UK 1998

Reviewed by Glyn Maxwel


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The god Hermes descends on a depressed coal town in Yorkshire. Its mine is destroyed, and the miners driven away in a sealed truck by two figures in radiation suits, Hermes' henchmen. An ancient miner sits in a disused cinema, defiantly smoking cigarettes and watching the action unfold. The miners are transported to Germany, where they are melted into a huge golden statue of Prometheus. This is carried to Dresden, where Prometheus is called to account for the city's firebombing. A woman from the mining town, dishevelled and bewildered, follows in the statue's wake.

The statue proceeds through the most polluted zones of Eastern Europe, escorted by the gleeful Hermes, who addresses the audience with contempt. The old man can see him from the cinema, and argues back - for mankind, for pride, for industry, for smoking. Travelling through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the woman sinks further into wretchedness, and is almost killed by gypsies. Found by Hermes' henchmen, she is dragged to an abattoir where she is slaughtered with the cattle.

Hermes and Prometheus arrive in Greece, where Hermes mocks the pretensions of mankind. The old man continues to debate with him, finally flicking his cigarette into the cinema screen. This ignites the screen, Hermes, the cinema, and the old man himself, who dies thinking he has destroyed Hermes. The god, however, reminds us he is immortal. The cinema burns; the cooling towers of the mine collapse in the dust.


Of contemporary British poets, none has worked in other media to such sustained effect as Tony Harrison, who more or less created the poem-film. While the efforts of W. H. Auden (Night Mail, 1936) and Dylan Thomas (These Are the Men: Into Battle, 1943) were poetic responses to what were basically government commissions, Harrison has developed a compelling and unmistakable documentary style in which the verse is not the adornment, but the engine. His visions have free rein, his subjects are his own. In fact, his verse is better suited to cinematic form than either Auden's, Thomas', or, in general, that of his contemporaries.

And Prometheus is, first of all, a poem. Its earthed, flexible couplets are as regular as frames of film stock. They make a chain upon which the images are fastened like ribbons. This poetry thrives on rhythm, on the stuff of speech. The old man, nostalgic in a nimbus of smoke, growls: "When Bogey lit up, so did I,/Smoke curling past my one closed eye..." The verse is stripped of ornament, of metaphor. It keeps diction and perception within the scope of the speaking character. If these are assets when it comes to drama, in film they are vital. One clever visual metaphor and the camera counts for nothing.

Prometheus is visually amazing, and its metaphors here need no help from the verse. Dominating the film is the eight-metre - high golden statue, swaying slightly on the truck as it slams along the grey autobahns of middle Europe. Cooling towers patrol the horizon. The screen flickers into life in a dusty, dead cinema. Hermes, Michael Feast's baleful spin doctor in silver overalls, loiters at the pithead by a sign saying: "This man is responsible for your safety." The housewife who wakes in her prim Yorkshire terrace becomes the slaughtered beggar of the Balkans. And the ear has its moments too, even beyond the verse, as when the cooling towers, the old man's riddled lungs and the stifled breathing of the thugs in radiation masks all seem to be making the same gasping sound.

If verse is what gives the film momentum, its direction is determined by the route of the statue, a detour through some of the continent's blackest black spots, like a package deal sold by a demonic travel agent. There's Dresden, Auschwitz, Krakow (memorably described elsewhere as having air "like mayonnaise") and the dark heart of Romania. There are two Orsovas, in different countries, as if the journey were a spiral. The fiery denouement in Greece is somewhat compromised by our sheer relief at seeing the blue of the water, and at least one mountainside that hasn't been charred by industry.

For the road taken is what generates both the strengths and the weaknesses of Prometheus. With both the motor of the verse and the motor of the truck providing form, the plot is forced to adapt to what it finds on the way. This does yield moments of true clarity, such as the ghostly arraignment in a Dresden football stadium, when Man's Promethean spirit comes face to face with the silence of those incinerated by it. On other occasions, though, incoherence results.

Hermes seems to be punishing Prometheus by showing him the worst depredations of industry, yet Hermes concedes that Zeus relishes all this, because Zeus hates Man. When Hermes snuffs the memorial candles at Auschwitz, is he drawing attention to these crimes of fire, or opposing Man's use of fire even for remembrance? Are fire and industry, as the old man implies, sources of wisdom and pride or (as the images of the film cry out, and Hermes cheerfully watches over) a curse on civilisation? It's unfair to expect the film to come down on one side or the other of such a question, but the force with which a fine poet and a powerful camera can argue both sides makes for a kind of passionate stalemate.

And the sights seen on this harrowing journey give ambiguous answers. The inferno that consumes most of the protagonists leaves behind some sickening images, visions the road has revealed and the poem has responded to, but which the plot hasn't had time to encompass - shivering Czech teens at the windows of cars driven by German businessmen; the railway that stops forever at the camp gate; humans literally treated like cattle. Somehow only Harrison the documentary-maker can process images so stark, and those moments when the film trusts the winding of the road over the requirements of the story strike loudest and resonate longest.


Andrew Holmes
Tony Harrison
Director of Photography
Alistair Cameron
Luke Dunkley
Production Designer
Jocelyn Herbert
Music/Music Conductor/Orchestrations
Richard Blackford
©Film Four Limited
Production Companies
Film Four presents in association with the Arts Council of England a Holmes Associates Michael Kustow production
Supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
a Holmes Associates Michael Kustow production for Film Four
Executive Producer
Michael Kustow
Production Co-ordinator
Diane Holmes
Production Manager
Peter Flynn
Location Manager
Joel Holmes
European Location Managers
Ariane Cotsis
Fritz Kohle
Czech Republic:
Jirí Zauzner
Michael Zablocki
Ladislav Krnac
Andrea Rutkai
Mariana Krusteva
Larisa Voinea
Christian Suceveanu
Assistant Directors
Carole Crane
Jeremy Tattershall
2nd Unit Photography
Mark Parkin
Aerial Cameraman
Simon Werry
Alexander Sahla
Special Effects Supervisor
Harry Stokes
Special Effects
Enterprises Unlimited
Front Perojection
John Fowler
Statue Maker
Stephen Pyle
Wardrobe Supervisor
Sarah Bowern
Konnie Daniel
General Screen Enterprises
Music Performed by
The UK Brass Ensemble
The London Choral Society
Cello Solo:
Caroline Dale
Violin Solo:
Christopher Warren-Green
Flugelhorn Solos:
John Barclay
Stephen Stilwell
Chorus Master
Ronald Corp
Music Co-ordinator
Liam Bates
Music Engineers
Mike Ross-Trevor
James Collins
Sound Design
Glen Keiles
Sound Recording
John Avery
David Lindsay
Simon Reynell
Re-recording Engineers
Keith Marriner
Brendon Nicholson
Dubbing Mixer
Nick Le Messurier
Universal Sound
Michael Feast
Walter Sparrow
Fern Smith
Jonathan Waistnidge
Jack, boy
Steve Huison
Audrey Haggerty
Dave Hill
Tim Hall
Ian Clayton
Roger Green
Paul Knaggs
James Banks
Alan Hobson
Dave Parker
Chris Franklin
Stewart Merrill
Paul Windmill
Catherine Pidd
Maureen Craven
Beverley Ashby
Sue Barker
Sandra Hookham
Claire Hookham
Jane Riley
Beverley Brighton
Vicky McAllister
Linda Callear
Jean McAuley
daughters of ocean
Film Four Distributors
11,713 feet
130 minutes 9 seconds
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Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011