1 October 2001 | rsoonsa
A rousing tale of the years when steam replaced sail upon the oceans.
The action begins in 1837 when steamships were new and seemed to have little chance of supplanting sailing vessels upon the seas, until England's Charles and David MacIver attempted to develop the new underdog invention for commercial use. The sailing ships were seen as "coffins" with their owners emphasizing the importance of capital profit rather than passenger safety and this film is based upon the real life efforts conducted by David. Scripted by his descendants, Derek and Wynne MacIver, the work demonstrates the increased safety value of the steamships for passengers, although MacIver was considered reckless beyond redemption. When the fictional pair's first efforts prove to be akin to farce, Charles, portrayed with panache by Michael Redgrave, refuses to concede defeat, and presses on, despite a lack of funding or general support, in an attempt to prove that the view of his stodgy rivals is erroneous. His brother David (Griffith Jones), however, rejects the eternal freshness in the attitude of Charles, as depicted by Redgrave, and decides to withdraw his underpinning, leading to a coolness between the two. Charles eventually obtains financial backing and is bound to prove to all that the improvement in safety, coupled with increased reliability of the new breed of craft, will prove profitable to all concerned. To establish his credentials within the shipping industry, Charles will have to develop regular steamship travel between Great Britain and the United States, and he sets out to do so. By journeying upon a typical sailing craft, Charles is exposed to and experiences the common dismal and dangerous conditions for passengers, which serves to enforce his faith in steam power as an improved alternative. Woven with all of this is a contest betwixt the smitten brothers for the heart of beautiful Valerie Hobson, who plays well as the daughter of a potential sponsor, and there are fine acting turns by others in the splendid cast, including Henry Oscar, Margaretta Scott and Felix Aylmer. Director Walter Forde leads the players crisply through the always interesting and well-written scenario, and he and editor Terence Fisher, of later Hammer Films renown, unite in generating the film's most dramatic set of sequences, an expansive competition faced by a quick sailing ship and one utilizing steam. Although there are two brief moments of propagandistic moralizing (the work was released in 1941 when Britain was forcefully urging the U.S. to enter the war in Europe), this remains outstanding historic cinema, a good tale, well told.