Watch Stephen Frears’ Exceptional 1968 Directorial Debut ‘The Burning’

By  · Published on November 24th, 2013

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

Many directors are embarrassed of their first film, especially if we count their student productions. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to find a lot of “short starts” for this column. As we saw recently with Ridley Scott’s debut, however, the British Film Institute is to be thanked for preserving a number of early works by filmmakers from across the pond. Stephen Frears, whose latest great feature, Philomena, is now in theaters, is another example. The funny thing is that he seems like he’d rather that his first film, made in 1968, was lost and forgotten. Most directors would kill to have started off with something as smart and well-shot as The Burning, yet he claims he was clueless while making it, that it was like “being a baby playing with its own shit.”

Frears wasn’t a student when he made the short, and he’d already been gaining experience as an assistant director (or assistant to the director) for such prominent British filmmakers as Lindsay Anderson (who helped Frears edit his film) and Karel Reisz and actor Albert Finney, who co-produced The Burning. The screenplay for the 31-minute film is by author Roland Starke based on his own short story, and its plot concerns a native uprising in South Africa. Similar to Scott’s short start, this one also focuses on a young boy through which we experience a single-day narrative. This boy joins his grandmother (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, who did The Devil Rides Out the same year) and two “coloured” servants, whom are pointedly distinguished from “natives,” as they attempt to travel to his aunt’s home for a picnic.

In one way, The Burning is like a South African To Kill a Mockingbird, and there’s one point where the boy is leaning on a wall in his kitchen that reminded me a lot of both Scout and Jem in Robert Mulligan’s film, especially for his curiosity and confusion about the racial distinction of the help. In another way, it’s been read as a racist film, enough that it led to an argument among members of the BFI Production Board after which documentary legend Basil Wright (Night Mail) resigned. I see it more as a depiction of antiquated racial ignorance in the country (when we meet the old woman she’s noting in an obituary section all the people of her generation she knows who have recently died), as the primary idea is that the grandmother is not so much oblivious to the danger they face amidst signs and rumors of an uprising but more dismissive. She represents a racism of disregard. Perhaps the boy is the future, complete with keys in hand, albeit ultimately keys to a burnt up vehicle.

I do wonder if Frears had ever been to South Africa before making The Burning and what his feelings on the political and racial aspects of the story were then. With a clearly professional crew (the black and white cinematography by David Muir is exquisite), he shot the film with BFI funds in Tangier (as it happens, during some political unrest of another kind) with the kid being a local find. The “coloured” cast were actually political exiles from South Africa by way of London. It sure doesn’t show that he was either incapable or not confident about the material, but apparently he was scared of his first time. “I wasn’t nervous making the film,” Frears told The Guardian a few years ago, “I was terrified.” He considered it mainly a learning experience, and he hasn’t watched it since it was completed, after which it received a theatrical release attached to Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black.

Frears has nothing to be ashamed of, though, as The Burning is a remarkable achievement for a first film, and made when he was only 27. The IMDb rating of a low 5.8 is just not right. This is a great short, and you can and should watch it in a crisp streaming copy via BFI and Distrify below. Unlike a lot of films highlighted in Short Starts, this one isn’t free. But it’s definitely worth the $3.34 rental cost, if only to curiously see the immediate talent of the director who’d much later give us The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things, Dangerous Liasions, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears and two of my favorites among his lesser celebrated works, The Van and The Snapper. At least it gives you a preview, a tease that ought to make you want to continue.

Watch The Burning from £1.99

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.