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Way to the Sea, The (1936)


Main image of Way to the Sea, The (1936)
35mm, black and white, 9 mins
DirectorJ.B. Holmes
Production CompanyStrand Film Company
ProducerPaul Rotha
End CommentaryW.H. Auden
PhotographyGeorge Noble
 John Taylor
MusicBenjamin Britten

Commentators: Geoffrey Tandy, Norman Wooland

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The London to Portsmouth railway line and its recent electrification, prefaced with an historical representation of Portsmouth and the London to Portsmouth road.

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Fairly widely seen in cinemas, The Way To the Sea is one of the 1930s' more curious short films. It feels like several different films - each in different non-fiction genres - squashed together into under ten minutes. Strand's films were often unpredictable: sometimes more commercial than the publicly-funded documentaries, at other times more independent-minded or experimental. Director J.B. Holmes is a frequently overlooked director who is important especially for having crossed the lines between the 'movement' documentary and more conventional documentary product (while producer Paul Rotha was a strong-minded documentary maverick).

The first section, putting the South Coast in historical context, resembles classroom history films made by Holmes and colleagues at Gaumont-British Instructional. It also deploys many tricks that low budget history programmes use today: snatches of artful, but under-peopled, reconstruction, shots of surviving artefacts, and 'poetic' use of rolling waves to indicate not only naval invasion but also the mystery of time passing. Its brief but sweeping historical treatment of the English people's relationship with the sea involves at least one crucial distortion of ethnology - by jumping straight from the Roman to the Viking invasions, implying that the same 'English' natives were victims of both. In fact, between the two, the Anglo-Saxons had invaded the Britons (Celts), implanting the roots of 'England' some time after the Romans had left.

Finding itself in the 20th century the film switches to coverage of the electrification of the rail lines from London to Portsmouth. The film's uncredited sponsor was the Southern Railway. This sequence - a clear exposition of the processes involved - suggests both the more straightforward GPO or Shell technical documentaries, but also GBI films like Holmes' The Mine (1936).

Many viewers will most enjoy the final section, which is similar to the Strand travelogues made by Marion Grierson - but made with far greater panache, not least thanks to the contributions of Night Mail (d. Harry Watt/Basil Wright) veterans Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden. Auden's verse here is more oblique, less infectiously rhythmic. But its speculations on the many inner psychologies submerged in the crowds of people leaving London for a Southern day out are imaginative and delightful. And occasionally he inserts social conscience in the form of references to the many classes of people whose houses the trains pass - some of whom cannot afford holidays.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Night Mail - Collector's Edition'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (15:46)
Rotha, Paul (1907-1984)