One of the best of Michael Powell's low-budget "quota quickies" -- essentially British B-movies made on ultra-low budgets under the government-imposed quota system for British-made movies in British theaters -- Red Ensign was also one of the more intelligent thoughtful dramas of its kind. Set amid the massive economic disruptions of the worldwide depression of the mid-'30s, it tells the story of David Barr (Leslie Banks), the managing director of an idled Scottish ship-building company, who has devised a revolutionary new design for cargo vessels using arcform hulls, which permits them to operate more cheaply and efficiently than any ships currently in service. He can revolutionize the merchant shipping industry, but Barr wants more than that -- he sees that as only the first step to reviving the entire British economy. Barr, who worked his way up from the shipyards (starting as a riveter) to the boardroom, is able to see this larger picture, from the top down to the vantage point of the lowest yard worker, and from the bottom up to the management suites, and he is driven by the breadth and clarity of what he perceives. But before he can do that, or get even one ship built, he has to overcome the resistance of the other directors, upper-class all, who admire Barr's brilliance but can't understand his passion, content as they are to ride out this worldwide depression in cautious comfort. Their leader is the recalcitrant board chairman, Lord Dean (Frank Vosper), who not only doesn't believe in taking risks but also resents Barr's successful wooing of the company's principal shareholder, June Mackinnon (Carol Goodner), the daughter of the company's late founder.
Barr is single-minded in his vision and certain enough of his cause that he is willing to withhold information from the other directors to get what he wants, and even commit forgery if there's no other way to get the first ship built. Lord Dean, meanwhile, wants to sign a contract for the new ships with Manning (Alfred Drayton), the unscrupulous owner of a shipping line notorious for its use of foreign registries, poorly paid and trained foreign crews, and safety violations, which would solve the shipyard's problems for a time but do nothing for British shipping or the economy. And Manning, desiring these new ship and faced with Barr's opposition, is not above putting spies and saboteurs into the shipyard, and setting fires and explosions to undermine Barr's work. Amid the corporate maneuvering and the threat of strikes (fomented by Manning's paid agitators) and arrest, the script keeps the pacing brisk and the focus tight on the fate of Barr and his ideas, in what was one of the more cerebral and diverting dramatic thrillers of its day. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
- Leslie Banks, Frank Vosper, (more)