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Alaska - The Great Land (1971)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of Alaska - The Great Land (1971)
35mm, colour, 27 mins
DirectorDerek Williams
Production CompaniesGreenpark Productions
SponsorBritish Petroleum
ProducerHumphrey Swingler
ScriptDerek Williams
PhotographyMaurice Picot
MusicEdward Williams

The history of Alaska, and its future following the discovery of oil deposits.

Show full synopsis

Alaska was key territory for British Petroleum. It commissioned this film from regular supplier Greenpark Productions and mainstay director Derek Williams, who eight years earlier had made the cinema-released North Slope Alaska, a moodily admiring evocation of the oilman's life that would already have become a little politically-incorrect by 1972.

Alaska - The Great Land belongs to a different branch of oil company screencraft, to which Williams was well suited. His first film had been the amateur production Hadrian's Wall (1951), in which lovingly photographed landscapes blended with tersely elegiac commentary drawing on sound historical research. Williams' three BP travelogues (the others were Turkey - The Bridge, 1966 and Scotland, 1973) quite closely follow that template. True, the film briefly refers to the North Slope, expressing hopes that oil will "bring permanence to a transient land" and, characteristically, that development and conservation can be reconciled. Otherwise, this is an unusually strong travel film, in which the director's feeling for history, ethnology and geography is comfortable being expressed through travelogue conventions.

Willams' writing thus alternates historical details with bold phrases. Alaska is "a lonely land of daunting distances and haunting beauty", once a "frail foothold on a cruel coast", now "part boom and bustle and part wrapped in the dream of the past". One common visual device is the still, telling composition (a broken wheel on Nome beach, a pioneer's gravestone, the US flag posed against a child of Orthodox heritage). Another is the close shot of an artefact or natural feature, from which the camera pulls back at medium speed to create a wider vista. Less frequently, it is necessary to make use of montage: much of the screen time is taken up with paintings, etchings, photographs. We are 12 minutes into the film before we see a living soul; 19 minutes in before the frame is properly peopled. Shots of children in a Fairbanks playground, and adults in shops and streets are all the more warmly welcome for their late appearance.

If Williams' Alaska is paradoxical (desolate yet rich, in nature and history as well as oil), so too is his film. The luxuriant, sometimes heroic, often melancholy score by Edward Williams (no relation) plays a vital part in bringing out a certain English romanticism present beneath a politely cold surface. This film opens and closes on patiently dissolving shots of freezing yet rushing waters replete with drift ice.

Patrick Russell

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (26:32)
Shadow of Progress, The (1970)
Williams, Derek (1929-)
British Petroleum films