This film is held by the BFI (ID: 133391) and Imperial War Museum (ID: IWM 842).


The goodwill tour of the Royal Navy's special service squadron around the world, November 1923 to September 1924.

The squadron's tour takes in the principal ports of the Empire. At each port the ships of the squadron are thrown open to the locals. Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick L Field has his flag on board HMS Hood. The second battle cruiser in the squadron is HMS Repulse. The remaining ships in the squadron are the light cruisers HMS Delhi, HMS Dauntless, HMS Dragon and HMS Danae under Rear-Admiral the Honourable Sir Hubert G Brand. Brand and his light cruisers are rarely seen in the film. An animated map shows the movement of the squadron between ports, and day-to-day scenes on board the ships are shown during the film. (Reel 1) Shots of the Hood with Field on board, the Repulse and the Delhi are all shown. On 27th November at dawn the Hood leaves Portsmouth harbour and joins the rest of the squadron in the Atlantic. On 8th December the squadron docks at Freetown, Sierra Leone. The locals look over the Hood and the sailors inspect the market-places. On 14th December the squadron sails again. The crossing the line ceremony is shown with "King Neptune". (Reel 2) The squadron carries on to Table Bay. The Lord Mayor of Cape Town welcomes Field to the city. The flower market and memorial to Cecil Rhodes are shown. The squadron continues up the coast to Durban, where the officers meet Zulu chiefs and watch a war dance, and on to Zanzibar, reached on 12th January 1924. The Sultan, Seyyid Khalifa Bin Harub, comes on board. In Zanzibar itself the squadron's marines and sailors march past the watching crowds. Officers relax by riding camels. The squadron sails on, reaching Trincomalee, Ceylon, on 27th January. There is no ceremony, instead the locals wash the sailors' laundry. (Reel 3) On to Penang, where Chinese schoolgirls come on board the Hood, and to Singapore, showing the city. On the way to Australia the ships practise torpedo fire and gunnery. On 27th February they enter Fremantle harbour. The marines and sailors march through Perth. Some of the local aborigines are shown. The squadron continues around Cape Leeuwin and across the Great Australian Bight, through rough weather, and reaches Adelaide, with its parks, before going on to Melbourne on 17th March. There the Governor General, the Right Honourable Lord Forster, inspects the marines on board the Hood and crowds of people visit the ships. (Reel 4) The visit to Hobart, capital of Tasmania, is briefly shown. The squadron goes on to Sydney, where Australian soldiers lead the marines and sailors, as well as members of the Veterans Association of New South Wales, past the saluting base, on which are Field, Brand, Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair (the Governor of New South Wales) and the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce. News cameramen record the event. The light cruiser HMAS Australia, scrapped under the 1922 Washington Naval Treaties, is scuttled at sea while the ships of the British squadron watch in salute, along with HMAS Melbourne, HMAS Sydney and HMAS Adelaide. (Although rarely seen on the film, the Adelaide accompanies the squadron on its tour back to Britain.) The ships continue on to New Zealand, reaching Wellington on 24th April, where the Governor General, Viscount Jellicoe, is received on board. On the following day, ANZAC day, the crews lay wreaths at the cenotaph. Mount Cook and the hot springs of Lake Rotorua are shown, as is a Maori village and its inhabitants. Having left New Zealand, the squadron on 17th May continues on to Suva, capital of Fiji, where the men watch tribal rituals, drink Kava and eat sugar cane (continuing onto Reel 5). The ships cross the International Date Line on 27th May, and shortly afterward call briefly at Honolulu in the Hawaiian Islands. At sea the ships practise gunnery again. On 21st June they put into Victoria harbour on Vancouver Island, the capital of British Columbia. A dance is held for the locals on board the Hood. Logging in the forests is shown. The squadron sails on to Vancouver city where the ships are reprovisioned and the sailors take shore leave in the mountains. A sailor plays with a baby black bear. 5th July the squadron sails again for San Francisco, arriving in the harbour on 7th July, and being met by the British Consul General. (Reel 6) On leaving San Francisco the four British light cruisers break off to tour the South American ports and do not appear again on the film until its end. The battle cruisers and the Adelaide go through the Panama Canal and on to Jamaica, where Field is received in Kingston by a guard of the West Indies Regiment. There are views of the city. On 30th July the voyage continues on to Halifax, Nova Scotia where a children's party and funfair is held on the Repulse. The ships go up the Saint Lawrence seaway to Quebec, showing the old town, then on to Saint John's in Newfoundland. The marines again perform a march past, and there are scenes of fish curing in the harbour. Rowing races are held between the squadron's boat crews. On 17th September the ships set off across the Atlantic, meeting up with the light cruisers just west of the British Isles. A church service is held on board the Hood. On 28th September the Hood, having given three cheers to the Repulse, follows the Delhi into Devonport harbour for the end of the tour.


Remarks: considerably better than IWM 843, but probably not good enough to show to people today as entertainment. Contemporaries presumably found the sight of such exotic places more novel. It is also worth remembering, as the film itself points out, that the Zulu who dance for the ships' crews are the sons of the men who fought for Ctetawayo in 1879



Historian Ralph Harrington described the purpose of the 38,000 mile, ten-month ‘Empire cruise’ as ‘part public relations exercise for Great Britain and the Royal Navy, and part training programme for the ships and crews involved’. Harrington added that ‘most importantly it was to serve as a tangible, highly visible expression of British commitment to the Empire, and simultaneously as a powerful message about the degree of Dominion naval effort the empire required’ (Harrington, 2003, 177).

‘For native populations’ Harrington argued, ‘her [HMS Hood] presence underlined both the power and the beneficence of the imperial overlord’. Harrington quoted Lieutenant C.R. Benstead who followed popular imperial rhetoric in writing of the ‘native soldier’ in Sierra Leone, ‘who, when the Squadron came up harbour, seized his officer's arms and pointed at the Hood, crying: ‘De man dat made dat de ship him god’. The ships were thus seen to emphasise Britain’s imperial position and highlight her technological and military power. ‘For British officials and 'white' citizens of the empire’ Harrington suggested, the ships ‘symbolized and made real a remote and intangible homeland’ (Harrington, 2003, 180, 181).

The squadron was visited by nearly two million people and as a public relations exercise was supported by a 300 page book – V. Scott O’ Connor’s The Empire Cruise –as well as Britain’s Birthright (Harrington, 2003, 181). However, Christopher Bell suggests that the ‘navy’s co-operation with the British Film Industry did not arise out of a desire to publicize the navy’. He rather noted that ‘in 1920, the Admiralty’s Sports Control Board decided to generate funds by selling the rights to film naval events’. This began with the financially successful 50,000 Miles with the Prince of Wales, but ‘by 1923 the film industry’s interest in naval topics was waning and no tenders were submitted for the empire cruise of the Special Service Squadron’ (Bell, 2000, 168). ‘A last minute appeal’ resulted in British Instructional accepting the contract, and while the film was, according to Bell, a ‘commercial failure’, British Instructional ‘won the Board’s gratitude’ and were awarded the rights to the Prince of Wales’ tour and naval co-operation for many of their historical productions (Bell, 2000, 169).

Britain’s Birthright premiered at the Marble Arch Pavilion in March 1925, but was, according to Harrington, released to cinemas on Empire Day in May 1925 (Harrington, 2003, 177). In July it played throughout London, with a performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Pavilion watched by the Duke and Duchess of York. Also on that programme was ‘the most recent section of the film showing the Prince of Wales’ South African tour’ (The Times, 14 July 1925, 12). Yet, the film was not widely viewed overseas. A Times report in 1926 complained that ‘among what might be termed “national” film subjects the record of distribution in our own Dominions is lamentable in the extreme’. According to ‘information received by the F.B.I.’, Britain’s Birthright was ‘refused by all the Dominions’ and only shown by private enterprise (The Times, 24 May 1926, xiv).

Kinematograph Weekly claimed that ‘Britain’s Birthright shows in a manner never before attempted what a mighty confederation the British Empire is, and if it serves no other purpose than to give a clear impression of this fact, it will be a gigantic achievement’ (KW, 5 March 1925, 55). The paper subsequently complained that ‘the American flag gets more than its fair share of publicity’, and promoted Britain’s Birthright as a ‘picture that every schoolboy and girl should see, since the flag needs “showing” nearly as much in England as it does in the Colonies’. It further suggested that the film would provide school children with ‘a wide vision and a better idea of the extent and possibilities of the Empire than any number of books’ (KW, 12 March 1925). Bioscope also argued that the film ‘should be of the greatest educational value’, describing it as a ‘wonderful and impressive record of a voyage embracing the extent of our colonies’ (Bioscope, 12 March 1925, 50). 



In its representation of foreign locals and in its formal style, Britain’s Birthright appears typical of the imperial pictures produced in the interwar period by British Instructional Films. Furthermore, it seemingly influences the subsequent films in the company’s Empire Series.

The film presents a succession of ethnographic shots – for example a ‘few of the disappearing Aboriginees’ – and shows the local people performing ‘traditional’ dances and customs. Titles introduce the ‘Zulu chiefs and tribesmen’ performing ‘war dances’, ‘the rhythmical chanting from the native craft’ in Zanzibar, ‘a descriptive dance of bygone Fiji’, while also explaining that ‘the Maoris have not forgotten their old dances’. The locals perform directly to the camera, as subjects of ethnographic study, so that an African with elongated ears is depicted in close-up, initially facing the camera and then in profile. In Sierra Leone, a naked boy dives into the sea – seemingly responding to coins thrown from the position of the camera – while the children in Singapore also jump up at the camera. This direct response to the camera creates an artificiality within these ethnographic scenes, which strongly suggests that this is a staged representation of foreign races.

This representation serves a dual purpose. First, by highlighting the differences between the British and foreign subjects, it positions the British as a dominant, superior power. Secondly, it highlights the loyalty, support and enthusiasm of the colonies and dominions for the Empire. The repeated shots of crowds rushing to see ‘the world’s greatest battle cruisers’ promote British strength, yet the film also notes that the ship, made and manned by Australians, is supplementing the imperial force, and in Hobart we see shipping with ‘fruit and wool for the mother country’. The colonies offer continued imperial support. For example, in Ceylon, the locals do ‘some washing’ for the navy, but the traditional methods used, further highlight the primacy of the British.

In highlighting – through the ships – the strength of the British and –primarily through the ethnographic shots –the ‘primitive’ nature of the colonies, the film emphasises the importance of the British in the ‘development’ of these areas. ‘When Singapore was purchased for Great Britain in 1819, it was an utterly deserted island’ an intertitle states, ‘To-day it is a great modern city, boasting fine public buildings’. Later, ‘Kingston shows striking contrasts between the bustle of a modern commercial city … and the primitive chaffering of its negro markets’. This contrast between the British and the local, between the developed and the ‘primitive’ is further noted in Singapore, which has ‘populous native quarters with dark and malodorous streets’.

The commentary thus emphasises the continued need for British assistance, and adopts techniques subsequently used extensively within films from the Empire Series such as An African Derby. It relates local scenes to British life – for example, Singapore Harbour is described as ‘the Clapham Junction of the East’ –generating comedy by creating a disparity between the local image and the British reference. Yet, despite the evident differences, the film emphasises imperial unity throughout. This unity is represented through the image of the flag. The voyage promises to  ‘“show the flag” in the principle ports of the Empire’, while the flag also serves as a narrative motif –raised at the beginning and lowered at its conclusion – representing Britain throughout the world. 

Tom Rice (April 2008)


Works Cited

Bell, Christopher M., The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy between the Wars (London: Macmillan, 2000).

‘Britain’s Birthright’, Bioscope, 12 March 1925, 50.

Harrington, Ralph, 'The Mighty Hood': Navy, Empire, War at Sea and the British National Imagination, 1920-60’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 38, no. 2, April 2003, 171-185.

‘Trade Show Preview’, Kinematograph Weekly, 5 March 1925, 55.

‘Trade Shows Surveyed’, Kinematograph Weekly, 12 March 1925, 58.

‘Britain’s Birthright’, Kinematograph Weekly, 12 March 1925, 62.

‘Films of the Week’, The Times, 6 March 1925, 12.

‘Britain’s Birthright at Shepherd’s Bush’, The Times, 14 July 1925, 12.

‘Film and the Empire’, The Times, 24 May 1926, xiv. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
106 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
6317 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Royal Colonial Institute
film editor
Newton, A P
Production company
British Instructional Films
Production company
New Era Film