Although structured around a basic narrative (the journey of Shell oil from
raw source to refined fuel), Shellarama's (d. Richard Cawson, 1965) virtuosity lies in its sophisticated
combination of montage, spectacle and genre cliché to deliver its shamelessly
enthusiastic message. Shot in Technicolor's Super-Technirama widescreen process
and released on 70mm prints, the film embraces the visual exhilaration
associated with Cinerama or today's IMAX systems. The aerial shots of pipelines
zig-zagging across African plains, or the long-take point-of-view shots from the
front of an aircraft or ship offer the spectator a visceral experience with
their heightened optical rush.
The film also embraces stylised editing to drive home its celebratory vision.
Almost harking back to the purity of silent Soviet montage (there is no dialogue
or voice-over), the film creates complex patterns of associations. Take, for
example, the audacious comparison of eastern religions (the tranquil
surroundings of the Blue Mosque in Iran, or the focused monks in their Buddhist
Temple) with the western families enjoying the freedom afforded by their
Accompanying these stylistic techniques is the film's use of generic
conventions to generate suspense and sustain interest in the narrative.
Ostensibly borrowing from the travelogue (a favourite genre of large-format
widescreen processes), the film also uses other narrative techniques to hold the
audience. In a key sequence about halfway in, the film cuts between images of
ordinarily busy city landmarks (London's Big Ben, Paris's Champs Elysées, Rome's
Colosseum) in stationary tableaux, as still and lifeless as a western 'ghost
town'. Suddenly, the cities spring into life as their citizens start up their
(Shell-fuelled) cars and motorcycles. Elsewhere, the technology of transporting
and refining the oil (be it in a robust ship battling a riotous sea storm, or an
army of oil rigs in the Nigerian Delta) constantly serves to celebrate
man's/Shell's mastering of nature.
The worldview presented in this piece is remarkable for its fervent embrace
of both its subject and film technology. From the innovative title (it was also
released, in slightly different form, as Push Button Go) to the final shot of
man's control of land and sea, the film creates a utopian vision of consumer
progress, physical freedom and human potential - all fuelled by Shell.
*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'.