This film is held by the BFI (ID: 14933).



r.1 Part 1 - the Buddha. Scenes of dark jungle with glimpses of animals, ruined temples and tropical vegetation (180), devil dancers perform (270), commentary explains that then came Buddha. Pilgrims traversing the slopes of Adam's Peak from where it is believed that Buddha departed from Earth. The pilgrims reach the summit and sit down to rest, celebrating with chants and recitations in Buddha's honour (575), carving and statues of Buddha (646), the pilgrims greet the first light and watch the shadow of the Peak as it forms (732), the pilgrims go in procession round the shrine chanting (826), sacred bells ring (852), shots of statues of Buddha (866), shots of lakes and birds in flight (939). Part 2 - the Virgin Island. Villagers draw water from a well, women fill their water pots from the river (1052), elephant with her young standing in the river (1058), a priest, debarred from doing any manner of work, begs for food from a householder (1131), boy mounting and riding an elephant (1163), fishermen set out to sea in their outrigger canoes (1210), other fishermen cast their nets inshore (1312), washerwomen at work (1345), pottery making (1392), tree sawing (1420), latheworking (1454), man aided by his son builds a wattle-and-daub house (1520), fishing nets laid out on the beach (1554), women harvesting rice, rice beaten (1707), village children attend a dancing class (1930), villagers gossip and laugh (2032).

r.2 Part 3 - the Voices of Commerce. View from a moving train of the countryside, railway track (56), elephants used for clearing trees for new roadways, elephants carrying granite stones (138), native boy prays in front of a cocoanut tree and climbs it (193), ship at sea (222), the native throws cocoanuts down from the tree, the cocoanuts are loaded onto a bullock cart, the nuts are taken and split open (327), wireless mast (342), details of steamers due for arrival posted up in shipping office (374), tea picking in a field (448), factory machines working (507), ships and tugs (513), tea crates loaded onto ships, liner pulls out of harbour (540), streets of Colombo, carts and lorries, people carrying goods, modern buildings (597). Part 4 - the Apparel of a God (618). Elephant riders return to the village (659), father chasing his child (679), fishing canoes return to the shore (709), tea plantation workers file back home (749), a native approaches some huge statues of Buddha and makes an offering of flowers to Buddha (1005), shots of the Buddha and other statues (1047), men and women walking along path to the ceremonial dancing floor (1060), a drummer begins beating his drum with his hands and dancing, dancers perform accompanied by the drumming and singing, the dancing becomes more frenzied (1377), shots of the dancers and statue of Buddha interposed (1433), final shots of tropical foliage (1475).

The End (3507).



The Song of Ceylon originated from an Empire Marketing Board (EMB) commission to produce four travelogues for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board.  Late in December 1933 John Grierson despatched Basil Wright and John Taylor to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to produce these four short films. Although expected to broadly cover the island’s life and industry, the Tea Board gave Wright a free hand as director – no scenario was written.With no clearly stated corporate or imperial policy dictating how he represented Ceylon, Wright set about recording his personal response to the island.  The sponsor provided a small crew of porters and Lionel Wendt to act as guide and translator. Although educated in England, Wendt was ethnically a Burgher (a descendent of islanders who intermarried with European settlers).

Immersed in a month-long search for inspiration, Wright toured Ceylon. The giant Buddha sculptures of Gal Vihare entranced himand in an attempt  to capture some essence of this transformative experience he began instinctively shooting sequences; the dusk shots of startled birds in flight are one such moment. Wright and Taylor shot all the footage but had no technology to record sound on the island.  Principal filming took place in villages surrounded by rice fields, in fisheries operated by sail-propelled catamarans and among the relics of the past, the buried cities of Anurajapura and Polonnaruwa, among their temples, gigantic sculptures and fabulous carvings. Fascinated by Ceylon, Wright sought to reveal its spiritual and traditional life, while simultaneously demonstrating its contemporary connections to Britain, Empire and the global marketplace.

After four months on location they returned to London in May 1934. The EMB had come to an end but their film unit had transferred to the Post Office (GPO). Although the Ceylon commission had nothing to do with postal services, the film was completed during autumn 1934 under contract to the sponsors; the GPO received a small fee for this arrangement.  In the studio Wright had his first opportunity to experiment with sound recording, introducing Walter Leigh as composer. There followed an innovative burst of activity, drawing on Soviet ideas of sound in counterpoint to the images (following Sergei Eisenstein’s idea that sound could be another part of the montage). With no recordings made in Ceylon, they produced a soundtrack of layered synthetic sounds and atmospheric music. Leigh included metal sheets struck with hammers and chromatic tubular bells. A church choir was taught to chant by Ukkuwa and Suramba (the film’s dancer and drummer) who came to London with Wendt to add authentic rhythm and dialogue. Wendt spoke the narration, adapted from Robert Knox’s seventeenth-century book An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon.

Interviewed in 1987, Wright told Ian Aitken that he had no real enthusiasm for promoting the British Empire in 1934, explaining:  ‘I wanted to make films, and to begin with I was mainly interested in film aesthetics’ (Aitken, 1998, 245). Wright’s filmmaking career had started at the EMB unit in 1930 as Grierson’s first recruit. Four years of experimenting with camerawork and editing had followed, directing films including Cargo From Jamaica (1933) and The Country Comes To Town (1933). Wright’s interest in montage editing revealed his engagement with Soviet and European avant-gardecinema – introduced to Britain by the Film Society (1925-1939). Films like Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin (1926) and Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929) had presented the rhythms of the modern world through new editing techniques. In Song of Ceylon Wright’s inventive weaving of sound and image similarly used montage to convey movement, reveal connections and to offer a critical commentary. The film shifts between the ancient and the modern, the commercial and the spiritual, the global and the local, the coloniser and the colonised.

Following a premiere at the Film Society in November 1934 and commercial release, Song of Ceylon won first place in the documentary class, and the ‘Prix du Gouvernement’ for the best film in all classes, at the Brussels International Film Festival of 1935.

Graham Greene described it as ‘an example to all directors of perfect construction and the perfect application of montage’ (Greene, Spectator, 4 October 1935). Roger Manvell’s later claim that Song of Ceylon was: ‘possibly the greatest British-produced film in any category up to 1935’ (Manvell, 1946, 100) offers a clear indication of the status it acquired within a particular history of British cinema. Itwas embraced and celebrated for its significance as an art film, not for its contribution to Empire tea marketing.

In 1934 the sponsor had envisaged four educational travelogues produced as prestige advertising for their tea industry –Song of Ceylon was not at all what they wanted and they held Grierson to their original contract. Wright and Taylor completed the four travelogues with unused footage from Song of Ceylon. Titled: Dance of the Harvest, Negombo Coast, Villages of Lanka and Monsoon Island, these films were distributed non-theatrically to schools and societies across Britain. Lacking the experimental complexity and critical dimension of Wright’s longer film, the travelogues feature straightforward informative commentaries that deliver a series of economic, historical and cultural facts about Ceylon and its people. The travelogues were distributed non-theatrically by the state-funded Empire Film Library. Meanwhile as a celebrated art film Song of Ceylon was seen widely in film clubs and film societies across Britain. Joining a small canon of documentaries associated with John Grierson, it became one of the highest profile films produced by the British documentary movement.

On location and in the studio Wright had acted like an independent filmmaker and Grierson and Tallents had supported the completion of his creative experiment regardless of the sponsor or the GPO. In fact Song of Ceylon’s credits make no reference to the Tea Board or to the EMB or GPO’s involvement. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to distance the film from its Imperial sponsorship, drawing attention instead to its status as an award-winning (and seemingly independent) experimental work.



At the EMB Grierson focused on documentary films’ ability to explore the present day –stylistically and thematically. He wanted to draw attention to the underlying interconnections between people in the modern world, and this ambition fitted with the notion of the Empire as an interdependent ‘commonwealth of nations’ advocated by the head of the EMB film unit Stephen Tallents, amongst others. The 19th century monarchist pageantry of the EMB’s first film project One Family (1930) was abandoned in favour of Soviet-inspired editing and a concentration on communications, industry and new technology.  Consequently, in Song of Ceylon Wright attempted to produce a film that visually and aurally examined the rhythms of 20th century Ceylon’s spiritual and material life.

Although critics have claimed Wright ‘totally avoids the question of colonial labour and the economic exploitation of the colonies’ (Hood, 1983, 101), the film’s images of un-mechanised and exhausting manual labour – including lines of tea pickers and men husking coconuts –  make it visually clear the long-term presence of Empire was still (in 1934) dependant on traditional working practices. Tea, coconuts and copra worked by hand were then transported, sold and abstracted through new technology.  At times Wright uses the soundtrack to provide an ironic commentary on this colonial exploitation.  Writing in 1936, Paul Rotha provides an illustration of how Wright juxtaposed sounds and images for critical effect:

‘The rhythmic noise of a mountain train is continued over an elephant pushing down a tree, an association of power and at the same time a comment. The market prices of tea, spoken by radio-announcer and dictated in letter form by business executives are overlaid on scenes of natives picking in the tea gardens, the ‘Yours truly’ and ‘Your obedient servant’ of the dictation being ironically synchronised over the natives at their respective tasks’ (Rotha, 1936, 222).

Although the film makes it explicit that work and industry bound Ceylon to the world’s economy, some writers have dismissed Wright’s criticism as far too subtle.William Guynn recognised the critical thread running through Song of Ceylon, however he argues that by using the islanders to produce a commentary on the process of Empire and international trade, Wright creates a situation that ultimately denies them a voice. Rather than articulating their own protest they are reduced to silence, the film speaks for them (Guyn, 1998).  Martin Stollery has suggested an alternative version of Song of Ceylon where, for example, Lionel Wendt could explain his ancestry and the island’s colonial history (Stollery, 2000).

Wright’s film might deny the islanders a voice, but the narration does not speak with unambiguous authority in relation to the images on screen. It is not simply a description of what we are seeing, because throughout the film words and sounds are deliberately placed against the images for critical effect. By using Knox’s words – written in 1681 – against images filmed in 1934, Wright draws our attention to the authority of the historical narration. Wright, like Knox,  is yet another European recording his account of the island. Rather than simply stressing continuity with the past and the timelessness of Ceylon, the narration demonstrates the ongoing colonial presence of Europeans and their ability to speak for the island and its people.

Wright’s focus on the continued existence of ancient traditions (sites, monuments and religious rituals) is an attempt to comprehend the island, but the film does not profess to have understood Ceylon.  Writing in 1935, Graham Greene suggested Wright was content to be on the outside looking in.  Greene saw the film as a ‘visual record of the effect on a sensitive Western brain of old, communal, religious appearances, not of a life which Mr Wright pretends to know’ (Greene, 1936, 66). Rather than claiming ethnographic authority over the island and its people, Wright’s film offered an ‘unusual respect for the value and integrity of an ultimately inaccessible non-western culture’ (Stollery, 2000,193).

Song of Ceylon’s impression of the island’s ‘inaccessible’ spiritual life connects the traditional to the modern through the Imperial marketplace; but unsurprisingly the film does not address Ceylon’s shifting political relationship to the British Empire. Universal suffrage in 1931 had led to the formation of Ceylon’s first State Council (1931-35) and greater political autonomy, while Ceylon’s Youth Leagues were part of a growing radical movement calling for independence from Britain. Wrightprovided some obvious criticism of colonial economics but did not address these calls for independence or explain the island’s contemporary political situation. The film reveals the island’s ongoing traditional life in its rural villages, but only briefly glimpses city life and work.  Although Song of Ceylon does stress the continuity and resistance of a distinctive cultural life in the face of hundreds of years of European colonial intervention, Wright’s focus on Sinhalese Buddhism emphasises a particular national identity for Ceylon and obscures the island’s diverse population. Conversely the four travelogues offer some understanding of how Burgher, Muslim and Tamil populations came to coexist.

However Song of Ceylon is not an imperialist’s educational geography project, the viewer is not being offered an empirical account of the island’s culture and history. Instead Wright’s experimental, impressionistic film combines his personal, poeticencounter with an attempt to criticise the colonial economy. Setting its exquisite imagery, air of mysticism and historical narration against the disruption of modernity, in Song of Ceylon Wright deliberately encourages us to reflect on the West’s representation and exploitation of the East.

Jon Hoare


Works Cited

Ian Aitken, The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University  Press, 1998).

Graham Greene, ‘Kilou the Tiger’, The Spectator, 24 April 1936, in John Russell Taylor (ed), The  Pleasure Dome: Graham Greene The Collected Film Criticism 1935 – 40, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

Graham Greene, ‘ Song of CeylonThe Spectator, 4 October 1935 in: John Russell Taylor (ed) The Pleasure Dome: Graham Green The Collected Film Criticism 1935 – 40, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 25 -26.

William Guynn ‘The Art of National Projection: Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon’, in Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski (eds), Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 83-98.

Stuart Hood, 'John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement', in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983).

Roger Manvell, Film, (Harmondsworth, London, Pelican Books, 1946).

Martin Stollery, Alternative Empires: European Modernist Cinemas and Cultures of Imperialism (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000).

Jamie Sexton, ‘The Audio-Visual Rhythms of Modernity: Song of Ceylon, Sound and Documentary

Filmmaking’, Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies, May 2004. Nottingham University:

Basil Wright, ‘Filming in Ceylon’, Cinema Quarterly, Volume 2, No 4, Summer 1934, pp 231- 232.




Technical Data

Running Time:
40 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
3500 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Sound Recording
Ceylon Tea Propaganda Bureau
Empire Tea Marketing Board
Assistant Director
Author of the Original Work
KNOX, Robert
cast member
cast member
cast member
LEGG, Stuart
cast member
WENDT, Lionel
cast member
LEIGH, Walter
Production Company
Cinema Contact Ltd.
Production Company
Denning Films
Production Company
GPO Film Unit
Sound Re-recording
Sound Supervisor







Production Organisations