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The Great Ealing Film Challenge 26: San Demetrio, London (1943)

Posted: 12/12/11 00:00

Back in wartime production mode, this is one of Ealing's best-known war drama-documentary efforts and, if I'm honest, it was a bit of an effort to sit through. Because, although I understand that it's a faithful recreation of an actual event, and despite my admiration for some of the performances (even Robert Beatty, although that may be because he is the butt of so many jokes), characters and model work, the film just goes on too long and then fails to illustrate one of the key moments of the narrative. It's a solid effort, but one that wouldn't suffer from being five to ten minutes shorter.

The story is straightforward: the San Demetrio, a ship in the British Merchant Navy, is attacked when sailing from Texas to Glasgow with a cargo of oil; although most of the crew abandon ship, one lifeboat of sailors are not picked up by a rescue boat, and end up returning to the ship for safety. Led by 2nd officer Hawkins (Ralph Michaels) and Chief Engineer Pollard (Walter Fitzgerald), the small group put out the fires, partially repair the ship, and set out for home, returning triumphantly to the Clyde under their own steam.

As such, there are great moments of ingenuity, drama and comedy: Pollard's engineer is surely an early inspiration for Star Trek's Commander Scott with his frequent innovations and inventions - getting the damaged engines running, rigging up a new steering column, finding a way to make the malnourished men hot food and drink, and preventing the ship from sinking. The drama (given the relatively thin story) comes from that now-expected Ealing interplay of characters: the 'below decks' men struggling to survive, first in the confines of the lifeboat, and then on the pitching deck of a half-sunk ship; Mervyn Johns (a regular focus in these Ealing columns) is injured and struggles on to complete his work; equally, Gordon Jackson is the eager novice who has to quickly adapt to new circumstances. Yet, as with The Next of Kin, few of the men stand out - really Pollard is the closest thing the film has to a hero or central figure. The comedy, perhaps less obvious, comes from many of the same sources, and at least in part because of their situations - those same men play darts, read magazines (including, strangely, 'True Romances') and bet on anything they can find (including, towards the end, which country they'll reach first); much of the humour also comes from the treatment of Robert Beatty's character. From an unconvincing drunk routine in his early appearance in Galveston, his character (universally referred to as 'Yank') throws in with the men, even if he can't play darts and doesn't understand about smoking cigarettes near gallons of oil. Beatty also contributes to that traditional British cinema trope of combining different nationalities and classes: English, Welsh and Scottish are present here, and with Beatty, a token American.

Like The Cruel Sea, with which it shares many thematic concerns (as well as director Charles Frend), this is a story about men; about the bond between shipmates that (occasionally) ignores class and social structures (though sometimes simply replaces them with new ones), and, more noticeably in this film, about a lack of women. Although women are mentioned (most often wives and girlfriends back home; although one of the first lines is comparing a gun is compared to a woman - "Guns are like women, you can't tell until you're in action, and then it's too late"), the closest the film gets to showing a real woman is the pin-ups stuck to the men's locker room (although the credits do note a 'shopgirl', I can't remember her at all). In fact, there are more obvious sightings of Japanese and black extras in the background shots in 'Texas' than there are any women. Yet one of the film's most interesting and complex elements, the soundtrack (a strong layering of effects, dialogue and music featured throughout), is the work of a largely unknown (to me, at least) Ealing employee, Mary Habberfield, the 'sound cutter.'

One of the other notable elements of the film is the sheer ability of the production to convey the story of this storm-tossed and rickety ship with a degree of verisimilitude. Partly this is due to some sterling special effects model work, several shots of which (most notably an early image of the ship in dock) I had to check were model-based (some of the others are more obvious, but no less impressive for the time); the rest is due to strong set design and editing, particularly after the ship is attacked, where the ravaged nature of the structure becomes clear, flooded incessantly by tonnes of water being thrown at the set and cast. One specific camera angle on the engine room set, looking down from on high past several levels of stairs and gantries, is repeated several times, but really 'sells' the change from the outset of the film to the point where it has been gutted by fire.

At heart then, the film is another example of Britain 'pulling together' in wartime (even if that version of Britain doesn't include women). Slow to get going, and then failing to deliver any strong narrative conclusion (they come within sight of Ireland, then the film cuts to their employer talking about salvage rights, and we never see the ship actually arrive on the Clyde), its heart is in the right place, even if its delivery is a little off.

Next time: heading out to Africa for an adventure Where No Vultures Fly (1951)!

 

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