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Seawards the Great Ships (1960)

Courtesy of Scottish Screen Archive

Main image of Seawards the Great Ships (1960)
35mm film, 29 mins, colour
DirectorHilary Harris
SponsorsFilms of Scotland
 Clyde Shipbuilders' Association
Production CompanyTemplar Film Studios
Treatment John Grierson
Scottish Screen Archive collection

The process of creating a ship, from the original design and testing stages to fabrication and launch. Scenes in the drawing offices, steel mills and shipyards depict how the ships were constructed, launched and fitted out before starting out on voyages around the world.

Show full synopsis

Seawards the Great Ships (1960) was the first Scottish made film to win an Oscar, for best Live Action Short Film of 1961. The film paid tribute to the internationally recognised achievements of Clyde shipbuilding. It was released at the beginning of a decade that was to see the River Clyde's long established predominance in world shipping slip into financial decline and human disillusionment - a decade that was to end with government rescue packages and the emotive years of the UCS 'work-in' - a workers' occupation of the yards in the fight to prevent their closure.

This glorious swansong of shipbuilding on the Clyde could be said to epitomise documentary film craft in Scotland. The treatment was written by John Grierson, Scots pioneer of the documentary film, produced by Glasgow's Templar Films, and directed by young American Hilary Harris. It took two years to make, filming every launch from the 23 yards then on the Clyde and involving every cameraman in Glasgow at the time. The story of the production of the film and of its funding chronicles a fascinating period in the development of an indigenous film production industry in Scotland.

Seawards was premiered in Glasgow on 1st May 1960, distributed commercially with Tunes of Glory (1960) and overseas through the British Council. The commentary was dubbed into twelve languages. The original delivery of the narrative was in the native Scottish cadences of actor Bryden Murdoch. Previewed by the Central Office of Information, this delivery was deemed unsuitable for audiences outside Scotland and, unbeknownst to the production company, the COI had the commentary re-dubbed by a BBC London announcer, in tones supposedly easier on non-Scots ears. It is possibly this version that was submitted to the Oscar jury.

The story of Seawards incorporates the history of the Clyde as the world's shipyard, of a developing Scottish film culture and the birth of a fledgling industry. One of the stipulations placed on funding by the Clyde Shipbuilders Association was that it should be a tribute to Clyde shipbuilding as a whole, and not single out any one yard. That it still has a resonance today is a tribute to the craft of the filmmaker and to Scots' appetite for their own history.

Janet McBain

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

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Launch montage (1:18)
2. Superhuman tailoring (4:44)
3. A great thundering symphony (3:39)
Complete film (28:16)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
King Edward VII Launches H.M.S. Dreadnought (1906)
Mining Review 2/3: Shipyard for Colliers (1948)
Tales from the Shipyard