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Journey into History (1952)


Main image of Journey into History (1952)
35mm, Technicolor, 10 mins
DirectorsAlexander Shaw
 John Taylor
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
ProducerEdgar Anstey
Words Arranged byMontagu Slater
PhotographyRonald Craigen
MusicSir Arnold Bax

The world of 18th century England, as seen through visits to art galleries, museums and old houses in and around London.

Show full synopsis

This is a relatively early example of the way that British Transport Films would often interpret its "transport" brief very broadly - here, the principal journey being depicted is one through time.

Eighteenth-century London is vividly evoked through rostrum shots of William Hogarth's paintings, accompanied by Sir Arnold Bax's jaunty score. The participation of Bax, then one of Britain's leading composers (the credits trumpet his stature as the Master of the King's Music), illustrates British Transport Films head Edgar Anstey's determination to work with the best people available - as also demonstrated by the involvement of unidentified members of the Old Vic theatre company in reading extracts from Dr Samuel Johnson's works and, later, a duchess's correspondence, explorers' diaries (including Captain Cook's), printed advertisements and similarly colourful epoch-evoking material.

This initial chaos is contrasted with the elegance of Thomas Gainsborough's paintings, and Robert Adam's meticulously symmetrical architecture, decked out in gold leaf and statues, as seen in Syon House, Isleworth. Porcelain figurines (sourced from the Wernher Collection at Luton Hoo) rotate as if dancing, and close-ups of various limbs mimic the treatment of the Hogarth paintings, only here the intended effect is poise and refinement.

The film's third section depicts the achievements of eighteenth-century explorers through maps of the period and paintings of the places to which Captain Cook and his colleagues travelled, intercut with sextants, compasses and other contemporary navigation aids, all sourced from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

And then it's a return to Hogarth, though here the focus is on his models' physiognomies, allegedly little changed from those of present-day Londoners. These are contrasted with the far more diverse sculptures of assorted races and cultures held by the British Museum, which bookend the film.

The final title emphasises the film's primary purpose: it lists the eight locations of the paintings, sculptures, figurines and architecture "where the producers found their material and where the public may do the same". While one might have expected Bax's score to continue through to the end of the film, in the closing seconds it's briefly replaced with an audio montage of bus and train sounds, presumably intended to trigger a Pavlovian reaction in the viewer.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'The Art of Travel'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (10:31)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
British Transport Films