American Animals

American Animals

Friday Film 8 November 2019 7.30 pm

Doors and bar open 6.45 pm
Lympstone Village Hall
Members free
£5 on the door

College kids attempt to steal a $12 million Audubon’s Birds of America book – one of the most audacious art heists in US history. The real thieves appear on screen to speak of the consequences.

This month’s short talk

Quickies, Crime and Cowboys A look at B Pictures in the cinema with Martin Fisher. In the economically depressed1930s hard-up filmgoers demanded full value entertainment at the cinema,and so was born the tradition of the B Picture which accompanied the main film. Shorter in duration and cheaply made, they became a fixture lasting until the end of the 1960s. Singing cowboys from Hollywood, crime never pays movies from Britain, comedy series and cliff-hanger serials all made up the full supporting programme, and contributed to an essential and entertaining part of cinema history

Programme Notes

These programme notes, including information about the shorts, are also available as a pdf.


(UK/USA 2018) Running time 116 minutes

Written and directed by Bart Layton

Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd

This film is a true story. That’s a tag-line applied more and more these days. Indeed it could be used for many of the movies in our thirteenth Film Society season. Another growing fashion, to give the audience a glimpse of the real people involved, can also be observed in this season’s films. The real Nureyev danced over the closing titles of The White Crow; old film of Maud Lewis, laughing, concludes Maudie; the shanty singing in Fisherman’s Friends is a blend of the voices of the group themselves and of the actors. However, there’s no sign of Queen Anne herself in The Favourite.

The film tells of an actual heist planned in 2004, when four 20-year-old students set out to steal some valuable books from the Library of Transylvania University. The involvement of the real-life protagonists is taken to a new level, as at various moments in the film they are interviewed about their recollections of what really happened.

Their main target was Audubon’s Birds of America. This incredibly valuable 19th century book consists of 435 life-size prints of birds, published over a period of 12 years, from 1827 – 1839. The first edition was known as the Double Elephant folio, after the large paper size it was printed on, measuring 39 x 26 inches.

John James Audubon was born to French parents in the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), on his father’s sugarcane plantation. He moved to the USA at the age of 18, to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars, and anglicised his first names (he had been christened Jean Rabin). From his earliest days, he had an affinity for birds. “I felt an intimacy with them,” he said, “bordering on frenzy, that must accompany my steps through life.”

Audubon developed his own methods for painting birds. First, he killed them using fine shot. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. He worked mainly in watercolour, spending up to four 15-hour days on a major example.


For his book, he had to have engravings made of his paintings, and he came to England to find the best engravers. The original edition was printed in aquatint on copper plate by the noted London engraver Robert Havell, who took over the task after the Edinburgh artist W. H. Lizars, who engraved the first ten plates, had to give up after his colourists went on strike. The engravings were finally hand-coloured by over 50 artists.

Audubon’s influence on ornithology and natural history was far-reaching. Nearly all later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and high standards. Charles Darwin quoted Audubon three times in On the Origin of Species (a copy of which the thieves in our film also stole from the Kentucky library, and from which the title of the film is a quotation). Despite some errors in field observations, Audubon made a significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and behaviour through his field notes. Birds of America is still considered one of the greatest examples of book art. At an auction at Sotheby’s in 2010 a copy fetched $11.5 million.

Audubon was lionized while in England as “the American woodsman”, and raised enough money touring the country to begin publishing Birds of America. Charles Darwin, then a student, attended one of his lectures in Edinburgh. Audubon made a special pilgrimage to Cherryburn in Northumberland to meet his hero, the ageing wood engraver Thomas Bewick, whose A History of British Birds had been published 30 years earlier. Whereas Audubon painted life-size watercolours, engraved by others at the same size, Bewick engraved his pictures directly onto boxwood cut across the end-grain, only five or six inches wide. His famous tail-pieces, comic illustrations of country life, were just three inches. Bewick showed Audubon the woodcut he was working on, a dog afraid of tree stumps that seem in the dark to be devilish figures, and gave Audubon a copy of his Quadrupeds for his children. The English artist died the following year.

American Animals is written and directed by Bart Layton, an English documentary film maker born in London, whose parents were both artists. His first feature film, The Imposter (2012), was another true-crime story, about a Frenchman who claims to be a missing Texas teenager. He discovered the story of American Animals in a magazine.

This is not based on a true story, it really happened.

Harland Walshaw