The Long Ships Passing: A film about shipping on the Great Lakes (1960)

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Long Ships Passing was a film produced by Cinecraft Productions in 1960 for the Lake Carriers Association, a trade association representing shipping companies operating on the Great Lakes. The twenty-five-minute film touted the importance of the large freight carriers that transported limestone, iron ore, coal, grain, and salt from mines and fields to industrial centers throughout the Lakes. 

The film’s production posed a challenge for Cinecraft as the Lake Carriers required shots of twenty-three specific ships in addition to location shooting throughout the Great Lakes and, in some cases, on moving vessels. A letter to Paul Culley, who directed the film for Cinecraft, found in the Lake Carriers archives at Bowling Green University presents the type of logistical problems facing the filmmakers:

"The schedule we provided you when work on shooting started called for a picture of the [Alexander T.] Wood. This vessel will not be up this way in the immediate future. However, owners of the ship, the Wilson Marine Transit Co, will let us know immediately the first time it is scheduled for Lake Erie or will provide transportation on its plane for a photographer to go to Seven Islands or Contrecoeur, Quebec."

The film cost $30,000 to make ($265,000 in 2020 dollars). It served a need for the Lake Carriers to bolster the Great Lakes shipping industry's image and to "help interest youths in a career on the lakes."

In 1960, while the ships would have been seen often by those living along lakefronts during the summer months, the most publicized aspect of Great Lakes ships would have come through the news of a tragedy. Just two years prior, a ship called the Carl F. Bradley's sank and killed all but two of its crew. Twenty-three of those killed came from the same town of Port Rogers, Michigan. After the movie was made, two other ships featured in the film sank in terrible storms. The Great Lakes freighter, the Daniel J. Morrell, went down in Lake Huron in November 1965. Twenty-eight of 29 crewmen were lost. And it was November 10, 1975, when the Edmund Fitzgerald carrying a full cargo of iron pellets, sank on Lake Superior. Her entire crew of 29 died.

The Lake Carriers intended to use the film to counter the public perception of the industry due to events like the Bradley sinking. According to the film's proposal, they planned to use it in schools, public relations, legislative programs, conferences, recruiting, and the Association's engineering and navigation schools.

The following two clips from the film illustrate its grandiose tone and its practical mission to educate and recruit potential employees. The first half of the clip shows the common types of Great Lakes ships and their cargo. The second half describes a presumably sanitized look at life aboard one of these ships:

The film credits only list the studio (Cinecraft) and the scriptwriter (Fred Lipp of Storycraft). The Association records at Bowling Green University list the film's director (Paul Culley), cinematographer (Harry Horrocks), and crew (Nick Boris, Harry Horrocks, James Bell, Peter Gallagher, and Wm. Mulcahey).

To watch the film in its entirety, check out Long Ships Passing in the Hagley Digital Archives

A special thanks to Jim Culley for sharing his research for this article

Kevin J. Martin is the Curator of Archives and the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Audiovisual and Digital Collections at Hagley Museum and Library