Rather unsurprisingly, the Bill Douglas Trilogy consists of three films directed by Bill Douglas: My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), and My Way Home (1978). Collectively they follow the story of an adolescent boy, Jamie, portrayed by Stephen Archibald, and also mark one of the greatest achievements in Scottish film-making.
My Childhood (1972) shows Jamie, aged about 12, growing up in Scottish mining town. There is no linear narrative to Jamie’s story here. Instead what we see is like a series of flashes from Bill Douglas’ memory of his own childhood: of people he knew, of locations he saw, of events he remembered. The harsh urban setting combined with the insensitivity of his family and others around him, mean Jamie has a cruel upbringing: his only companion is a local German POW he befriends. There is a superb sense of location: the single room that the family own is reminiscent of Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ (1921). There is even a visual gag as we see the tiny bed, eventually revealing multiple people crammed in.
My Ain Folk (1973), while also lacking a single narrative structure, feels more ordered and has a sense of progression. However, the greatest joys from the film still come from the location and setting. Focusing more on Jamie’s schooldays, the film – amongst other things – focuses on the gloomy inevitability of mining work for all the kids. In one haunting, ominous montage, the children sing ‘Summer Suns Are Glowing’ intercut with sequences of men working in dark pits and no sun in sight, with irony as black as the men’s faces.
My Way Home (1978) is both thematically, chronologically, and in location, distant from the first two films. Much less of the film is set in the mining town of his earlier childhood. Archibald is no longer the 12/13 year old child he was in the first two films, but is five years older now. His voice has broken, and he has new issues to deal with. By this time, Jamie is certainly a young adult, but continues to struggle with his surroundings and his future. He has discovered a passion and talent for art. There is a playful twist where we expect his teachers to be belligerent ghouls ready to quash his dreams, but in fact they are encouraging. However the reaction at home is not so positive: “If you were meant to be different, you’d have been born different. This is your place in life”.
He joins the army, travelling to see the world. Under the shadow of the Great Pyramids – surely their only appearance in Scottish realist cinema, a sublime contrast to the slums of his childhood – Jamie strikes up a friendship with a fellow officer. While there are potentially homoerotic undertones, the relationship is primarily an intellectual one, and Jamie is introduced to ideas, to writers like Kafka, and to a camera. He finally sees what his artistic calling will be in life: as a film director. It is on this note that we leave Jamie – a future still uncertain, but for the first time an optimistic one.
The films have an incredibly strong sense of auto-biography to them. We witness Bill Douglas’ own childhood, encountering first-hand the situations, settings and feelings that he had through his adolescent years. But similarly, Stephen Archibald encapsulates Jamie in a manner that suggests he is being himself on camera: quiet, passive, but unsettled. Jamie’s story, Archibald’s own personality, and Bill Douglas’ childhood blur together, becoming one person in trinity.
The films are beautiful to look at. Stunningly crisp, monochrome images, with everything coated in a light dusting of coal, a strange juxtaposition against the extreme deprivation, maltreatment and cruelty we witness.
The trilogy follows in the great lineage of realist cinema from around the world. The Scottish urban setting, with half-demolished buildings and rubble in the streets evokes the war-torn Italy of Rossellini and De Sica. Douglas’ idea for a trilogy, witnessing an adolescent child developing over the course of years, came directly from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’ (Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), Apur Sansar (1959)). And the message for the need to inspire youth, combined with Jamie’s small, wiry figure, give the films a feeling of Kes with Scottish accents.
The trilogy has the stripped down simplicity of Dreyer or Bresson, with no extraneous material. There is minimal dialogue throughout the films. Instead, it is Jamie’s quiet mannerisms that demonstrate his reflective character, never given a proper opportunity at life. We see the world through his eyes: bleak, unappealing, scary.
It is through the total realism, and Jamie’s quiet reflectiveness, that the films are able to produce their greatest sequences, Jamie’s own internal fantasies. He plays energetically, alone, by a railway: putting his head to the rails; jumping and dancing in the steam on a bridge as the train passes underneath; running behind barriers, giving the impression of a zoetrope, harking back to the birth of moving images. Yet he will return to his family and remain the same passive, quiet child.
It is rather astonishing that Bill Douglas is not more widely acknowledged both during his own time, and now. He struggled for financing, only making one further film, Comrades (1986). Stephen Archibald spent much of his adult life in prison, dying aged 38. Archibald said later, “I always waited on Bill coming back with another film. Then he died and my film career was finished.” The trilogy was a one-off collaboration. For both Douglas and Archibald, their own careers failed to deliver on the message of hope for Jamie’s future that the trilogy ends on.