The Song Of Ceylon and Its Unsung Hero Lionel Wendt

Ismeth Raheem (2024)

On Monday, February 5, ‘The Song of Ceylon’ was screened as part of the ongoing KALA arts festival. The festival, which continues until February 25 is organised by the Lionel Wendt Arts Centre.

Very few were aware of the role played by Lionel Wendt in the creation of the film.

In 1949, almost a decade and a half after ‘The Song of Ceylon’ was released in 1934, Basil Wright, the Director was interviewed by Sonnie Pillai and Brian van Starrex in a café in Piccadilly, London. During the long fascinating interview, one of the issues raised by them was the role of Wendt and his contribution to the film.

To which Wright’s unerring response was: “Enormous, without him I don’t think The Song of Ceylon could have been what it is. For he was a man who knew Ceylon as few did, and he was in touch with the avant-garde cinema of those days, and he knew what the documentary people were doing.

“As a matter of fact, the only two people I met in Ceylon who knew anything about films then were Lionel Wendt and George Keyt.”

And he went on to add – “It is the only film of mine that I can sit through today without blushing or wanting to run out.”

Throughout the interview Wright heaped praise on Wendt as someone who inspired him and acknowledged Wendt as one of the greatest still photographers of his generation.

The Song of Ceylon was selected as one of the main contenders to one of the leading films festivals in Europe. In the first minutes of the opening credits of the film is the following text–Awarded the first place in the documentary class and the Prix Du Gouvernement for the best film in all classes at the International Film Festival in Brussels.

But Wendt’s role in the film is only briefly noted in the opening credits, VOICE -BY LIONEL WENDT.

It was on New Year’s Day, 1934, that Basil Wright, then aged 27, arrived in Colombo with his assistant John Taylor, the photographer in the team. They stayed at the Grand Oriental Hotel (now Taprobane). Their main task was to produce four one-reelers depicting the tea industry and its plantations for their patrons, the Ceylon Tea Board (now the Sri Lanka Tea Board).

On arrival they met G.K. Stewart, the Chairman of the Ceylon Tea Board. Both Wright and Taylor were employed by the British G.P.O. Film Unit, formerly the Empire Marketing Board. This unit was pioneered by the efforts of John Grierson (1898-1972) who had broken new ground in documentary cinema by directing such films as the Drifters, which was the main force that kick started the British documentary movement. The G.P.O. Film Unit at the time was staffed by some of the most talented young personalities in the field, each of whom went on to make a name for himself – Arthur Elton (1906-1973), Paul Rotha (1907-1984) and Basil Wright. (1907-1987).

A few days later Stewart introduced both Wright and Taylor to Wendt who had just turned 34. Although when the two first met at the hotel- as Wright described it – Wendt was more defensive, within a few minutes conversation flowed.

They soon felt they were on the same wavelength, and in a few minutes were both roaring with laughter, Wright told the interviewers, commenting that Wendt had a wonderful sense of humour.

While working on the preliminary photo-shoots for the film, Wright realized that he was in the company of a most unusual man who not only seemed familiar with the best of all the arts, worldwide, including not only photography but painting and music as well, and straddled both the culture of the Occident as well as the Orient.

Wendt was moreover familiar with the various aspects of the island. He had travelled extensively within the country and as a photographer was also familiar with the diverse landscapes and the various communities and their customs and festivals as well.

Soon Wendt organised the itinerary of a seven-week shoot which took the film crew to many important destinations. They climbed Adam’s Peak and filmed a moving episode of a group of peasants – men and women making their way to the summit on pilgrimage.

So well informed was Wendt that Wright had to admit: I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived, I should place him among the best I have come across including the photographer who had much to do with Ceylon, Julia Margaret Cameron.

Wright took this film project seriously. He read extensively and took the trouble to meet everyone who could advise him, including John Still (author of the better-known Jungle Tide), the former Assistant Archaeologist.

Wright believed that he could make this film from ‘the inside’, as he put it. A film that would explain this tropical country to the people outside the island.

By April 1934, both Wright and Taylor were back in England. When they commenced work on the film at the G.P.O. studio, Grierson made some creative comments, which contributed much to the film. It was some months later when Wright was working on the soundtrack, planning the narration for the film that it dawned on him that he could use much of the text in the earliest book on Ceylon by Robert Knox (published in 1681) and choose the quotes from this work which he believed to be the most evocative and outstanding account of the country in the English language. But he could not find a good narrator and finally turned to Wendt to read Knox’s prose. Several voices were tried for the commentary but none satisfied Wright.

Four days before Wendt left England for home on September 28, 1934, Wright casually suggested that he test Wendt’s voice. Wendt read out the relevant excerpts and Wright who was bowled over by his voice, described it as “dry, precise and faintly sepulchral”.

He recorded Wendt’s voice for the final version, straight through, no muffed lines, no mistakes, no retakes. It is believed that earlier on, the author and poet W.H. Auden was to try his hand reading the Knox text but was not found suitable.

The film’s main themes were basically in four parts: and the titles appear in the cinematography: The Buddha; The Virgin Island; The Voice of Commerce; The Apparel of the God.

The viewer is taken throughout the length and breadth of the country, the coastal areas, the rail journey through dense mountain scenery to the uplands to the vast tea estates, and the pilgrims ascending Adam’s Peak, one of the most important and interesting aspects of the films in visual terms.

Throughout the film’s 37-minute duration, several scenes of Kandyan dancers young and old, are a recurring visual theme. In mid-1934, Wendt had travelled to England accompanied by two renowned Kandyan dancers Ukuwa and Gunaya with all their paraphernalia and musical instruments. They not only played a central role in the visual aspects of the film but also provided the musical accompaniment for the musical score. Right through the film we hear the loud sounds of the Kandyan drums (gate bere and yak bere) and also the sonorous mournful sound of the horanawa, a small Sri Lankan version of the double-reed instrument. Was it likely that Wendt was assisted in the choice of various sites to visit – the homes and training schools – by his friend, the artist George Keyt? Keyt had lived in Kandy for many years and was well acquainted with the Kandyan dancers and introduced them to Wendt who used to spend many of his holidays with Keyt and his family.

Keyt expressed his own view of the collaboration of Wright and Wendt shortly after the latter’s death in 1944. “In addition to actively helping in the filming of the whole work here in Ceylon, Lionel Wendt was required, and was indispensable, in the London Studio of the film unit too, where he went with Messrs. N. Ukkuva and R.W.G. Surambe, the best exponents of Kandyan drumming and dancing to help both in the correct reproduction of the sound and final editing which gave this unique film its present shape.” The soundtrack was by eminent composer Walter Leigh (1905- 1942)

This film was voted by many critics as one the greatest British documentary films in any category up to 1935 when it premiered at London’s Curzon Cinema. Wrote Graham Greene – “Song of Ceylon is an example to all directors of perfect construction and perfect application of montage.” Perfection is not a word one cares to use. But from the opening sequence of the Ceylon forest this film moves with the air of absolute certainty its object assurance in its method”.

But what is most intriguing to us is the question: was Lionel Wendt’s role and contribution to The Song of Ceylon diminished and underrated because he was not British?

(This article is dedicated to Richard Boyle for his extensive research on The Song of Ceylon).


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