Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Red Ensign (1934)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Red Ensign (1934)
DirectorMichael Powell
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
ProducerJerome Jackson
StoryMichael Powell
 Jerome Jackson
PhotographyLeslie Rowson

Cast: Leslie Banks (David Barr); Carol Goodner (June MacKinnon); Alfred Drayton (Manning); Frank Vosper (Lord Dean); Campbell Gullan (Hannay)

Show full cast and credits

An ambitious shipbuilder has a bold plan to revive the British shipping industry. But he is frustrated when his colleagues refuse to share his vision.

Show full synopsis

In his twelfth film in four years, Michael Powell directed his own story of an ambitious shipbuilder, David Barr (Leslie Banks), and his attempt to turn around the fortunes of the British shipping industry during the depression of the 1930s. Visionary and uncompromising - and not afraid to break the rules - Barr can be seen as the first of a number of Powell's screen alter-egos, who would include Eric Portman's Colpeper in A Canterbury Tale (1944) and Roger Livesey's Dr Reeves in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and culminate in his own appearance in Peeping Tom (1960). Like Colpeper, Barr is a morally complex hero, who is prepared to commit fraud in order to overcome the opposition of his narrow-minded colleagues.

With a campaigning tone which would become familiar in his wartime dramas such as 49th Parallel (1941) and "One of Our Aircraft is Missing!" (1942), Red Ensign (1934) was one of the director's favourites of his early works. The film's attitude to labour relations - a trade union activist is exposed as a plant representing an unscrupulous rival, and the workers are expected to go without pay for the good of the company - adds some weight to critic Raymond Durgnat's claim that Powell represented 'high Tory' values. At the same time, the film draws on the work of the Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein in its romanticism of industry.

Made for Gaumont-British as a 'quota quickie', the film has been read as a plea for intervention to develop the British film industry, as well as a kind of manifesto for Powell's kind of cinema, challenging the emerging documentary movement - the film even includes a character called Grierson, in a nod to John Grierson, one of the most prominent British documentarists. As Powell himself put it,

"It was the first time that Michael Powell himself realised that there was something special about a Michael Powell film, something going on on the screen, or behind the screen, which you couldn't put your finger on, something intriguing, aloof, but in the long run memorable."

Mark Duguid

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The wheels of industry (4:44)
2. The workers grow restless (6:37)
3. Industrial sabotage (2:59)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Something Always Happens (1934)
Banks, Leslie (1890-1952)
Calthrop, Donald (1888-1940)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Early Michael Powell
Tales from the Shipyard