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Nine Years Later, the London Olympics Industrial Revolution Pageant Still Haunts

The 2012 opening ceremonies were an unforgettable piece of emotionally traumatic theater.
  • Kenneth Branagh played 19th Century engineering giant Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the 2012 Opening Ceremonies.
    Kenneth Branagh played 19th Century engineering giant Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the 2012 Opening Ceremonies.

    One great thing about the Olympics is that memorable moments can come from anywhere, whether it's achievement on the track, balance beam, or in the pool; a striking political statement on the medal stand, an awe-inspiring lighting of the Olympic flame, or Mary Carillo ranting about badminton from the NBC studio. These moments of glory — and infamy — stay with us. One such moment that's been lodged in my brain for nearly a decade now was the introductory salvo at the opening ceremonies of the 2012 summer games in London, where an Oscar-winning film director took it upon himself to deliver to the world stage a pageant about … the Industrial Revolution. If you saw it back when it happened on July 25, 2012, you may remember it vividly as I do. As we kick off another Summer Olympics, this time in Tokyo, I thought it was time to revisit.

    Inasmuch as any given Olympic games is about the host country getting to showcase itself as the epicenter of global excellence, the opening ceremonies are where that mission is made explicit. In the wake of the 2008 games in Beijing, where the Chinese employed famed film director Zhang Yimou to put on a pageant that showcased the home country's majesty and massiveness to the world, the United Kingdom followed suit and tasked Danny Boyle — Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, and 28 Days Later — with putting on the opening ceremony for London. And with the world stage in front of him, Boyle put on quite the production.

    Boyle's opening ceremony begins on video, with an aerial journey up the river Thames and over the city of London, while on the way passing animated characters from The Wind in the Willows, visual nods to Pink Floyd and Eastenders, flashback footage of old rugby triumphs, and glimpses of landmarks like Big Ben and the London Eye. The whole shepherd's pie of England's cultural footprint in one helicopter journey.

    When that journey reaches Olympic Stadium, we find the field has been made into a vast, richly detailed pastoral paradise, with rolling green hills, floating clouds, farm hands, milkmaids, and children running around a maypole. After cyclist Bradley Wiggins, who had recently become the first Brit to win the Tour de France, rings the ceremonial opening bell, and a series of children's choirs (a requisite part of any Olympic opening ceremony) sing odes to the four component parts of the United Kingdom, a horse-drawn coach trots its way through the paths around all that greenery, and out steps … Academy Award-nominated actor/director Kenneth Branagh.

    That Boyle would feature one of Britain's most actor-y actors (Branagh's long history of directing and starring in Shakespeare adaptations make him something of a human conduit down the line of English cultural history) shouldn't be surprising, but the use of such a high-profile performer to play historical reenactment is … jarring. It's like if you walked into Colonial Williamsburg and found Jeff Bridges pounding out a horseshoe in the blacksmith shop. So out steps not just Kenneth Branagh, but Kenneth Branagh in a stovepipe hat and chin beard. He's portraying Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a 19th century British civil engineer and one of the great leading figures of the Industrial Revolution.

    Branagh-as-Brunel reads a passage from Shakespeare's The Tempest that begins "be not afeared," even though the farmers and milkmaids and children on the pitch do in fact seem quite afeared. And for good reason, as this well-read man in the stovepipe hat is about to bring the thundering march of industry to their idyllic pastoral land. As the clanging metal drums of history begin to march out over the fields — including famed Scottish drummer Evelyn Glennie — and factory workers and miners begin to descend from the hills, the trees are literally raised up out of the ground and the carpets of grass are pulled up to reveal the hard metal surfaces of modernity. It is at this point that anyone who showed up to watch children's choirs and rugby highlights is probably a bit thrown watching a dramatization of the Western rape of the natural world.

    As Kenneth Branagh's stovepipe-wearing brethren reveal themselves to be highly choreographed dancers, interpreting the angular motions of ascendant industry, the once-green paradise is now full of smokestacks rising from the ground, belching smoke as they go. Seemingly everything and everyone is covered in soot. The march of history is memorialized by placard-holding suffragettes and the fallen soldiers of two World Wars. It's at this point that some brightly-clad extras representing Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band take the field, perhaps as a nod towards some kind of cheerfulness, but by this point the dark pageant has really gripped our souls.

    If Boyle's entire pageant of the rise of industry across England was meant to be a metaphor, it was both effective and unexpected. The modern Olympic Games have increasingly come under scrutiny for throwing money and resources at an endeavor that displaces local residents, exploits workers, and damages local economies, all for nationalist glory. If Boyle's intention was to comment on how so much work and strife and displacement and pollution go into quite literally the forging of the Olympic rings, as is depicted in operatic — and undeniably awe-inspiring — fashion, then the message is on point, even it it's surprising for an event that's usually meant to inspire pride rather than dark reflection. If this somehow wasn't Boyle's intention, then he may have muddled tones as badly as anything since he made A Life Less Ordinary.

    This dark pageant of industrial domination and dystopian fear took the first 20 minutes of a four-hour ceremony. Subsequent to this were appearances by James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II — who kind of flirt with each other? — not to mention the always-glorious Parade of Nations, and the really quite moving cauldron-lighting ceremony. The audience at home and at the Olympic stadium had a long journey ahead of them. Which is a good thing, because they probably needed some of that time to sit quietly with their thoughts about what progress and modernity have both given us and taken away at the same time, and how Olympic glory is literally forged in the fires of a working population that was shoved into factories when all they wanted to do was circle a maypole. Danny Boyle: dark prophet of the Olympic Games, you delivered something truly unique to the Olympics, and I will never stop thinking about it.

    NBC is airing this year's opening ceremonies live from Tokyo beginning at 6:55 AM ET/3:55 AM PT Friday, with a rebroadcast at 7:30 PM ET/4:30 PM PT.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Summer Olympics, Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh