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Island, The (1952)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of Island, The (1952)
35mm, black and white, 25 mins
Directed by Peter Pickering
 John Ingram
Produced byData Film Productions
Sponsors British Petroleum Company
 Anglo-Iranian Oil Company
Written by Peter Pickering
  John Ingram
Photographed by Ron Bicker
 John Gunn
Music by Malcolm Arnold

The initial stages of the construction of an oil refinery on the Isle of Grain, Kent, and its impact on the local farming community.

Show full synopsis

Change is the watchword of this film, repeated over and over again in the narration as if mere repetition could convince of its necessity. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, pushing forward with its plans for post-war expansion, surveys and constructs a refinery on Kent's Isle of Grain. The islanders, villagers and farm workers look on as an ancient relationship with this piece of land is replaced by a new contract with modernity.

The film speaks with different voices - those of a tanker captain, a construction manager, the island's vicar and an oil company spokesman - but all ultimately deliver the sponsor's message. The script makes the vicar a proxy for local dissent with his gentle "we don't really like changes", although even he relents with the comment that "we must have oil to live today". It is the killer argument of all the corporate agents that shape our modern world, and a challenge the concerned have as yet failed to meet: we provide what you demand.

Yet while the film must explicitly express the view of its paymasters, it's difficult not to sense a countervailing opinion that remains long after the vicar's absolution. In the poetic description of this debatable landscape between field and sea and in the photographic framing of that country against the sky in a series of beautiful vignettes, there is something elegiac. The heralded progress is made ambiguous; we are aware that we are witnessing the literal transformation of the world. There's some resonance with Louisiana Story (US, 1948), Robert Flaherty's film for Standard Oil that depicted natural beauty against petroleum exploitation in the marshlands of the American South. The narration's litany of foreign parts where Anglo-Iranian acted makes one pause to consider its description of the company's advance as rather like that of an "invading army".

John Ingram and Peter Pickering also made the film's companion piece The Tower (1953), about the erection and operation of the distillation unit at the heart of the oil refinery, a topic that allows no space for The Island's ambiguities. The refinery was breached in the 1953 floods, and finally decommissioned in 1982.

James Piers Taylor

*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. An ideal site? (2:01)
2. On the move (1:30)
3. A new life (1:14)
4. Dredging and refining (3:41)
5. What days they were (2:45)
Shetland Experience, The (1977)
Tower, The (1953)
Postwar Documentary