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SS Ionian (1939)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of SS Ionian (1939)
35mm, black and white, 20 mins
DirectorHumphrey Jennings
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit

A yoyage through the Mediterranean, with special emphasis on Royal Navy ships in the region.

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At first viewing this film, produced by the GPO and directed by the great Humphrey Jennings, shows signs of neither creative force. It doesn't seem to be about anything to do with the Post Office and it doesn't seem to have any of the particular qualities of a Jennings film, apart from a nod to the classics in the opening commentary. The whole thing is a bit of a puzzle. The film starts by talking about the trend of Mediterranean trade in the time of the ancient Greeks (east/west) and compares it to today's top naval empire (the Brits) as they pursue their trade in, broadly speaking, the other direction. The British like to be compared to the ancient Greeks. It makes them feel slightly superior, cultured but without being as crass in their domination of the world as the Romans (for which read Germans).

What we get next is a view of a merchant ship, the Ionian (nice Greek name), tucked safe as houses under the lee of Gibraltar, about to set off for exotic eastern ports of Alexandria and Haifa. This is followed by a catalogue of details more appropriate perhaps for secondary school geography - the speed of the ship (13 and a half knots), the goods it is carrying (telegraph poles, cement and beer). Why, you may ask, are they telling us this?

Perhaps because these details are so mundane or so reminiscent of the schoolroom, the viewer begins to metaphorically look out of the window and, while the litany of goods and destinations drones on and on, we begin to 'get' the film's true intent. For along the way what we see as if incidentally are battleships and destroyers, cruisers and seaplanes - all named, mentioned casually in the same breath as the bags of cement going to make Egyptian roads or the telegraph poles for treeless islands.

By this point, as Kevin Jackson acutely observes in his biography of Jennings, 'even the most sluggish-witted members of the audience will have grasped that this short film which purports to be about the commercial activities of the merchant navy is in fact a reassurance that the Mediterranean is bristling with His Majesty's warships all of them ready, willing and able to take on any nasty surprises the region has in store'. The film was shot in July 1939 and the nasty surprise was just round the corner.

Bryony Dixon

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (19:37)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
The GPO Film Unit: 1939