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Shadow of Progress, The (1970)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of Shadow of Progress, The (1970)
16mm, 30 min, colour
DirectorDerek Williams
Production CompanyBritish Petroleum
 Greenpark Productions
ProducerHumphrey Swingler
WriterDerek Williams
PhotographyRobert Hunter
EditorStephen Collins
MusicWilfred Josephs

An exploration of the way in which, in meeting the demands for a richer and fuller life, technology has polluted and destroyed much of man's environment, with a discussion of some possible solutions.

Show full synopsis

1970 was European Conservation Year. Several commemorative industrial documentaries were made (for example, ICI's The Choice), joining a cycle of sponsored films about pollution that was first kicked off by Shell's The River Must Live in 1966.

As filmmaking, BP's The Shadow of Progress is much the best entry in this peculiar sub-genre - indeed one of the last really momentous films to come out of the sponsored shorts industry. Multi-award-winning, it was distributed internationally, receiving thousands of non-theatrical bookings and (outside the UK) some cinema screenings. The BBC twice televised it as part of the schedule, as well as reusing it as a trade test transmission.

The film posits environmental problems less in terms of any specific chain of cause and effect (though the commentary describes several), than of philosophical paradox: "How could it be possible to exhaust the inexhaustible?," asks the narrator, "Man assumes it is not. But behind every question of man's resources, there now grows one master question." If such artful vagueness reflects the film's status as a sponsored product, it also helps it feel today a far more impactful, timeless statement than any number of editorially independent, but ephemeral, TV news reports.

The relationship of sponsor to topic could be a subject of heated debate, but there is no doubting that the production team's handling of the subject is both skilled and sincere, if constrained. Writer-director Derek Williams has gone on record regretting what he sees as a weakening in the later 'solutions' parts of the film, having to be broadly optimistic and to avoid overt criticism of the sponsoring industry. However, the steady, almost hypnotic mood that descends from the very opening shots (of traffic lights gradually coming into 35mm Eastmancolor focus) is maintained throughout, affording a genuinely cinematic experience. Shots representing nature, the growing density of humanity, and the environmental destruction and detritus it has caused (the latter perhaps too sumptuously filmed) were taken in several different continents.

On the strength of the film's great success, Williams persuaded BP (its interest in socially relevant 'prestige films' now awakened) to fund a sequel. Also produced by Greenpark Productions, The Tide of Traffic (1972) was an equally fine film, this time dealing with a specific subject. Later, at Balfour Films but still for BP, the director returned to ecology with Planet Water (1979) - a more muted echo of the haunting, majestic Shadow of Progress.

Patrick Russell

*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. Exhausting the inexhaustible (3:43)
2. The air we breathe (2:07)
3. Man vs Nature (3:51)
4. Some solutions (2:19)
Alaska - The Great Land (1971)
Williams, Derek (1929-)
British Petroleum films
Industrial and Corporate Films
Postwar Documentary