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San Demetrio London (1943)


Main image of San Demetrio London (1943)
Directed byCharles Frend
Production CompanyEaling Studios
Produced byMichael Balcon
Associate ProducerRobert Hamer
ScreenplayRobert Hamer
 Charles Frend
 F. Tennyson Jesse

Cast: Ralph Michael (2nd Officer Hawkins); Walter Fitzgerald (Chief Engineer Charles Pollard); Frederick Piper (Boatswain W.E. Fletcher); Mervyn Johns (Greaser John Boyle); Gordon Jackson (Messboy John Jamieson); Robert Beatty ('Yank' Preston)

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When the oil tanker San Demetrio is hit by enemy fire, the crew abandon ship. But after several days adrift in a lifeboat, some of the crew find the ship miraculously still afloat. With courage and determination they steer the tanker home.

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In a 1943 lecture, Ealing studio head Michael Balcon described cinema's battle between realism and escapism, or 'tinsel', as he disparagingly called it. Influenced by the arrival of former documentarists Alberto Cavalcanti and Harry Watt, Ealing had set the standard for realist propaganda with films such as The Next of Kin (d. Thorold Dickinson, 1942), Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? and Watt's Nine Men (both 1943). The studio's next film, San Demetrio London, would, said Balcon, be "the best example of the final departure from tinsel which the film industry can make without any misgivings on the part of the shareholders."

The film was based upon real events - the San Demetrio was an oil tanker half destroyed by U-boats in the Atlantic; against the odds, her crew doggedly steered the crippled vessel back to England, with most of its load intact. It was a resonant story, emphasising noble British qualities of courage, stoicism and resilience. On one level, the ship and her crew could be seen to represent Britain - besieged, damaged, but refusing to accept defeat.

As in Nine Men, the senior officers are got out of the way early on - picked up on the first two lifeboats after the San Demetrio is initially abandoned - leaving the men in the third lifeboat under the command of 2nd Officer Hawkins (Ralph Michael) and the resourceful Chief Engineer (Walter Fitzgerald). The style of leadership adopted by Hawkins is rather different from the typical military command. The officers do their share of the hard work, and key decisions - whether to reboard the stricken San Demetrio, whether to head for home or back to safer US waters - are put to the vote. As in much of Ealing's wartime output, the film carries an implicit message about the kind of political leadership the British expected and deserved after the war ended: more consensual and democratic, abandoning the class deference of the past.

Credited to Charles Frend, the direction was completed by Robert Hamer - his directorial debut - when Frend fell ill; Hamer, however, is credited only as Associate Producer and co-writer of the screenplay.

San Demetrio London would represent the high-water mark for Ealing's wartime realist programme; the studio's next release, the allegoric fantasy Halfway House (d. Basil Dearden, 1944), was some distance from the studio's spate of documentary-style propaganda films.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. The officers (1:33)
2. British and US beer (3:14)
3. Get her moving (1:30)
Original Posters
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Topical Buget 937-2: Blazing Ship's Plight (1929)
Banes, Lionel (1904-1996)
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
Hamer, Robert (1911-63)
Jackson, Gordon (1923-1990)
Johns, Mervyn (1899-1992)
Letts, Barry (1925-2009)
Ealing at War
Social Realism