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Sea Shall Test Her, The (1954)

Courtesy of Corus Group

Main image of Sea Shall Test Her, The (1954)
35mm, black and white, 18 mins
DirectorJack Howells
Production CompanyBritish Films
SponsorBritish Iron and Steel Federation
ProducerWilliam Weedon
ScriptJack Howells
CameramanHone Glendining
MusicEdward Williams
CommentatorsCarleton Hobbs
 Tom Masson

The building and launch of the liner Southern Cross.

Show full synopsis

Using quotations from Rudyard Kipling's short story The Ship Who Found Herself within its commentary, Jack Howells' The Sea Shall Test Her is a lyrical and rich industrial film made for the British Iron and Steel Federation. Unsurprisingly, the significance of the metals in the shipbuilding process is emphasised, with some particularly arresting shots of liquid steel gushing out of a furnace, and vast, glowing slabs of plate waiting to be hammered into shape.

Edward Williams' marvellous score adds a reverential, almost spiritual dimension to the scenes of the ships' construction. The vessels are frequently anthropomorphised, with references to their heart, their pulse, their womb, building up to the emotive birth of the ship at the climax, by which point it is embedded in the audience's mind as a living, breathing entity. Howells would work with Williams and cameraman Hone Glendining again on his most famous work, the Oscar-winning documentary Dylan Thomas (1961), featuring Richard Burton.

The human element behind the shipbuilding industry is foregrounded throughout; Dave Berry wrote, '[The Sea Shall Test Her] is extremely assured, suggesting an emotional investment of the film crew and shipyard employees and officials'. The film features extensive footage of both the active Bloemfontein Castle and the under-construction Southern Cross; we see Queen Elizabeth launch the latter at the end of the film, the first time a passenger liner had been launched by a reigning monarch (the Queen also selected the ship's name). The film met with acclaim from the press upon its release, including trade paper Today's Cinema, who gave a glowing, if supercilious verdict: "For better-class patronage, very good".

The Bloemfontein was built to provide a service between Britain and South Africa. The year before the film was made she had rescued 234 passengers and crew from the sinking Klipfontein, which had struck a foreign object off the coast of Mozambique, possibly a sunken German U-boat. The ship was eventually scrapped in 1989. The Southern Cross passed through a variety of owners until being broken down for scrap in 2003.

Alex Davidson

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Tales from the Shipyard'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Just iron and plates (3:28)
2. Stamps of integrity (3:42)
3. Peace from turmoil (2:53)
Complete film (18:15)
Tales from the Shipyard