Guest post: Malta film nostalgia

1926’s Sons of the Sea

Guest post by Jean Pierre Borg, film researcher and the brains behind the Filmed In Malta Facebook community


Who would have thought that Malta’s film industry was actually launched thanks to the British Admiralty back in 1926?For decades, it was thought that the earliest feature film to be shot in Malta was the 1931 war film Tell England. Following the discovery that Bolibar, a 1927 silent film by the same production company, had also been filmed on our shores, I decided to carry out in-depth research on this particular film company. My research led to the discovery of two earlier productions which had also been filmed in Malta – the 1927 Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and Sons of the Sea, filmed in 1925 and released in 1926.

The March 6 edition of The Daily Malta Chronicle of 1925 reported that the British Admiralty had granted permission for the filming of a fiction film aboard the Mediterranean Fleet, and in particular aboard HMS Malaya. The article highlighted the fact that this was a first for the Admiralty which had a long history of professed distaste for film. Over the years, however, the potential for propaganda offered by the medium became evident and this strict position had relented. Nevertheless, all the other films which the Admiralty had co-operated on were documentaries or re-enactment films thus making Sons of the Sea the first purely fiction film made with full Admiralty support.

The company behind Sons of the Sea was British Instructional Films (BIF), a company founded by Harry Bruce Woolfe in 1919. Starting off with a meagre capital of £3,000, the innovative film-maker Woolfe quickly propelled BIF to become Britain’s foremost producer of, amongst others, military re-enactment films. When in 1923 the Admiralty was seeking a film company to document the empire cruise of the Special Service Squadron, no tenders were submitted, and it was only after a last-minute appeal that BIF accepted the contract. The resulting film, Britain’s Birthright, proved to be a commercial failure, but by producing it the company won the Admiralty’s gratitude and may have spurred the Admiralty to allow the filming aboard its fleet, a privilege, which did not come without a fair share of strict conditions.

The author of the screenplay was Commander Taprell Dorling, a very prolific author of naval-centric novels who often also wrote under the pseudonym Taffrail. The storyline was developed around a romantic plot so as to make the film appealing to the general public. However, in order to promote the work of the navy, all sorts of naval scenes from air attack to big gun practice were to be included in the film. Before a second of film was even produced, every line of the script was read and discussed by the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty.

In a letter sent by Woolfe from Malta while directing the film in March 1925, he mentioned scenes taken of salvos of eight fifteen-inch guns fired together on HMS Malaya, of gun crews in the turrets, wonderful views of a torpedo attack launched from airplanes, and cameras being mounted both on an airplane as well as on an observing ship. Enthusiastically, he pointed out that such a thing had never been filmed before and that there was no certainty that these scenes would be allowed in the film intended for the public. Indeed, every foot of film shot was scrutinized by the Admiralty and a number of scenes likely to give away sensitive information were deleted.

One further limitation imposed by the Admiralty on the film producers was that professional actresses were not to be allowed aboard warships. Lead male roles were played by naval officers while the daughter of a General took on the part of the heroine and adopted the screen name of Dorothy Barclay to further preserve a degree of anonymity.

According to the official press kit, the film follows the careers of two young men, Derek who enrolls as a Navy officer and Bill who trains to become a seaman. Diana, is smitten by Derek but when WWI breaks out, Derek is sent to fight in the Battle of Jutland while Diana joins up as a nurse and is sent to Malta. Having distinguished himself, Derek is given the command of the destroyer on which Bill is posted.

Shortly after the Armistice, Derek’s destroyer is sent to the Mediterranean where a chance meeting brings the two lovers together. However, the joy is short lived as Derek’s ship is under orders to sail at once. Diana seeks distraction by exploring a nearby island and has the misfortune to be kidnapped by a roving band of brigands who demand a ransom.

Derek’s ship is ordered to the rescue. Led by Derek, the blue-jackets rapidly come upon the brigands and after an exciting struggle in which Bill displays much bravery, Derek gallantly rescues the girl from her perilous plight.

Leading journals of the time unanimously agreed that the intimate glimpses of British naval life ashore and afloat were outstanding features in this unique film. While the extremely vivid and varied scenes of the Navy were praised, the storyline was puerile when compared to the superior scenes of cadets in training at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, the glimpses of torpedoes and mines stored at Portsmouth, the flashes of Greenwich, Malta and Shotley and the numerous superb pictures of HMS Queen Elizabeth and other warships at sea and in action. Some attributed the poor storyline to the very severe restrictions imposed by the Admiralty, where for instance, none of the actors were professional.

The only known but incomplete copy of the film is stored in the National Archive at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London. Only four out of the original six reels survive today, but with over 85 per cent of silent era films considered lost, we can actually be thankful that at least we still have something! The first two reels contain the scenes of Derek’s and Bill’s training and also introduce us to Diana. It can be assumed that the two middle missing reels contained the bulk of naval scenes including the Battle of Jutland as well as Diana’s stay at Malta, while the final two reels have the heroine being kidnapped by the brigands and eventually rescued by her heart-throb.

Unless the two missing reels are recovered, it will remain a mystery if any Maltese locations were actually used for the scenes of Diana serving as a nurse in Malta. Film enthusiasts, who enjoy seeing Malta used as a film location, will be pleased to know however that the last two reels were completely shot on land and sea in the Għajn Tuffieħa and Ġnejna area. Malta, in this segment, is used to stand in for an unnamed island in the Eastern Mediterranean. Il-Qarraba is clearly visible a number of times and most of the action surrounding the kidnap and eventual rescue of Diana from the brigands takes place in the area known as il-Minżel tal-Majjiesa. While no specific reference to Maltese people being involved in this production has ever been encountered, one particular article referred to the “Maltese brigands” which leads one to wonder whether the people playing the part were actually Maltese extras.

While this film per se is frankly nothing out of the ordinary, it still carries with it the distinction of being the first feature film shot on our shores and the first fiction film to boast Admiralty support. For that alone, one cannot but hope that someday, though incomplete, it is restored and made more accessible.

For more information about the past and present filming industry in Malta, visit the Filmed In Malta Facebook community page.

This post was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta). Check out the next issue on Saturday for another instalment from the Filmed In Malta series.