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San Demetrio London (Ealing 1943, Robert Beatty, Mervyn Johns)

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San Demetrio London (1943)

San Demetrio London is a highly regarded Ealing Second World War drama praising the never-say-die spirit of the Allied everyman. Based on a real event, this stirring adaptation of F Tennyson Jesse’s official account tells of how a group of lowly Merchant Navy sailors saved the San Demetrio oil tanker after it was almost destroyed by an enemy vessel.

The crew must abandon ship after being hit during an Atlantic convoy mission, and are forced to seek refuge in three lifeboats. Two of the boats are saved, but after 48 hours of drifting, the survivors in the third decide to return to the San Demetrio. The ship is still burning, but they manage to put out the flames, salvaging some of the invaluable cargo, and set about repairing the damaged engine room. Team-work, good humour and determination win through, and eventually they manage to make their way back to Greenock, on the Clyde (some 900 miles away) for a triumphant homecoming.

Producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend (who also co-wrote with Robert Hamer) chose not to use stars in the film, thus emphasising what Variety described as ‘the genuineness of the personalities concerned in the unfolding of a gripping drama.’ The collection of bit-part players helps to convey the film’s theme of collective responsibility and unsung heroism – qualities that, it was hoped, would win the war.

Indeed, one of the defining features of the picture, and an important reason why it achieved so much success on release, is its celebration of the sense, courage and unquestioning loyalty of the lowest ranks of Britain’s forces. The men who brave the burning tanker and bring it home are a multi-national bunch of apprentices, engineers and deckhands who take decisions democratically. The subtext seems to be that it is precisely because there are no senior officers to mess things up that the motley crew achieves this miraculous feat.

production details
UK / Ealing / 104 minutes / 1943

Director:Charles Frend
Writers:Charles Frend, Robert Hamer,

cast
Robert Beatty as ‘Yank’ Preston – M.V. San Demetrio
Mervyn Johns as Greaser John Boyle – M.V. San Demetrio
Gordon Jackson as Messboy John Jamieson – M.V. San Demetrio
James Donald as Gunnery Officer – H.M.S. Jervis Bay
Ralph Michael as 2nd. Officer Hawkins – M.V. San Demetrio
Walter Fitzgerald as Chief Engineer Charles Pollard – M.V. San Demetrio
Frederick Piper as Boatswain W.E. Fletcher – M.V. San Demetrio
Neville Mapp as 3rd. Engineer Willey – M.V. San Demetrio
Barry Letts as Apprentice John Jones – M.V. San Demetrio
Michael Allen as Cadet Roy Housden – M.V. San Demetrio
Nigel Clarke as R.J.E Dodds – Shipping Manager
Arthur Young as Captain George Waite – M.V. San Demetrio

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