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Shellarama (1965)

Courtesy of Shell International

Main image of Shellarama (1965)
70mm, Super-Technirama, Technicolor, 14 mins
DirectorRichard Cawston
Production CompanyShell Film Unit
ProducersDimitri De Grunwald
 Roger Good
ScriptRichard Cawston
PhotographyStanley W. Sayer
Night photographyEric Wilmott

A celebration of Shell Petroleum, tracing its manufacture from discovery in oil fields to its eventual use as fuel for modern living across the globe.

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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 motorcars.

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.

Dylan Cave

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Following the line (1:54)
2. Getting Us Moving (2:02)
Complete film (13:37)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
This is Shell (1970)
Warren, Norman J. (1942-)
Shell Film Unit (1934-)
Postwar Documentary
Short Films