The Engineer in British Cinema
|Clifford Evans in The Foreman Went to France|
Despite how we now view engineers, there was a time that they were central figures in the development of British industry and society. They gave us steam pumps, railways, bridges and iron-clad warships. Think Brunel, Stephenson, Watt, Newcomen or Trevithick: these were all engineers and pioneers of the industrial age. Or Atkinson and Butler, two often-overlooked Britons who made vital contributions to the development of the internal combustion engine. These days our most famous engineer is James Dyson, a man best-known for vacuum cleaners.
An early example of the engineer-hero appears in the 1931 thriller A Honeymoon Adventure. Peter Martin (Peter Hadden) is not the archetype (although he does wear a nice suit) ...
The genesis of the hero-engineer owes much to the political developments of the times. Whilst the famed engineers of the industrial revolution were also business men, many of those who followed were working men: the hard-working and practical elite of the British working class. From shipyard to engine works, engineers were a leading force for political change and the progressive media of the 1930s helped project the image of how engineering could build a better future for mankind. Throw in a healthy dollop of socialist thought, mix with the need for wartime propaganda to promote industry, and the engineer became a leading on-screen proponent of social change through industrial advancement.
These scenes convince her to view industry as a force for good. As she admits: “I’ve always thought of it as a sort of pit where lost creatures with blackened faces stirred up smoking fires and were driven and tormented by my father … It was really all the human souls to be saved, not weak souls in starved bodies, sobbing with gratitude for a bit of bread and scrape, but souls that are hungry because their bodies are full”
|Rex Harrison, Rober Newton & Wendy Hiller|
Carrick is young and dashing, in contrast to the factory owners who initially refuse him permission to go to France:
|Clifford Evans (left)|
|Clifford Evans & Constance Cummings|
|Gordon Jackson working in the galley|
|Gordon Jackson & Mervyn Johns, as Jackson's character is shown the workings of the engine room.|
|Ralph Michael & Walter Fitzgerald|
The ship and its crew are saved through the endeavour of the chief engineer.
Another depiction of a seagoing wartime hero comes from The Cruel Sea in which Liam Redmond's 'Chief Engine Room Artificer' Watts saves the day when HMS Compass Rose is stranded in the Mediterranean. Whilst the rest of the crew frets as they await a seemingly inevitable attack by U-Boats, he works tirelessly to repair the engines. He's the man who knows his fate will be sealed if the ship sinks, and he will be trapped below decks, but his courage and commitment never waver as he saves the day.
|Liam Remond (centre) and Denholm Elliott (top right)|
... is used on the yard’s latest ship. When a storm threatens to damage the ship, it is Jackson’s character that jumps into the freezing waters of the Clyde to secure the ship and save the day.
|Gordon Jackson (centre) with Jimmy Logan (left) and Janet Brown (second left)|
|Simone Signoret & Gordon Jackson|
|John Longden (right)|
|Michael Redgrave as Sir Barnes Wallis|
For other engineers, the role was that of an orator, their courage shown in the rhetoric, their defiance and their willingness to challenge the status quo. The 1943 film The Lamp Still Burns, a story of a young woman, Hilary Clarke (Rosamund Johns), who gives up a successful career to retrain as a nurse, is an unlikely place to find such a character. Even more unlikely is that he is played by Stewart Granger, an actor more famed for swashbuckling heroes rather than hard-working engineers. His character, Laurence Rains, is the manager of an engineering works, the exterior of which exhibits the clean lines of modern industrial architecture.
|Margaret Vyner & Stewart Granger|
Granger’s character reveals his forward thinking beliefs when his company makes a donation to the hospital where Hilary is training. He attends a meeting where she is being disciplined for defying hospital rules. She wants reforms, believing that nurses should be allowed to marry and have families without having to sacrifice their careers. She finds an unlikely supporter in the form of Rains (who is, of course, in love with her). He tells the committee they need to make a stand and enter the modern world: “It’s not difficult at all. It’s up to you to do something about it. Or are you going to sit there smugly, all knowing things are wrong and passing the buck onto somebody else. It seems to me high time the public ought to force the government to make the necessary reforms and find the money to do it. It’s up to us to start it going.”
|Rosamund Johns & Stewart Granger|
A similar message to The Lamp Still Burns is delivered in the 1943 film Millions Like Us. It tells the story of a young woman Celia Crowson (Patricia Roc) who finds herself working in an armaments factory. When she is first conscripted she dreams of serving in the Army, RAF, Royal Navy, Land Army, or working as a nurse:
|Eric Portman (left) & Anne Crawford (second left)|
|Eric Portman & Anne Crawford|
|Eric Portman & Anne Crawford|
|Eric Portman & Anne Crawford|
And, just as Cliff Evans in The Foreman Went to France or John Longden in The Silver Fleet are shown to be forward-thinking by their choice of fashionable clothing, Eric Portman also wears a stylish belt-back jacket:
|Bonar Colleano, Natasha Parry & Donald Houston|
|Diana Dors (left) and Petula Clark (right)|
He’s a working man of the post-war, forward looking, Attlee years. He doesn’t feel constrained by the old class boundaries, instead he’s of the generation that fought for freedom of others with the expectation that it would bring equality for his own class. Indeed, the working class boy progressing through life was an apt role for Houston: a native of Tonypandy in south Wales, he had briefly worked as a coal miner and had served as a rear gunner in the RAF before becoming an actor.
The on-screen efforts of wartime engineers were not that far removed from reality, as seen with both The Foreman Went to France and San Demetrio, London telling real-life stories. They were not alone in their efforts. One could point to the experiences of railway engineer and expert metallurgist John Bradley who was seconded to the Admiralty to work on submarine design. In the final weeks of the war Bradley was given an honorary commission in the Royal Navy and sent to Germany to join ‘T Force’, a secret British Army unit. The unit’s role was search for, and secure, German military research establishments, ensuring their secrets could be snatched for use in the UK. Bradley travelled around northern Germany in the company of Royal Marines officer Patrick Dalzel-Job, a man who was later revealed as the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. In the final days of the war Bradley took part in the British Army’s final advance, from Hamburg to Kiel, finding himself 60 miles beyond the frontline. In Kiel Bradley, along with other ‘specialists’, investigated secret German U-Boat research facilities, ensuring their secrets could be sent back to the UK rather than falling into the hands of enemies or competitors.
The story of Bradley and other engineers and scientists were sent to Germany in the final weeks of World War 2 is covered in the book T-Force, The Forgotten Heroes of 1945 by Sean Longden: