It was a sunny day in Ottawa in the summer of 1950, and the 22-year-old cub reporter was late for a state funeral. He had been at a tavern drinking beer. By the time he arrived on Parliament Hill, the open casket containing the body of Canada’s longest-reigning prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, had been removed from public view. Notebook in hand, the panic-stricken reporter nosed around the Parliament Buildings in search of a story until he stumbled into a private chamber to find members of King’s cabinet gathered around a bottle of scotch. C. D. Howe, one of the era’s most powerful Liberal ministers, turned to the intruder. “You looking for the corpse?” he asked. “It’s just over there,” Howe said, pointing to a corridor where the coffin was being kept until it could be transported. The cub reporter, Donald Brittain, grew up to become one of Canada’s most celebrated film-makers. And now, 38 years after crossing paths with King’s corpse, he has crafted an epic obituary: The King
Chronicle, a docudrama airing on CBC TV over three nights next week.
tionally, Canada has enjoyed a reputation as a leading centre of documentary filmmaking—an image largely created by the National Film Board.
And no Canadian director is more closely identified with that tradition than Brittain. Over the course of his 34-year career, the 100 films that he has written and/or directed have won almost as many awards, as well as Oscar nominations. New York critic David Denby calls him “one of the finest documentary film-makers in the world.” But Brittain, 59, belongs to a vanishing breed: faced with dwindling resources and shifting priorities, Canada’s proud documentary tradition is in serious decline (page 44).
At the NFB and the CBC, full-length documentaries have taken a backseat to dramatic features. Said Sturla Gunnarsson, the Toronto-based director of Final Offer, the awardwinning 1985 documentary about union leader Robert White: “Both the film board and the CBC are being choked. Brittain is the éminence grise—the only one able to play both organizations off against the middle.”
A $3.6-million coproduction between the CBC and the NFB, The King Chronicle, at six hours, is the most ambitious project of Brittain’s career. A blend of documentary and drama, the series is his latest addition to a collection of intimate portraits of colorful 20th-century Canadians. It is a rogues’ gallery featuring the confessions of poet Leonard Cohen and the conceits of press baron Lord Thomson of Fleet, the revolutionary crusade of surgeon Norman Bethune in China and the alcoholic delirium of novelist Malcolm Lowry
in Mexico. Powerful men ranging from former prime minister Pierre Trudeau to union gangster Hal Banks take on a human scale in Brittain’s films. The sweep of history—from Hitler’s Holocaust to Henry Ford’s America—becomes suddenly tangible.
Emotional: A pioneer of the docudrama, Brittain has recently begun using actors to portray subjects beyond the reach of his camera. But even his pure documentaries are intensely dramatic. “At his best,” broadcaster and documentary maker Patrick Watson told Maclean's, “he’s got a real capacity for getting into your emotional guts with his work. But at his worst, he’s ill-disciplined and apt to repeat himself.” Watson’s criticisms are those of a friend—and Brittain does not totally dispute them.
Like his best subjects, he is all too human. During a colorful career that has taken him from Tangier to Tokyo, he has wrestled down more than his share of demons. A reformed alcoholic, Brittain finally stopped drinking 20 months ago to save his liver. Until King, he admitted, “I had never made a film sober in my life.”
Starring Toronto actor Sean McCann, King is a drama scripted with King’s own words interwoven with archival footage and hemmed with Brittain’s blunt narration. Stretched over six hours, the fabric becomes thin in places. Yet Brittain pursues his subject with an investigative vengeance, poking into the dark corners of King’s diaries to shed new light on the man.
King makes no pretence at impartiality. Brittain uses the diaries to expose King’s foibles—his superstitions, his weakness for prostitutes, his admiration for Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s and his callous attitude toward Jewish refugees during the Second World War. Brittain’s sardonic narration seals the portrait like nails in a coffin. During the Great Depression, he says, King “proved to be either a fool or a fraud. He didn’t seem to know what the Depression was all about, And he didn’t seem to care. His mind was encrusted with 19th-century platitudes. His compassion was confined to friends and acquaintances. He was very kind to dogs.”
Gruff: Brittain is perhaps most famous for his voice. Gothic, gruff—almost poetic in its cadence—his narration has become a trademark of his personal style of film-making. On King, he served as writer, director, narrator and chief editor. “Brittain chops to the bone,” said Les Rose, an editor who has endured marathon sessions with him in the cutting room. “When he gets finished with a sequence, there is practically blood dripping off the editing machine.”
Last month Brittain was completing surgery on King in the basement of the NFB’S Montreal headquarters. He shuffled along a ward-like corridor to another cutting room, a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He has a shambling gait and a stooped posture, and his face is creased with a world-weary look. “We call this ‘the Pit,’ ” he said, scuffing his cigarette into the basement’s worn linoleum. “I like it down here. You can work without anyone bothering you.” A covering of flattened potato-chip wrapper blocks the daylight from a cutting-room window. Brittain complains about the thousands of dollars recently spent on new furniture for NFB staff upstairs, while he has to work on editing equipment that often breaks down. Still, he says that he is in no position to criticize: “I have been given a soapbox and a lot of freedom. I haven’t been asked to change anything in my films for a long time.”
In the editing room while reviewing King, Brittain and his editors debated whether they should cut a scene in which a laborer working at King’s estate turns to a co-worker and wonders “if the old man is a fruit.” Some NFB staff members said that they found the scene in questionable taste; Brittain himself was unsure about it. The film’s narration spells out that there is no evidence that King was a homosexual, despite persistent rumors that he was. Eventually, the filmmaker decided to leave the scene in.
Later that day the editors uncapped a bottle of scotch. Brittain stepped out through a fire exit and retrieved a can of nonalcoholic beer from a plastic bag stashed in a snowbank, a throwback to an old habit. “This phoney beer’s not bad,” he said. “You get used to it after a while.” As the film reeled through the editing machine, he listened to the austere sound of his own narration. “I should have been a minister,” he said. “I’d be especially good at funerals.”
Women: Born in Ottawa, the son of a chartered accountant, Brittain grew up in a middle-class suburb. In high school, while the Second World War ravaged Europe, he neglected his studies to pursue girls and sports. “The war was great fun,” he recalled. “There were blackouts, and we were fighting the krauts, and Ottawa was full of women.”
Attracted to the instant fame offered by newspaper bylines, Brittain worked as a reporter at the now-defunct Ottawa Journal between semesters at Queen’s University. In 1950 he married a fellow student, Barbara Tuer, who was killed in a car accident three years later. By that time, said Brittain, “I had a lot of personal problems and I was drinking like a fish.” He never graduated from Queen’s. Instead, he joined the Journal full time, only to quit after helping to organize a union in the newsroom. A friend working at the NFB found him his first film job, with a small documentary crew in Cape Breton. On location, he underwent a crash course in everything from lighting to editing. “The first day I almost got drowned,” he said. “The second day I almost got electrocuted.”
After three months Brittain resigned from the NFB to pursue his dream of travelling to Europe to write a novel. The novel was never written, and he ended up in Tangier, Morocco, with a friend who freelanced as a British spy. Brittain then returned to the film board to face his first serious challenge: to make cinematic sense of one million feet of wartime footage that were lying in the NFB vaults. The result was 1962’s 13-part series Canada at War, a classic archive of the Canadian war effort. The next year he explored a less orthodox brand of battlefield heroism with Bethune, a film about the Montreal surgeon who became a martyr of the Chinese revolution. External affairs tried to block the film’s distribution but backed down after Brittain threatened to resign and hold a news conference. The fight marked a watershed: he had won a measure of artistic freedom that he would never relinquish.
War—a far-off fantasy for Brittain, the high-school
quarterback—became more real for Brittain the filmmaker. His camera panned across the war graves of Europe in 1963’s Fields of Sacrifice and followed Canadian Jewish pilgrims to the eerily peaceful site of a former concentration camp in 1965’s Memorandum. The film conveyed the horror of complacency with subtle images and Brittain’s evocative narration: “Who will ever know who murdered by memorandum, who did the filing and the
typing from 9 o’clock to 5, with an hour off for lunch?”
In his film biographies, Brittain profiled various princes of the printed word. He received an Oscar nomination for 1976’s Volcano: An Inquiry Into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, widely regarded as his finest work. A surreal excursion into a tormented soul, Volcano has a personal significance for Brittain. “It touched a nerve,” he said. “I was a writer, and Lowry was a writer. I had been
drinking a lot, and so had he. I think there may be a mystical connection between drunks, even if they don’t know it.”
For copyright reasons, Brittain could not dramatize Under the Volcano, Lowry’s novel of alcoholic hell. Instead, he took a crew to Mexico to film the setting of the bizarre tale. “There were extraordinary coincidences,” Brittain said. “You’d be sitting in a bar 20 years after Lowry was there, and the guy next to you starts talking about Lowry before you’ve said anything. It got spooky after awhile, although the fact that we were drinking a lot of mescal probably had something to do with it.”
Alcohol: To read passages of Lowry’s lyrical prose for the sound track,
Brittain hired an actor who was obsessed with both alcohol and the Lowry legend: Richard Burton. “He was on the wagon at the time,” recalled Brittain. “I spent six hours with him in the studio. It was bloody awful at first, because he was overacting. But you don’t mess around with Burton’s voice.” Eventually, Brittain asked the actor to tone down his diction, and after Volcano was released, one critic singled out “the surprising but very welcome restraint” of Burton’s performance.
To survive in his profession, Brittain made more commercial movies, including a series of Hollywood-backed pseudodocumentaries. While shooting Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle in Key West, Fla., in 1977, he almost died on his 49th birthday after taking some gulps of what he thought was a soft drink—it was diesel fuel.
Brittain said that the movie itself was dreadful but it probably drew more viewers than anything else he has made.
Comfort: Such lucrative projects enabled Brittain—who has worked as a freelancer since 1968—to spend time on painstaking, lowbudget documentaries for the NFB and the CBC. In Canada, he remains best known for his political portraits, notably The Champions, the three-part series about Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque. Then, with Canada’s Sweetheart: the Saga of Hal C. Banks (1985), he won acclaim and awards for his first major docudrama. Some of Brittain’s colleagues question his technique of combining actors and documentary footage. Said Patrick Watson: “Banks was one hell of a show, but I was distressed that sophisticated people were unclear as to when they were watching actors and when they were watching real subjects.”
Even as a documentary maker, Brittain does not hesi-
tate to manipulate his subjects—or his audience—for the sake of a good story. He admits that, when screening his films for officials, he has coughed or talked at judicious moments to distract them from sensitive material.
His best work, like his personality, glints with humor and mischief. What he seems to fear most is complacency. “As an elder statesman at the film board,” he said, “it’s so easy to get sucked into the establishment. You begin to get lazy.” Adam Symansky, his NFB producer, sees no sign of lethargy. Brittain, he adds, is very honest about himself. “I used to think his shabbiness was calculated,” said Symansky. “It isn’t. Those are just the
clothes he wears, and he’ll wear them until they wear out.”
Brittain’s career has won him a degree of material comfort, if not luxury. He drives a new Volvo and owns a modest house in Westmount, which he shares with his second wife, Brigitta, a German-born woman whom he married 24 years ago. They have a son, Christopher, 23, and a daughter, Jennifer, 20. Brittain also has a longstanding passion for the race track and owns a horse called Golden Junction. A Queen’s Plate victory, he claims, would mean more to him than an Oscar. “I’m a professional horseman now,” he said. “I have a sticker on my windshield that allows me to park four feet closer to the track than the general public.”
Critical: Brittain belongs to a different world than most filmmakers. He says that he has a profound distaste for Hollywood, and he values words more than images. “If I had a choice,” he said, “I’d be making radio shows. EsÊ sentially, I’m more interested in still pictures than moving pictures, and more interested in radio than TV.”
The Ottawa reporter who once slipped through a back door to find Mackenzie King’s corpse continues to stray from journalism’s beaten path. While synonymous with Canada’s documentary tradition, his films are critical of the Canadian character. In fact, he says that his King portrait “is really about the nature of Canada—the sanctimonious, smug Canadian attitude.” That, at least, is one characteristic that Donald Brittain seems to have scrupulously avoided. Managing to remain both a skeptic and a romantic, he is still venturing behind closed doors in his documentary search for dramatic evidence.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.