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New Explorers, The (1955)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of New Explorers, The (1955)
35mm, colour, 32 mins
DirectorJames Hill
Production CompanyWorld Wide Pictures
SponsorBritish Petroleum
ProducerJames Carr
ScriptJames Hill
PhotographyJames Allen
MusicClifton Parker

Conditions faced by a team of explorers looking for oil in the Persian Gulf, Canada, Papua, Zanzibar and Trinidad.

Show full synopsis

The New Explorers was promoted by BP as part of a loose series of independent films titled Oil on Screen, following the stages of oil formation, exploration and exploitation. These titles most closely resemble the contemporaneous output of Shell's in-house film unit, which released the similarly themed The Oilmen in 1955. The New Explorers marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship with BP for director James Hill, who would subsequently make other films for the sponsor with his own company, James Hill Productions.

The filming schedule was epic in scale, taking in location shooting in Abu Dhabi, Canada, Zanzibar, Papua, Trinidad and Sicily. Four different cameramen were used across the six locations. Hill wrote in the trade magazine Film User that during production he "travelled nearly 100,000 miles by car, jeep, train, liner, launch, dhow, canoe, catamaran, bicycle, aircraft, flying-boat, camel, helicopter, horseback and foot." The production's expense and the inaccessibility of several locations led to the use of the cheaper and more portable 16mm film format rather than the better quality 35mm generally favoured.

The most distinctive element of The New Explorers is that no oil is discovered during the course of the film. The final scene offers a concentration on drilling which appears to promise a gush of petroleum but in fact proves an anticlimax. BP's advertising stressed that this was "not a success story," and throughout the film the difficulties of oil discovery and production are repeated, in stark contrast to the cornucopian pronouncements of the oil industry today.

The risks of oil exploration in far-flung corners of the earth are also referred to, and in the course of the film's production some of those hazards were to be shared by the crew. In Papua, Hill and cameramen James Allen found that one journey involved hanging on to a log and swimming several miles down a 'crocodile-infested' river. Such Boy's Own adventuring is very much of a piece with the underlying genre of the film. Nature is explicitly described as 'hostile', an enemy to be vanquished. The director served in the RAF Film Unit during World War Two, which perhaps explains his apparent comfort with these military-like environments. The ghost of an imperial past is repeatedly evoked, from the description of oil surveying as an act of 'exploration', through the colonial dress and attitudes of the oilmen featured to the simultaneous exoticisation and employment of the 'native'.

James Piers Taylor

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (31:47)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
British Petroleum films