This film is held by the BFI (ID: 246703).


Construction of a harbour capable of berthing 32.000 tons tankers to serve the B .P. oil refinery at Little Aden. Work includes reclaiming 250 acres from the se a and building breakwater and jetties. Quarrying, transporting and depositing rock, dredging, etc.



The Iranian government’s determined nationalisation, in March 1951, of the Abadan refinery hitherto owned and operated by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was a pivotal event both in the company’s own history and for British foreign and economic policy of the early post-war period. Urgently forced to find an alternative base from which conveniently to process crude oil transported in large quantities from its Persian Gulf territories, AIOC, in collaboration with British officials, selected the Little Aden peninsula on the western side of Aden harbour. Aden, a colonial possession since 1839, was presumed to be politically stable, and construction of the AIOC’s new refinery commenced in July 1952. The refinery came on stream exactly two years later. By the end of that year (Iran no longer its epicentre in the aftermath of Abadan), the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had renamed itself British Petroleum, or BP. In parallel with construction of the Aden refinery itself, the AIOC commissioned from the George Wimpey construction firm the building of a large adjacent harbour to be used both for the importation of the crude, and the transhipment of the newly refined, oil.

Coinciding with the early 1950s boom in filmmaking commissioned by British industrial companies, both engineering projects were to be documented on celluloid. Greenpark Productions was commissioned by AIOC to cover the refinery construction, resulting in the BP film We Found a Valley (1955; this film is not held by the BFI National Archive and it is unclear whether it still exists). Simultaneously, World Wide Pictures, an established competitor of Greenpark for expensive industrial film commissions, contracted with Wimpey to produce the official film record of the harbour construction. This was released, also in 1955, as Oil Harbour – Aden, promoted in the trade press as a ‘record of the construction of a great new oil harbour, for the British Petroleum Company, from empty desert to the arrival of the first tanker’ (Advertisement).  Though AIOC had been dabbling in film for several years, Oil Harbour was Wimpey’s first piece of film sponsorship, and was evidently less expensively budgeted than We Found a Valley. While the Greenpark film was shot by a small location unit using a 35mm camera (on the assumption that future 16mm reduction prints would be of high quality reflecting their 35mm origins), Wimpey made a cheaper arrangement with World Wide. Just one technician, the twenty-three year old Derek Williams, was despatched to Little Aden, with a 16mm camera and Kodachrome stock (this colour system being restricted to the 16mm gauge).  

Williams would subsequently establish a reputation, within the sponsored documentary industry, as one of its greater post-war talents (indicated not least by Oscar nominations for four of the short films he would go on to direct). However, the director-cameraman’s recent recollections of the making of Oil Harbour – Aden, his first professional film, are caustic:  ‘[World Wide producer James Carr] sent me for two years on my own to Aden, the most unpleasant place, to cover an industrial project, quite alone, without any other filmmakers, among Scottish engineers and Irish workmen, many of whom - most of whom - I had nothing in common with. It was a thoroughly miserable and unprofitable two years, but nobody else [at World Wide] would go’ (Williams).  Williams states that his own reason for accepting the commission was that Carr guaranteed that on the director’s return the producer would recommend him for membership of the Association of Cine Technicians - union membership then being necessary for progression in the ‘closed shop’ film industry. The director also recalls that: ‘The sponsor’s insistence that every operation must be shown in exhaustive detail resulted in a film of tedious length’ (Williams). The Wimpey project commenced in November 1952 and was operational and substantially complete by the time of Williams’ departure in September 1954. The stages of work filmed by Williams, all of them making the final cut, included the arrival and unloading of plant, equipment and materials; the erection of camps for the project workers; the clearing of roads and blasting and quarrying of rock; dredging and reclamation; bund, breakwater and jetty construction, culminating in the arrival of the first tanker, containing oil from Kuwait (also a UK colonial possession). 

Oil Harbour – Aden was completed, and released to the non-theatrical market, in 1955.  It is probable that the film’s commissioners had had two primary uses in mind for it. It is likely to have been screened, in the months following completion, to Wimpey staff and shareholders as a morale-raiser, but also, in whole or in part, to prospective Wimpey clients (it is probably for this reason that Williams was ordered to include as much logistical detail as possible). Beyond these target groups, however, the film was available for booking by any non-theatrical audience. Beginning with Oil Harbour – Aden Wimpey would place 16mm prints of all of its films in the commercially-run Rank Film Library, but this, its first, was given a particular boost by also being selected for inclusion in the government’s Central Film Library, which regularly acquired industrially sponsored films for official distribution. The Library made copies available until the mid-1960s, as part of its Films for Industry catalogue. The 1961-2 catalogue, for instance, includes the film in its ‘Civil Engineering’ listings, describing it as ‘a useful film for civil engineering contractors and engineers; also of value to technical college students’ (Central Film Library, 27). In addition to its value as technical education, the CFL’s acquisition officer doubtless appreciated its ‘implications for outward-looking national achievement and overseas collaboration between British industries’, and indeed, to general surprise, the film went on to win the first prize in the ‘Public Relations & Prestige’ category of Britain’s first-ever Festival of Films in the Service of Industry, held in October 1957 (Russell and Taylor: 340; ninety-eight films had been submitted for this category and thirty-two were short-listed). 

The deteriorating security situation in Aden and South Arabia may have hastened the film’s withdrawal from COI catalogues, apparently in 1963, the same year that a state of emergency was declared in the territory. It is, however, unlikely that its shelf-life would have lasted much further in any event. The Aden refinery had long since ceased to be the largest in the world, large-scale construction techniques had further advanced since the film’s making, and Wimpey had undertaken other major civil engineering projects. Incidentally, the large proportion of Yemenis among the workforce of both the refinery and the harbour – following on from their heavy deployment during the construction stage, briefly documented by the film – was one of the contributory factors to the social unrest which eventually led to the ejection of the British and Aden gaining independence in 1967.  



At first sight, Oil Harbour – Aden is primarily a genre film, its genre being that of the industrial documentary commemorating a large-scale construction project (its BP counterpart, We Found a Valley, belongs to the same category). As such, it most easily lends itself both to purely formal analysis of the filmmaker’s technique, and to interpretation, by the industrial historian, as visual evidence for the project it describes. That it is, at the same time, a ‘colonial’ film is less obvious: nowhere in its nearly 40-minute running time is any direct reference whatsoever made to Aden’s status as a British colony. In part, this conspicuous absence reflects an increasing post-war shift of emphasis in the rhetoric of British industrial achievement, generally, away from association with Empire. However, it can also be said precisely to reflect Aden’s unusual situation within the Empire. An enclave with a small population, it was of little inherent economic or political importance to the British state, nor did it enjoy much of a profile within the UK’s domestic culture. Its significance derived instead from its strategically useful location – as here for the officially sanctioned re-siting of the operations of a major British company dislodged from another territory (an event made possible by that other territory lying outside of Britain’s political control), with knock-on benefits to another UK firm. In this regard, the events depicted by the film had a long, if little-known, lineage in imperial history: Aden had been used as a British Empire fuel port since the mid-nineteenth century (then, a coal port for steamers travelling to and from India).

Derek Williams’ script uses a device, which had become a familiarly conventional one by 1955, whereby an authoritative narrator’s descriptions are alternated with a more ‘personalised’ second voice, provided by an actor in the dubbing studio (and also using Received Pronunciation) but spoken in the first person. In this case, the first person plural was chosen to convey the narrative as if from the collective perspective of the Wimpey engineering team. This second voice occupies the larger portion of the running time, recounting in detail, and in chronological order, the technical objectives and achievements of each stage of the construction project as well as obstructions caused by the weather. It is the first voice, opening and closing the film, as well as appearing once in the middle section, which places these specific events in a bigger context, and it is this commentator’s avoidance of any analysis, or even basic explanation, of Aden’s situation that is therefore the more striking.

The film’s opening sets the scene for what follows, but does so purely in terms of landscape, not of politics or economics. These choices are unremarkable ones both for the industrial ‘coverage’ genre, and for that the exotic travelogue, which this opening more closely resembles. The formulaic romanticism common to travelogue is present in Williams’ skilfully lit and composed establishing shots of mountainous territory and of seascape, in his writing of the accompanying commentary, and in the portentous scoring of the music mixed with it on the soundtrack. The narrator refers to Little Aden as a ‘harsh, burnt-out place, without shade or moisture or greenness, a moonscape of sand and cinder, where dead volcanoes fall in cliffs of lava to the sea’. The history as well as the geography of the place is depicted as essentially barren - ‘Little Aden’s past is a long and empty story’ – which naturally renders the BP and Wimpey developments unproblematic: ‘now the last blank page is turning, for Little Aden has been chosen as the site of a new oil refinery, one of the most advanced of its type in the world. A new refinery, to grow where goatherds now wander seeking scrub and camel-thorn: a modern community will live and play… And silence and emptiness must become alive with the bustle and business of an Oil Harbour’. 

At this point, the first voice hands over to the second, and the muting of music signals a shift from a ‘poetic’ to a ‘prosaic’ mode of address. Much of the next sequence, an account of the first phase of the project, is exclusively concerned with engineering processes and contains no consequential reference to the location in which it is carried out. However, at the end of this sequence, the ethnic make-up of Wimpey’s temporary workforce is referred to: the constructed camp at which ‘Americans, Dutchmen, Italians and British… live… in air-conditioned huts’, distinguished from the ‘Arab camp… built by local craftsmen out of traditional materials’, following which reference is also made to Wimpey having also recruited from India, Somaliland and the Lebanon, ‘each of these nationalities… housed separately’. At this point, the omniscient narrator takes over from the voice of the engineering team, in order to describe Wimpey’s recruitment effort among the indigenous tribes of the neighbouring British protectorates on the South Arabian mainland. It is significant that music returns to the soundtrack at this point, that the photography takes on a greater lyricism and that the commentary again engages in some discreet romanticism: ‘Tribesmen who know nothing of life beyond their own hills and valleys, no customs but their tribal customs, no skills save those of the warrior and the shepherd… They had a strange journey to make, these hillsmen: though their mountain passes down the dried-out wadis; out across the sandy plain – to Aden; to another age, another life’. These scenes may be said to be ethnographically under-informative rather than offensive. In the rest of the film, dominated by further technical explication, workers of all races are seen on-screen, with little attempt to discriminate between the importance or skill of the contributions of different groups. The one further distinction made between incoming and indigenous workers is in a few shots showing their evening leisure distractions: the Europeans relaxing with cards and billiards, the Arabs with traditional dancing.

After this sequence, all remaining scenes (except shots of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visiting to inspect progress) are almost exclusively concerned with procedural exposition. Oil Harbour – Aden is a textbook example of the non-fiction film, commissioned to a specific brief, which in addition to the evidential value of the content included in it, offers unwitting testimony by what it leaves out. Few of the film’s many viewers, at any point in the eight years or so in which prints appear to have been in reasonably widespread 16mm circulation, would have guessed that by the end of that period Britain would soon be abandoning Aden - rapidly and in chaotic circumstances. Indeed it is likely that many were unaware of Aden’s colonial status in the first place. Certainly, in this respect the film itself would not have enlightened them.

Patrick Russell 


Works Cited

Advertisement, Film User, July 1955, p354.

Central Film Library, Films for Industry: a Catalogue of 16mm Films for Industrial Users.

Russell, Patrick and Taylor, James Pier, Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain (London: British Film Institute, 2010).

Williams, Derek, Communications with Patrick Russell, 2009-10.



  • OIL HARBOUR - ADEN (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
40 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
Black/White (Kodachrome)

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
George Wimpey & Company
Director of Photography
Production Company
World Wide Pictures