T. alt.: Her Last Trip. Prod.: Alberto Cavalcanti per GPO Film Unit. 35mm. D.: 20′. Bn.
Falling between Spare Time and the outbreak of war, S.S. Ionian (Her Last Trip) has received little detailed attention. […] The film focuses on the role of one merchant ship, which symbolises the British Merchant Navy. Around its voyage, Jennings explores the benefits drawn from free trade and the protective role of the Royal Navy, in maintaining the integrity of the Mediterranean shipping lanes. The narrative also promotes a positive image of the relationship between Britain and her colonies in the Near East. Within each sequence, from the historic introduction of the film until the departure of the ship from Alexandria on the home run, material is edited in such a way as to integrate aspects of English character, antiquity and the contemporary international situation. The dramatic turn of events meant that he must address two distinct audiences with the same message: to provide reassurance to a civilian population, where one in three felt Britain should take any option rather than go to war, while at the same time encourage support from potential allies. In other words he needed to strike a careful balance between a reassuring image of British fortitude and military strength, while avoiding a belligerent or strident nationalist tone that might inflame anti-colonial sentiment and contribute to alienating the United States. What has been interpreted as the ‘jingoistic tone’ of the film, with its frequent reference to the Royal Navy (“the greatest navy in the world”), its armaments, fighting strength and its protective role, is to misread Jennings’ patriotism for aggressive nationalist sentiment. Rather than a jingoistic account of Imperial power, S.S. Ionian is rather a meditation upon the interaction between the different dimensions of historic British Imperial adventure, cultural and economic exchange and contemporary military and trade security. […] The reference to the Odyssey is not as obscure as one may think. At school and university Jennings had studied the classics and their influence upon English poetry, drama and music. He makes clear that the existence of past and present are close, in fact simultaneous. In the geographical and cultural heartland of Western civilisation, a modern English ship ploughs the waters carrying a Greek name. Fitting well with his preoccupation for the historical, it is in the Bay of Gibraltar with its critical place in British maritime history, that he picks up the voyage. The voyage itself becomes a form of contemporary odyssey, as the ship plies its trade around the region before heading back to London with new cargo.
Philip C. Logan, Humprey Jennings and British Documentary Film Movement: A Re-assessment, Ashgate, London 2011