Steel - A Century of Steelmaking on Film: celebrations... and warnings

13 February 2013

'Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film', out on DVD from Monday 18 February, continues the BFI's excellent 'This Working Life' series.

As is evident in many of the films included in this 2-disc box set - the last in the BFI's "This Working Life" series, following Portrait of a Miner and Tales From the Shipyard - steelmaking is a fascinating and visually extraordinary industrial process. Steel is such a ubiquitous part of our everyday existence, in fact, that we take it very much for granted (cue that what-if "world without steel" scenario in Peter Sachs's 1951 animation River of Steel, included here). The procedure by which steel is made is a thing of high-end skill and precision; of odd and wondrous beauty. Whether from iron ore extracted from beneath the earth or from recycled scrap metal, steel can be manipulated into sheets of any size, length and shape; due to its unique molecular structure, which allows it to retain its light weight at the same time as unmatched levels of weldability and resistance to rust, it is one of the most practicable and versatile alloys in the world. Steel is employed in the erection of buildings and the formation of infrastructure; on kitchen appliances and objects from basic tools to the pylons that suspend the power lines that connect cities; on cars and trains and planes; and on weapons and machines.

This selection of 20 films, ranging from 3 minutes to 47 minutes, encompasses the period between 1901 and 1987. Arranged chronologically, the collection is also of course a broad window into British history itself, and the general thematic thread allows for a clear vantage point of the changes in narrative structures and filmic textures as well as in social tastes and values over the best part of the 20th Century. To this end, the extensive notes accompanying each film are excellent even by the BFI's standards: each write-up provides perceptive textual analysis alongside invaluable contextual information, and comes complete with full credits. (Subtitles on the films themselves are unfortunately absent.) Contributors, presumably commissioned due to their (evident) research expertise, are, in alphabetical order: Michael Brooke, Ros Cranston, Alex Davidson, Jan Faull, Eilidh MacGlone, Simon McCallum, Katy McGahan, Patrick Russell, Jez Stewart, James Piers Taylor, Rebecca Vick and Sue Woods; Mark Miodownik, a Professor of Materials and Society in the UCL Mechanical Engineering Department, gives a short introduction, and there is also a four-page extract from an essay by Russell and Taylor, from their own edited volume Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain (BFI Palgrave, 2010).

At the end of the booklet, Ben Thompson, leader of the BFI National Archive's image quality section, explains the restoration process of Steel (1945), whose inclusion here makes it something of a centrepiece: written and directed by Ronald H. Riley and narrated by John Laurie prior to Dad's Army fame, this 34-minute film is a masterpiece of Technicolor. Shot by Cyril Knowles and Powell and Pressburger's regular DoP Jack Cardiff, the film is a visual triumph, depicting the unthinkably skilled process of steelmaking with spellbinding clarity and a bedazzling and intense array of colours. Alongside 1942's Teeth of Steel (also directed by Riley, though shot by future double Oscar-winner Geoffrey G. Unsworth), Steel is before anything else a full-throttle display of the transformative* potential of the image: no need for fussy digitalisation here (though the restoration of its three-strip Technicolor is indebted to pioneering software), just a revolutionary and inimitable marvel of cinematography. Two other films are visually impressive. Steel Town (1958) and Men of Consett (1959) both look at the impact steelmaking has upon the communities that form around the industry. The former, written and directed by Bill Mason, depicts life in Stocksbridge, Sheffield, while the latter is eccentric adventurer Tom Stobart's hymn to life in County Durham. Between them, these boast a literal and figurative colour that make some of the black-and-white efforts - such as 1945's The Ten Year Plan, 1948's Common Sense About Steel and 1949's Mrs Worth Goes to Westminster - appear as visually pedestrian as their narratives are conservative.

As an archival release, this selection varies in actual quality: the trio just mentioned in parenthesis may be of historical interest, but their politics are far from agreeable (in particular, Common Sense About Steel, sponsored by the Conservative Party, is a two-minute rant against nationalisation). Indeed, though this release is celebratory of filmmaking achievements as well as of Britain's industrial output before, during and after last century's world wars, the dialectical reality of these contributions is that they serve a propagandistic view of capitalist production. As the accompanying notes highlight, the films often view human labour with a degree of abstraction; very few foreground the human element, much less make comment on the economic foundations of industrial growth and the unpleasant imperatives of for-profit exploitation.

Ironically, this overall denial of a wider reality comes back to haunt the films themselves with a ghostly absence: compare earlier films such as Mitchell & Kenyon's 1901 factory gate film, Parkgate Iron and Steelworks Co., Rotherham, or 1928's monumental making-of documentary, The Building of the New Tyne Bridge from Newcastle to Gateshead, with Frank Black's Steel for the Seventies (1970), and it's difficult not to note the stark drop in numbers of actual people within the workplace. With Thatcherism, this sudden reduction of a workforce reaches its logical culmination: the final film of the box set is an 11-minute extract from Northern Newsreel No. 7, made in 1987 and focusing upon the very real dangers that come with mass unemployment, as a group of disenfranchised men in Consett drifts toward the insidious appeals of fascism. This belated acknowledgment of a bigger social picture is shortlived; given its relevance to our current predicament, where austerity and unemployment reign once more, perhaps a BFI release of such informative (and well-assembled) Northern Newsreels ought to be in the works.

* See idFilm's January 2011 interview with Patrick Keiller.

Further reading
Rebecca Vick on Northern Newsreel No. 7

Steel images

Steel Town images

Men of Consett images