English Title: Drifters

Country of Origin: Britain

Studio: Empire Marketing Board, New Era/British International

Director: John Grierson

Producer(s): John Grierson

Cinematographer: Basil Emmott

Editor: John Grierson

Runtime: 49 minutes

Genre: Documentary

Language: English

Year: 1929

Volume: British


A crew of herring fishermen leave their village and set sail for the North Sea fishing grounds. Fishermen prepare the nets, carry out maintenance work and get some much-needed sleep. The following day, in the midst of a storm, the men heroically fight the weather and haul in the catch. They sail back to the village and unload the fish, which is then sorted, gutted and made ready for sale at home. A boat leaves the harbour with the freshly prepared catch heading for markets elsewhere. 


Drifters was the first British narrative documentary film ever made, and the only substantial film John Grierson himself ever directed. It is important to remember that the film was made only twelve years after the Russian Revolution and eleven years after the end of WWI. Despite its narrative simplicity – fishermen go to work, catch fish and come home – Drifters is a complex film in terms of its political, cultural and aesthetic significance.


Both the American prospector and film-maker, Robert Flaherty – the ‘father’ of documentary cinema – and Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet film-maker and theoretician of ‘montage’ editing, heavily influenced Grierson. Drifters was released only seven years after the very first narrative documentary, Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), and was premiered at a private viewing in London alongside Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925), which itself was banned from general release in Britain until 1954. These two films provide social and cultural frameworks not only for Grierson's sole directorial credit but also for his influence on, and vision for, the British documentary movement.


Grierson believed passionately in the social function of documentary cinema to solve problems, promote social cohesion and educate the people of an advanced industrial society. Although there is some evidence to suggest that he cynically chose the herring-fishing industry as the subject of his film because of an important government official’s interest in that particular industry – thereby securing government funding for documentary film production – Drifters is a profound, important and very serious film.


From Flaherty, Grierson took the idea of people struggling in hostile environments to survive and to maintain traditional ways of life. From Eisenstein he took the idea of ‘montage’ – the assembling of shot sequences to produce compressed and intense narrative and intellectual experiences – along with Eisenstein's portrayals of heroic, if ordinary, people. Whilst Drifters clearly contains these elements, it is different from both of them; it is a particularly British film produced through the lens of Grierson’s own beliefs and experiences.


The herring fishing industry, according to an introductory title card, was once ‘an idyll of brown sails and village harbours, its story is now an epic of steel and steam’. Here, Grierson is clearly encouraging the audience to see these ordinary working lives as a traditional way of life threatened by a new age of international commerce and industrial modernity. Whilst the film emphasizes, even celebrates, the machinery of the trawler’s engine, and the heroic collective efforts of the crew in bringing home the catch in the face of hostile weather, the final sequence of fish being prepared for markets both at home and abroad is clearly intended to provide an important reminder of the contexts of these lives, as well as an indication of the nature of a changing industry. 

Author of this review: Alan Clarke

Peer reviewer: Alan Clarke