Michael Dirrane, Maggie Dirrane, Robert J. Flaherty, and Colman 'Tiger' King in Man of Aran (1934)


(director/writer: Robert J. Flaherty; cinematographer: Robert J. Flaherty; editor: John Goldman; music: John Greenwood; cast: Colman “Tiger” King (Man), Maggie Dirrane (Wife), Michael Dillane (Son); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michael Balcon; Home Vision Entertainment; 1934-UK)
“Breathtaking photography.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

So much for the pioneer documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (“Moana”/”Louisiana Story”), known as “the father of the documentary” for his groundbreaking 1922 Nanook of the North, being a purist, as much of Man of Aran was staged for the cameras. The talented showman, lyrical photographer and mythmaker had no reluctance to place the Aran fishermen in a rehearsed mise en scéne of a struggle with the natural elements to get the desirous results of romantic heroism (celebrating man’s resiliency to survive in such harsh conditions). It was filmed for two and a half years on the barren island of Aran that’s some 30 miles off the western coast of Ireland, in Galway Bay, with the actual natives. With little dialogue (and that dubbed into English rather than keeping the native Gaelic) and little interaction amongst the people, we hardly get to know the people of Aran, as the story features Colman “Tiger” King as the gritty fisherman, Maggie Dirrane as his wife, and Michael Dillane as his young son. The plot centers around the peasant natives’ hardship to survive in their birthplace, as they gather food. To get their staple food of potatoes in a place with little natural soil they produce their own soil by breaking rocks. The fishing is shown to be a dangerous experience, as they are at the mercy of wicked weather and turbulent seas that can smash their boats to pieces and rip up their nets. The centerpiece adventure being the hunt for the giant basking shark to get oil for their lamps, which took two days in a stormy sea.

One can enjoy the breathtaking photography (Flaherty’s use of new long lenses brought more intense images) despite knowing that Flaherty cheated, even going as far as getting the fishermen to change their traditional techniques of harpooning and shark catching so as to make the film more exciting. What one can’t so easily forgive the filmmaker for, is not allowing us to get to know the featured family on more intimate terms.