It was in December 1900 that the vanishing occurred, the three man crew of the lighthouse on Eilean Mòr, one of the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald MacArthur gone without a trace from that remote outpost in the ever-churning expanse of the cold and unforgiving North Sea.
The disappearance reported on 26th December by Captain Harvie of the Hesperus following earlier reports that the lighthouse was not illuminated, the absence of bodies or any conclusive indications of the fate of the three men opened up the realm of speculation, sea monsters, ghostly abductions, intervention by hostile foreign powers.
Perhaps the most famous contemporary interpretation of the events was Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s atmospheric 1912 poem Flannan Isle which played up the supernatural elements with its “three queer, black, ugly birds… like seamen sitting bolt-upright” which take flight as the boat approaches, aspects which were magnified in the modern telling which it inspired, Doctor Who‘s 1977 adventure Horror of Fang Rock.
Directed by The Killing‘s Kristoffer Nyholm from a script by Celyn Jones and Joe Bone and screened at the Glasgow Film Festival, The Vanishing (produced under the name Keepers) is more down-to-earth though still entirely speculative, the opening credits offering only that it is “inspired by a true story,” one more in the tradition of John Buchan than H P Lovecraft.
Filmed on the coast of Scotland, Westworld‘s Peter Mullan, Geostorm‘s Gerard Butler and Jamestown‘s Connor Swindells are Thomas, James and Donald, the latter on his first posting, the three men maintaining the essential equipment through the day, the light prone to leaking toxic mercury, and drinking, smoking and playing cards through the night.
Donald travelling light, it is Thomas who has the baggage, still mourning the death of his wife and infant children, while James apparently dour demeanour hides a dry sense of humour, but all changes when an inspection of the coastline finds a wrecked rowboat in the rocks, a drowned man and a locked trunk.
The lighthouse standing tall against the rocks, it shines a light in the darkness to warn vessels away, but also illuminates the three men and shows them parts of themselves they shouldn’t see, The Vanishing a very real film of the physical processes of the work and the isolated environment and the toll it takes in circumstances they could not have anticipated.
The cast also including Men & Chicken‘s Søren Malling and The Last Witch Hunter‘s Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, in the absence of evidence The Vanishing cannot be more than a fiction conceived to fit the circumstances, yet the events presented never feel tied to Flannan Isle, the history a hook upon which the conventional story is snared while the eerie atmosphere which the name conjures in Scottish folklore eludes capture.