Prior to The Edge of the World (1937), Michael Powell was already mixing aspects of the documentary genre with fictional drama, and it's those striking visual elements captured from an actual shipyard that elevates this otherwise banal, nationalistic programmer formally meant to stir up sentiment for the British shipbuilding industry.
It's not a misguided or unwarranted theme to blazingly integrate in a drama, but aside from the docu-style footage of the gradual erection of a massive iron boat and glimpses of real workers pounding away at rivets, and riding sheets to the top of an emerging vessel, this is an extremely economical, stagy, and theatrically acted drama, with leading characters lacking any depth beyond a hard, determined shipbuilder, and the lone female investor willing to give him needed cash as an expression of faith, admiration, shared nationalistic fervor, and love. (Powell made three films in 1934, and seven in 1935, likely leaving little time to clean up and refine undercooked quota scripts.)
When the two characters of builder Barr (Leslie Banks, and his mighty curving eyebrows) and investor MacKinnon (underused Carol Goodner) eventually lock lips, it's fast, abrupt, and frankly befuddling, because neither character had eluded to any bubbling passion; the night after whoopee has the couple nattily attired & sipping port, and it's only through a phone conversation where the phrase “made love” is uttered by a clumsily devised rival, Lord Dean (Frank Vosper), that they're union is wholly confirmed.
In an equivalent American drama, those words would be verboten by the tight-cheeked Production Code, but the hint of, allusions to, and convergence of two characters in such a drama would've been handled far smoother; the reason it's so confusing in Ensign is because, aside from a passion for shipbuilding, any other human emotions between friends and/or lovers has been neutered, rendering Ensign quite sterile.
The film's real storyline deals with Barr's determination to risk everything in building a prototype ship that's sure to entice British buyers and not only keep the yard alive, but bring jobs back to workers long on the doll, their skills wasting away. His key nemesis is Manning (Alfred Drayton), a shipping magnate willing to buy the boat, but unwilling to keep the jobs in Britain; when Barr repeatedly refuses to accept Manning's buyout, the evil one uses spies to plant misinformation and stir up a mini-rebellion among Barr's loyal workers.
Long unavailable in North America, Ensign did enjoy a VHS PAL release in England, and was accompanied by some concise liner notes, paralleling Barr's please to the Board of Trade for some kind of quota system, to the very real problem of American films dominating British cinema screens and the eventual quota system originally devised to keep indigenous film production active, and give it some screen time.
Regardless of whether the scriptwriters or Powell's own editorial pen were intentionally preaching to the ship and film industries in tandem, the message is unmistakable, and alongside the documentary footage and montages, it's the most important element in this early Powell work that's still worth viewing, but is hardly the lost gem fans are hoping for.
This film is part of MPI's barebones Classic British Thrillers three-film omnibus, although beyond a minor explosive sequence, there's nothing thrilling nor classic in Red Ensign.
The transfer was made from a clean print, but the PAL to NTSC conversion is imbalanced, and motions are still too quick (noticeable in any panning shot). The audio mix is fairly clean, and music only appears over the opening and closing titles, leaving a lot of talk and some brief sound montages to fill in the boredom.
MPI's DVD, apparently using licensed Granada masters, also includes Powell's The Phantom Light (1935), and Lawrence Huntington's Upturned Glass (1947).
Leslie Banks' other turn for Powell and Pressburger is 1949's The Small Back Room.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan