. For more details of the Highland Reels season, visit www.filmhouse cinema.com