Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Shipbuilding by Gemma Starkey and Poppy Simpson
Introduction Shipbuilding on Film Seawards... The Making of Launch    
Shipbuilding on Film
Still from Launch

Launch (1974)

Even today, looking back at filmed launches dating from as early as 1898, it's hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale and beauty of the ships as they plunge into the water, dwarfing the crowds of onlookers. As BFI curator Bryony Dixon observes in her article, 'Shipbuilding on Film - The Early Years', "a launch event was peculiarly suited to early film." Limited by technology and film stock, the early silent films are short and consist of no more than a few shots, yet they still manage to convey the key details of a launch - the large crowds, dignitaries, and the spectacle a huge vessel crashing headlong into the sea.

The increase in demand for ships during both World Wars (although there was a significant slump during the interwar years) coincided with a growing interest in witnessing these spectacular events. Meanwhile, camera technology also improved, meaning that shipyard films became more sophisticated both in content and in purpose. Royal visits were documented by newsreel companies in attempts to boost flagging morale, while films focusing on the workers' craft and the processes of building ships often relayed a clear patriotic message.

After 1945, cracks in the industry that had been masked by the demands of a military age became visible, especially since Japan and Germany used the postwar years - when both were forbidden from re-arming - to rebuild and improve their shipyards, raising the stakes in the contest for export orders. Titles from this era are characterised by their upbeat tone, intended to promote Britain's industrial skill both at home and abroad. Films such as Berth 24 (1950), Seawards the Great Ships (1960) and the P&O sponsored A Great Ship (1962) eloquently illustrate the operations of a shipyard while hymning its achievements.

However, while these films uphold a documentary tradition of championing Britain as the workshop of the world, those from the late 1960s and 70s suggest that this self-image no longer applied. Sean Connery's The Bowler and the Bunnet (1967) explores the tensions between management and trade unions, while campaign film UCS 1 (1971) highlights the dispute between workers and the state, charting the occupation of a shipyard by its employees. Amber Films' poetically shot Launch (1974) is less explicitly political, especially since it lacks any commentary, but it does hint at labour / management divisions, and at the contrast between those who built the ship and those who will sail in it.

Almost 40 years on, following severe decline in the British shipbuilding industry, these films are significant not only because they are products of an important period in the history of a great industry, but also because they help us understand what has been lost.

Next Page >