Paul Rotha - Director

Nationality: British. Born: Paul Thompson in London, 3 June 1907. Education: Highgate School; Slade School of Fine Art, London, 1923–25. Family: Married 1) Margaret Louise Lee, 1930 (divorced 1939); 2) Margot Rose Perkins, 1943; 3) actress Constance Smith. Career: Painter, designer, and book illustrator, 1925; art critic, Connoisseur , 1927–28; property man, 1928, then assistant designer, British International Pictures Ltd.; author and film historian, from 1930; producer, Empire Marketing Board, 1932; directed first film, Contact , 1932; director of productions, Strand Films, 1936–38; Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, 1937–38; set up Associated Realist Film Productions and founded Documentary News Letter , 1939; managing director, Paul Rotha Productions Ltd., 1941–76; made 100 documentaries for British Ministry of Information, World War II; head of Documentary Film Department, BBC, 1953–55; lecturer on documentary films, United States, 1953–54; member of board, Isotype Institute, from 1959; Simon Senior Research Fellow, University of Manchester, 1967–68. Awards: Gold Medals: Venice Festival, 1934, Brussels Festival, 1935, and Leipzig Festival, 1962; British Film Academy Awards for The World Is Rich , 1947, and World without End , 1953. Member: Fellow, British Film Institute, 1951; Honorary Member (posthumous), ACTT, 1984. Died: 7 March 1984.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:

(documentary unless indicated)




The Rising Tide (reissued as Great Cargoes , 1935); Shipyard


Death on the Road ; Face of Britain


The Future's in the Air ; Cover to Cover ; The Way to the Sea ; Peace of Britain


Statue Parade ; Today We Live ; Here Is the Land


New Worlds for Old ; Roads across Britain (co-d with Sidney Cole)


The Fourth Estate (not shown until 1964); Mr. Borland Thinks Again


World of Plenty


Soviet Village


Total War in Britain ; Land of Promise


A City Speaks


The World Is Rich


No Resting Place (feature)


World Without End (co-d with Basil Wright)


Hope for the Hungry ; The Waiting People ; No Other Way ; The Wealth of Waters ; The Virus Story


Cat and Mouse (feature)


Cradle of Genius


Das Leben von Adolf Hitler ( The Life of Adolf Hitler )


De Overval ( The Silent Raid ) (feature)


By ROTHA: books—

The Film Till Now: A Survey of the Cinema , London, 1930; 2nd edition, with Richard Griffith, 1949; 4th edition, 1967.

Celluloid: The Film Today , London, 1931.

Documentary Film: The Use of the Film Medium to Interpret Creatively and in Social Terms the Life of the People as It Exists in Reality , London, 1936; 3rd edition, 1952.

Movie Parade , London, 1936; published as Movie Parade: 1888–1949: A Pictorial Survey of World Cinema , with Roger Manvell, 1950.

World of Plenty: The Book of the Film , with Eric Mowbray, London, 1945.

Eisenstein, 1898–1948 , with others, London, 1948.

Portrait of a Flying Yorkshireman: Letters from Eric Knight to Paul Rotha (editor), London, 1952.

Television in the Making (editor), London, 1956.

Rotha on the Film , London, 1958.

The Innocent Eye , with others, London, 1963.

Documentary Diary: An Informal History of the British Documentary Film 1928–1939 , London, 1973.

Richard Winnington: Film Criticism and Caricature , London, 1975.

Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography , edited by Jay Ruby, Philadelphia, 1983.

A Paul Rotha Reader , with Duncan Petrie, editor, Evanston, 1999.

By ROTHA: articles—

"The Lament," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1938.

Documentary News Letter (London), 1939–1946.

"Television and the Future of Documentary," in Quarterly Review of Film, Radio and TV (New York), Summer 1955.

"The Critical Issue," with others, in Sight and Sound (London), August 1958.

Films and Filming (London), July 1966 to May 1967 (monthly column).

Letter in Film and TV Technician (London), February 1983 (reply, July 1983).

On ROTHA: books—

Wright, Basil, The Long View , London, 1974.

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary: The Story of the Film Movement Founded by John Grierson , Berkeley, 1975.

Morris, Paul, editor, Paul Rotha , London, 1982.

Ellis, Jack C., The Documentary Idea , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1989.

On ROTHA: articles—

"Rotha and the World," in Quarterly Review of Film, Radio, and TV (New York), Fall 1955.

Film Forum (London), January 1963.

Hollywood Reporter , 23 June 1978.

"British Cinema: Paul Rotha," in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), August 1979.

Powell, Dilys, obituary, in Film and TV Technician (London), April 1984.

Obituary in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), May 1984.

Anstey, Edgar, "Paul Rotha and Thorold Dickinson," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1984.

"Paul Rotha," in Annual Obituary 1985 , London and Chicago, 1985.

Leacock, R., "In Defense of Flaherty Traditions," in Film Culture (New York), Winter 1996.

* * *

Paul Rotha's position in the British documentary movement has always been somewhat equivocal. Unlike other members of the group, he served only briefly in the government units Grierson assembled in the 1930s. Before that he had trained as a painter and designer, and his book, The Film Till Now —the first aesthetic history of film in English, perhaps in any language—had already been published. After six months at the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, he continued in documentary as an independent producer. His ability to obtain private sponsorship was unusual for those early years, when documentary was just becoming a recognized mode.

Rotha's films were frequently innovative and experimental, with his creative impulse more akin to conceptual art than to personal expression, often mixing forms and styles. Though original in their combinations, their aspects derived from precedents that attracted Rotha. Shipyard , for example, takes a hard look at the cycles of work followed by unemployment that characterized the British shipbuilding industry. (In this respect the film makes one think of Joris Ivens' Borinage , which concerned the miserable conditions in the mining region of Belgium.) But it also contains extended passages of visual artistry of the giant ship in stages of construction—silhouettes of the hull frame and the like—that seem to stem from the "city symphonies" of early documentary, or perhaps from Ivens' The Bridge (1928).

World of Plenty (1943) and its sequel, The World Is Rich (1947), seem equally original and yet, as Rotha acknowledged, their inspiration came from the sort of Depression theater called "The Living Newspaper" he had seen while on a trip to the United States in the late 1930s to spread the documentary gospel. They are intelligent, imaginative, and finally a bit too clever, the rhetorical devices attracting as much attention as the argument itself. World without End is unusual because it couples footage about the work of UNESCO shot by Basil Wright in Thailand with that of Rotha in Mexico, an undertaking reminiscent of D.W. Griffith's monumental Intolerance. But somehow it evokes no real (or deep) sympathy for the people and their problems.

Of Rotha's three fiction features, the first, No Resting Place , is clearly in the semi-documentary tradition which Harry Watt had carried from the wartime Crown Film Unit over to commercial features. A film about the lives of itinerant tinkers, it was shot on location in Ireland and used non-actors as well as little-known professionals.

Rotha's compilation The Life of Adolf Hitler , again skillful and intelligent, follows a vein much mined by American and British television. (Rotha was head of BBC-TV documentary during 1953–55.) Specifically, it recalls "The Twisted Cross" (1956) of NBC's Project XX series.

In addition to his filmmaking, Rotha wrote constantly; his energy was prodigious, his output prolific. Apart from books and articles and reviews devoted to the entertainment film (some of them anthologized in Rotha on the Film ) is the equally large body of writing related to the British documentary of the 1930s. At the time he was acknowledged as the historian of the movement, in large part because Documentary Film and Documentary Diary provide such a comprehensive picture of the subject. A special labor of love is his Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography. One other aspect of Rotha's role in relation to documentary deserves comment. He set himself up alongside Grierson rather than be cast as one of the loyal group members who followed Grierson. Although his politics may have been much like those of other documentarians, he maintained an outspokenness that those working at government units did not permit themselves. As a result, Rotha is honored by young left-wing film scholars and filmmakers who tend to dismiss Grierson and the documentary movement he formed as a tool of the Establishment.

Rotha was something of a maverick and gadfly. A testy and quirky man, he was given to self-promotion. But as Grierson once said in defending Rotha to documentary colleagues after he had made some contentious public outburst, "He is one of us." Rotha would no doubt have agreed, but on his own terms.

—Jack C. Ellis

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