Steel: the spectacle of revisionism

Time for the fireworks! Curator Patrick Russell explains why the 1945 film Steel is a landmark in the British documentary tradition.

Patrick Russell

Steel (1945)

Steel (1945)

Believe it or not, non-fiction wasn’t always cool. Documentary heritage was the giant slumbering in the vaults: colossal, forbidding, largely unloved, underused (except as stock footage), even scorned. Archives were sometimes sincerely asked: why bother keeping this stuff?

Not recently. Britain’s played a hefty role in modern global rediscovery of those older films most precisely anticipating today’s media revolution: film for documentation, information, persuasion and, sure, for fun too.

Within this mission, This Working Life has been doubly productive. By shining light on industrial history, it illuminates forgotten truths about filmmaking. Our Steel project fittingly concludes the trilogy. After monumental, monochrome coalmining and shipbuilding, it’s time for the firework display! Our most cinematic industry emblazons the revisionist truth: standard documentary histories were at best incomplete.

The revisionism converges on Steel, a 1945 film by Ronald Riley at Technique Film Productions. The project’s team decided early on that this had to be its centrepiece, being endlessly watchable. Having viewed and thought about it repeatedly, I’ve concluded it’s more than just a corker. I submit that it’s Exhibit A: the very quintessence of its cinematic tradition. At mid-century it distils decades of industrial cinema preceding it, sets the template for documentary-making that followed, and demolishes historical misunderstandings of both.

Steel (1945)

Steel (1945)

Steel firstly puts the documentary movement in its place: rightly revered but not the only game in town. Riley’s film is as good as anything the movement ever made  – equalling Coal Face (1935), Shipyard (1935) and Listen to Britain (1942); topping Drifters (1929) and Night Mail (1936). But it had little directly to do with it. If it had, it might not have been neglected so long. Technique operated from Merton Park, far from movement members’ Soho stomping grounds. Riley, who had scant contact with them, shares their zeal for using cinematic form (and institutional money) to spread knowledge. But how his field of filmmaking applied it, and to what, owes more to films made either before or outside the movement.

Workplace ‘process’ film dates to Edwardian times: a building block for all schools of documentary. This Working Life encompasses several examples from early days onwards. Steel’s closest 1930s predecessors are less the classic ‘movement’ films than Gaumont-British Instructional’s educational shorts (see the 1933 film Steel, and the structurally similar Coal, 1936); commercial industrial filmmaking (like Mastery of Steel, 1933, or the comparable Chains, 1939); and films (like British Steel, 1939) for the Travel and Industrial Development Association (TIDA).

Fair Oriana (1961)

Fair Oriana (1961)

‘Industrial process’ is a curiously addictive, enigmatic genre – earthily concrete yet oddly abstract. Riley’s Steel subverts none of its principles, instead takes them to new heights of epic simplicity. So its sensibility (unlike the equally terrific Coal Face and Shipyard) is classical rather than modernist. Every formal element is in harmonious balance. Consider Riley’s commentary. Composed and timed in flawless counterpoint to the incendiary images and vigorous score, it’s also richly informative: essential to its purpose and genre. And the paradox of classicism is its knack for generating emotional power from ostensibly emotionless subjects and style: Steel is nothing if not stirring.

Technique Films were here sponsored by the British Council (part-successor to TIDA and frequent employer of ‘non-movement’ filmmakers). But many steel companies enthusiastically participated. I’ll bet that was partly because they thought the film might help maintain the management status quo. It’s an essentially apolitical work but, if anything, more conservative (‘one nation’ variety) than radical.

Weld the aesthetics and economics and you’ve got the basis for mainstream postwar documentary. Riley himself briefly became the go-to-guy for steel films. The Steel DVD includes two other items credited to him, plus a Conservative Party film, Common Sense about Steel (1948), which borrows footage from another Technique film that Riley produced. No auteur, though, he settled into his producer role at Technique, part of the Film Producers Guild, Britain’s biggest single player in postwar sponsored films.

Common Sense about Steel (1948)

Common Sense about Steel (1948)

The documentary movement itself was eventually completely integrated into this new consensus era in filmmaking. Their radical, modernist leanings now limited to occasional sparks and shards, their artistic skills benefited postwar documentary enormously. Stylistically, this ‘consensus’ had real range: from stately documentary (Fair Oriana, 1961), via stylish animation (River of Steel, 1951), to borderline lunacy (Men of Consett, 1959).

I could devote an entire essay to contrasting Paul Dickson’s Stone into Steel (1961) and Riley’s Steel. Using very similar raw material, Riley perfects genre conventions while Dickson pushes them close to art cinema. Decide for yourself which works better. Either way, they’re masterclasses in 35mm camerawork: best on the big screen.

But if you seek the return of repressed radicalism, refreshed by new 16mm equipment, I refer you to Philip Donnellan’s Men of Corby (1961): as good as the above but utterly different. Here we encounter the emerging television documentary – and that’s another story.

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