Truth or Hollywood Truth: Reminiscences of the World of Film and Theatre Directing in Britain and Abroad


Dr Leo Aylen, New College, Oxford

17 June 2013


Dr Leo Aylen, who lives in Somerset, is a classics (‘Greats’) graduate of New College, Oxford, a freelance film director and a fine poet. He is a charismatic reader of his own poetry, as I found out when attending his session earlier in 2013 of ‘Poetry Now’, at the BRLSI. On that occasion, he read aloud his often quite long poems, with their rhythmic drive and often ironic tone, from memory, creating a considerable impression. His talk for the Literature and Humanities group was discursive and entertaining. Leo’s hero, he said, is Michael Faraday (1791-1867) the great pioneer scientist, who in Aylen’s view ‘…gave us the twentieth century’, technologically speaking, and for Aylen was more important than either Marx or Freud. ‘Facts save me’, said Faraday. Leo directed a black and white film about Faraday, centring on the discovery of magnetism in Faraday’s laboratory in 1831. The scientist was played by the young Ian Richardson. Faraday’s statue, of course, stands in the lobby of the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, London, a fascinating and often moving place, dedicated to the history of science, and not nearly well enough known, which I have myself visited more than once.


Michael Faraday, scientist  (1791-1867)

Next was a reference to the film Gods and Generals, made by Warner Brothers in 2013, which Leo Aylen directed. The producer was Ted Turner, and Jeff Daniels played Laurence Chamberlain (1828-1914) brilliant linguist and academic on the Faculty at Bowdoin College, Maine, and a man who from choice joined the Federal Army’s 20th Maine Regiment in August 1862. It was about the First Battle of Fredericksburg, on the Rappahannock River, midway between Washington and Richmond, Virginia, in the American Civil War, when the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee destroyed the Union army. Chamberlain later took part successfully in the Battle of Gettysburg, survived the war and became Governor of Maine. The Union army in late 1862 was led by General Ambrose Burnside as Commander of the Army of the Potomac (inventor of the breech-loading rifle) and a man whose facial hair was described by the soldiers as ‘side-burns’ reversing the two syllables of his name, creating a phrase which entered the language. Burnside had a big army of 120,000 men, and the aim was eventually to take Richmond, VA, the state capital. 


First Battle of Fredericksburg  Dec 13th 1862

However, the problem lay in the late arrival of pontoons to build a bridge across the Rappahannock River. Their failure to arrive before the end of November (because of delay and incompetence at the supply base) meant that Lee was able to assemble his much smaller Confederate army of 73,000 men in the low hills above Fredericksburg, and start with a distinct advantage. In the bitter December weather, these two huge armies faced each other across the river, the largest numerical confrontation of the whole war, and initially there was much fraternisation between the two sides as the bridge was gradually prepared. Burnside misjudged the attack on Fredericksburg, and although the Confederate line to the south was breached for a time, the Union attack on Marye’s Heights was a complete failure.  12,653 Union soldiers died, were seriously wounded or captured / missing in a very bloody battle. Confederate losses were very bad (5,377) but still less than half of these. Two Union generals, George Bayard and Conrad Jackson, died of their wounds. Burnside withdrew, and faced severe criticism later for poor judgement in attacking frontally a well-defended position like the Heights. One Federal survivor said later that ‘We might as well have tried to take Hell’. This was one of Abraham Lincoln’s lowest points politically in the war, as he lost confidence in Burnside, and as morale sank among the Federal soldiers, many of whom quietly went home without leave. There was despair among the officers, and the army came near to mutiny.


First Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1862

Another Aylen-directed film was Who’ll Buy a Bubble? set in the streets of the East End of London. It deals with a group of well-intentioned people who cater for the needs of those with mental deficiencies.


Bow Cross tower block, East End of London, refurbished

He showed us two extracts. The first one, the serious one, portrayed characters raging against high-rise tower blocks, and the sense of enclosure they inevitably promote.

The second extract, humorous and happy, was set in a typical East End market, with much laughter and bubble blowing amidst the showing of skills by ordinary people.

Leo Aylen also made a series of five promotional films for the SSRC (Science Research Council) and the University of Bath. 



The last of these, Chaos and Pattern: Fast Forward, was aimed at encouraging teenagers to consider careers in science and engineering. Finally, he mentioned Butterfly Lights: Adventures , Photonics and Communication, written, directed , photographed and produced by himself. The essence of this was that ‘we have captured the ephemeral incandescence that butterflies distil from the sunlight.’

Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities BRLSI