Directed by: Various (Documentary)
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 348 mins
Region: Region 0
Released: 18 February 2013
Cat No: BFIVD868
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It’s easy to see why the BFI picked Britain’s steel industry as the subject of its latest two-disc documentary collection. The entire process of steelmaking is fabulously cinematic, whether it’s the initial smelting of raw pig iron, sparks flying off lumps of white-hot metal as they’re hammered into shape, or even slagheaps momentarily glowing as they’re topped up with a fresh load. This is especially true when filmed by world-class cameramen like Jack Cardiff, Wolfgang Suschitzky or Geoffrey Unsworth, all featured here.
The twenty films are presented in chronological order, from a 1901 Mitchell & Kenyon ‘factory gate’ film (the famous one with a worker flicking a V-sign at the camera) to a 1987 video newsreel about the bleak prospects for Consett after the closure of a firm that employed a third of its population. In between are assorted pieces of political and industrial propaganda (a morale-boosting royal tour, an anti-nationalisation film by the Conservative Party) and some multi-part newsreels - one of which, Ingot Pictorial, complemented the coal industry’s Mining Review.
The end uses of steel are shown via Building of the New Tyne Bridge (1928), which uses animation to clarify construction stages, Mastery of Steel (1933), which shows how iron ore is transformed into a Morris Eight car, and The Ten Year Plan (1945), a look at prefab housing that not only stars Charles Hawtrey but which was future Bond director Lewis Gilbert’s directorial debut. Meanwhile, the animated fantasy River of Steel (1951) imagines a world without the metal. As for steelworkers’ own lives, Steel Town (1958) looks at steel-dependent Stocksbridge, there’s a rather quirkier look at Men of Consett (1959), while Women of Steel (1984) records the reminiscences of wartime munitions factory workers.
But each disc also showcases a great British documentary masterpiece, the newly-restored Steel (1945), with Jack Cardiff’s magnificent Technicolor images capturing every stage of the steelmaking process, and Scottish jewel The Big Mill (1963), whose camera glides along the vast expanses of Ravenscraig steelworks in a strangely haunting, sometimes near-abstract look at an increasingly mechanised process.