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Men Against Death (1933)

National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales collection

Main image of Men Against Death (1933)
35mm film, black & white [only 6 mins of original 2-reel film survives]
DirectorC.H. Dand
ProducerC.H. Dand
Assistant DirectorWalter J. Moss
PhotographyJames G Burger

Slate quarrymen face daily perils at Dorothea Quarry near Tal-y-sarn in the Nantlle valley, north Wales.

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Only the first part of this two-reel film seems to have survived. Men Against Death (d. C.H. Dand, 1933) had been assumed lost in its entirety until the opening reel was discovered in 2000. The material fills a gap in representation, since precious little north Wales industrial footage from this period is held in archives.

The film features quarrymen actually employed at Dorothea Quarry at the time of filming, some of whom have been identified and their recollections of the filming noted. Subtitled 'a story of peril in our time', it was one of the first works in British cinema to make the dangers of the working man's life virtually the raison-d'ĂȘtre of a film, albeit within a flimsy narrative. The film's (missing) climax - the quarry catastrophe - is believed to have been prompted by an actual 19th century disaster at Dorothea.

Director C.H. Dand was better known as a publicist and scenario writer who worked at the (now defunct) Wembley Studios during the days when Associated Sound Film Industries (ASFI) were working on a new sound system.

Men Against Death is believed to be the first sound drama made and set in Wales. (The 1932 American sound comedy feature The Old Dark House, starring Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton, was set in Wales but shot in Hollywood.) In 1935, two years after the release of Men Against Death, the first Welsh language sound drama, Y Chwarelwr (The Quarryman), was made in Blaenau Ffestiniog by Ifan ab Owen Edwards, founder of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (The Welsh League of Youth).

Premiered at the Plaza cinema in Pen-y-groes, north Wales, the film gained a few screenings on the Gaumont-British circuit but was handicapped by its 'E' rating, which meant that it was ineligible for British quota and thus ignored by many cinema managers, obliged to show a certain percentage of British film annually.

Contemporary reviewers writing in Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin were less than impressed by the film's rockfall finale (in the part of the film now missing). One reviewer said that Dand would have done better to concentrate on filming actual daily tasks at the quarry, rather than injecting drama which effectively failed to convince. A review by Rachael Low (The History of British Film 1929-1939) cites the "serious anticlimax when the crag whose threatened collapse was the crux of the story did not, in fact, fall."

Iola Baines

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Video Clips
Surviving extract (6:10)