Reviewed: Steel - A Century of Steelmaking on Film

The BFI screens rarely-seen films from the great era of British steelmaking.

New Statesman
Sparks inside a the foundries at the Ministry of Supply Tank Factories, 1941. [Getty Images]

Hot red molten sludge drips from the gruelling furnace. Sweat-drenched, open-shirted, the man shovels his shovelfull of coal through the yawning mouth of the open flame. Little more between him and the fire than a cotton vest and a pair of black specs – small, round, and rather less than hearty in the face of flying molten metal.

Archetypes of the steel man – son of the golden age of industrial Britain – walk freely across the BFI’s latest project, Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film. So to do the truths. In a comprehensive spread of 20 rare documentaries, narrative films, shorts and animations, Steel examines the pivotal role of steelmaking at the heart of British industry, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. The collection is both a nuanced examination of the steelmaking process and an insight into post-war factual film as a British cinematic sub-genre. These astonishing, moving pictures almost fetishise the white-hot liquid rivers and sublime mechanisms that made the steelworks tick. As Mark Miodownik writes in Steel on Film:

The steelmaking process documented in these films seems rudimentary, brutal and raw. But this is because the subtleties that make the material revolutionary are hidden from view inside the metal itself. The steel created is not just a grey blob of matter; it is, in fact, made up of billions of tiny crystals.

That steel is celebrated using celluloid, a material that created the new visual culture of cinema itself, is entirely appropriate. After all, steel is often perceived as monolithic and bland, and needs its exotic cousin to bring out its magic.

I spoke with Patrick Russell, a senior documentary curator at the BFI, who explained how Steel came about and why it resonates today.

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How did the program come about?

Steel is the third part of our project This Working Life looking at major British twentieth century industries represented on film: coal, shipbuilding and finally steel. The impetus for this project is firstly that the collections of the BFI are particularly rich in these areas. There are literally thousands of films documenting these once-staple industries, which themselves are immensely cinematic.

Where did most of the archival film come from, and was it difficult to recover and restore?

All the material is preserved either by the BFI National Archive, the Scottish Screen Archive or the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. Material will have come from many different sources over the years – production companies, commissioning organisations, laboratories, private individuals… Some of them had not been seen since they were released. Various levels of restoration are required. In the case of steel, our signature title Steel required full Technicolor restoration, which was complex and expensive but produced wonderful results.

Has the age of steel left a residual cultural impact?  

All the ‘staple’ industries had a huge – unavoidable - presence in mid-century Britain. In truth, they were in slow long term decline since the heights of the industrial revolution to which they were so important, but at this point that was far from obvious: their economic and cultural place in the life of the nation remained huge.

I can’t think of a better illustration of their continuing cultural impact than Danny Boyle’s use of the industrial Britain – and of steelmaking – in particular as a central part of the national story he told through the Olympics ceremony. When we look at the films of these industries made in the twentieth century, their visual charisma and place in national personality becomes very palpable.

Which of the films particularly resonates with you?

Like everyone in the project, I’m particularly in love with Steel (1945). It exemplifies how brilliant industrial filmmaking can be – great technical information accompanying (almost literally) breathtaking visual artistry, in the form of bold yet painterly Technicolor cinematography.  Another film which we’re showing in the season, and that I love personally, is Stone into Steel (1959), which takes that visual grandeur in even more formalist directions – there is no commentary or dialogue, just images and music. 

These films all come from the ‘classic’ British industrial documentary tradition, but it’s interesting to compare them with more politicised, oppositional or experimental works. Penny Woolcock’s film When the Dog Bites (1987) is a very interesting, unusual take on the de-industrialising of Consett in the Thatcher era.

Is cinema is a particularly apt tool for examining history? 

Film has the power to awaken us to history as no other medium can, and to strengthen our emotional relationship with people, places and events. Equally, of course, we have to be as critical of it as any other historical source. I hope people come away understanding of the magnitude and the complexity of these industries – their technical and social worlds that grew out of them – and the sheer scale and fascination of the filmmaking that allows us, in the century that has followed, to be drawn back into those worlds for a moment.

Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film is on at the BFI from 5 - 28 February, 2013.