The Short View: The Iron Village (1973) – A Lost Naval Documentary Comes To The Surface

Synopsis:
The Iron Village takes a short look at the lives and work of the thousands of men serving aboard the British aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal.

Running Time:
34 minutes

Directed by: 
Richard Marquand

the iron village poster


Despite most of his fame being derived from his work on Return of the Jedi, director Richard Marquand had a decent career in the U.K., building up a significant body of work in television. There’s no doubt that the reason he was picked for this project was due to the multiple TV documentaries he made for the BBC.

Alas, like a great many short films, The Iron Village faded into history. Originally thought to be a “Lost Film”, a 35mm print was recently discovered by Steve McAndrew, who set about transferring the film to a digital format, supported by Station House Films. (Full Disclosure: I contributed to a Kickstarter to raise funds for the transfer.) While no cleaning up or restoration has taken place, the film still remains an engaging look at the historical capability of the British Navy.

Running just over 30 minutes, The Iron Village is a most apt title for such a documentary. Being the largest ship in the Royal Navy (at the time), the HMS Ark Royal has 2,700 men serving on board. Easily comparable to an actual real-life village. And along with such a large population comes the need to keep them fed and watered. It’s not too surprising that in itself is a herculean task. Indeed, the film reveals that such a ship needed 100 tons of supplies and 6,000 tons of fuel every week!

the iron village refuel
HMS Ark Royal being refuelled and resupplied

But the scale of the resources is only matched by the grandeur of the film-making. I can only imagine this film was originally made as a semi-puff piece for the Navy due to the insane number of aerial shots and truly expensive tracking sequences. Ever wanted to see a 44 second long helicopter panning shot around 4 warships? Or a camera inside a fighter jet zooming past a warship as it makes a death-defying landing on the Ark Royal? How on earth they did this in 1973, a time when cameras were still the size of a small child, I will never know.

However, one aspect that I truly wish the film had gone into more detail was the laundry and shoe repair sections. Specifically because, unlike anywhere else on the ship, this department seems to have been run entirely by far Eastern Asians. (Though I did manage to find out more information about them here.)

the iron village wash

In the film’s defence though, it doesn’t go into significant details about any aspect of the ship and neither are there any “personal” stories brought to the fore. While there are plenty of faceless voiceovers, there is no real attempt to bring a sense of individualism to the proceedings. In 34 minutes I don’t think we hear even a single name of anybody serving on board. This is very much a documentary about the Royal Navy as a whole, not its people.

Despite the lack of personality, the film does give short glimpses of the camaraderie that would have arisen from such tight quarters. A few moments prayer in the ship’s chapel, the ship’s chaplain chatting away with the ship’s barber, and even a few beers and games of darts in the ship’s bar.

Overall, The Iron Village may not be the most personal or ground-breaking of documentaries, but it’s still wonderful that a little piece of British film and naval history has been protected for future generations.


All images screenshots / © 1973 Universal Pictures Limited. All Right Reserved.

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