Passage Home (UK 1955)

Passage Home is another 1950s British film that is unjustly forgotten or under-rated and therefore a welcome addition to Talking Pictures TV’s acquisitions. This previous neglect is surprising because of the talent involved in both the cast and the production team. It’s a Roy Ward Baker-directed film about a merchant ship and its crew and joins Morning Departure (1950) and A Night to Remember (1958) as one of Baker’s great marine dramas.

William Fairchild’s script, an adaptation of a novel by Richard Armstrong, is told largely in flashback. The narrative opens with a presentation about to be made to a retiring captain of the Merchant Navy, ‘Lucky’ Ryland (Peter Finch). He is being presented with a painting of his first command, a freighter sailing from a South American port. The story of this voyage some 20 years or more ago (i.e. the early 1930s) forms the main part of the narrative.

The story elements are familiar. The British pro-consul in the port forces a passenger onto Ryland’s ship, a young British governess who has become homeless after the family she served has broken up. This is Ruth Elton (Diane Cilento in an early starring role). Ryland is a ‘driven man’ who pushes his crew hard and who skimps on supplies and takes risks. These include accepting as cargo a number of live cattle in pens below deck.

This would have been a prestige film for Group Productions at Pinewood, a major Rank production group. The great Geoffrey Unsworth was the cinematographer and the ship’s crew includes a top-billed Anthony Steel as the 2nd mate and virtually every well-known character actor and supporting player from British films of the time. I won’t list them all but Geoffrey Keen as the bosun, Cyril Cusack as the steward and Gordon Jackson as a deckhand chippy gives you a good idea. Other younger figures making early appearances include Michael Craig, Bryan Forbes and Patrick McGowan.

There is a clear generic reference back to wartime films, like San Demetrio, London (1943) in which a group of men from different backgrounds struggle to overcome dangerous conditions at sea, though in Passage Home the enemy is not U-boats but the captain’s recklessness and the fierce storm that engulfs them. This latter is represented through some excellent work in the tank which looked like hard work for Diane Cilento (or her stunt double) as she was tossed about the deck with waves crashing over before being rescued by Anthony Steel. I’m beginning to feel sorry for Anthony Steel (see Malta Story). Once again in these 1950s films, Steel ends up with the most stolid character in the film and Peter Finch, coming into his prime, gets the chance to grab the narrative.

Ruth (Diane Cilento) tends the sick bosun (Geoffrey Keen) with Bryan Forbes and Gordon Jackson (extreme right) as members of the crew

Watching a film like this now, again it makes me think about the rapid decline of British merchant shipping since the 1960s, but also about the lack of contemporary films dealing with similar plot-lines about men working together, men from different class backgrounds. I have seen recent French films about merchant shipping and now the crews are nearly always from Asia. Just as well, perhaps as it is difficult to see how a cast list like that of Passage Home could be put together with so few working-class British actors breaking into British cinema. I thought that Diane Cilento played the governess very well. With her hair tied up I didn’t recognise her at first. I was surprised to read that she was Australian (like Peter Finch). Both of them were convincing as British ‘types’. The relationship between the Captain and his passenger is important in developing the narrative. The old saying in both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy that a woman on board spelt trouble leads to some expected results, but didn’t dominate the narrative as I feared it might. I also read that Roy Baker thought that Geoffrey Unsworth was very good at photographing women and Cilento is certainly well presented in the film.

Talking Pictures TV broadcast the film in Academy ratio but IMDb suggests its ‘intended ratio’ was 1.65:1 (not 1.66!). It was quite common around this time to shoot in Academy and mask the image in projection, I think. However, I couldn’t see how that would have worked with the compositions in this film. Does anybody have information on this?

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