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On November 18, 1947, as a fire took hold in the basement of Ballantynes department store in Christchurch, 500 employees kept working and hundreds of shoppers roamed through the showrooms or chatted over tea and cakes in the cafe. Staff were eagerly awaiting a visit from reigning Miss New Zealand Mary Wootton and management were quick to reassure staff and customers alike that, despite a bit of smoke, there was nothing to worry about. Hours later, 41 people were dead.Written by
Ablaze is an interesting account of an event I'd never heard of before; a huge blaze in a large Christchurch department store in 1947, the tragic consequences of which, saw a huge makeover of New Zealand's fire regulatory frameworks.
It's a well-acted, small-scale disaster docudrama made clearly on a tight budget. The quite large array of characters all wear appropriate costumes, including the fire brigade when they arrive later in the piece, but one shouldn't expect too much in the way of pyrotechnical action set pieces and stunts, due to budget limitations. Indeed, external location establishing shots are quite brief in themselves, making it somewhat difficult to appreciate the unusual set-up of Ballantyne's department store of the time. It's left to various characters to transmit this sort of exposition through their dialogue wth other characters. But this is very much an ensemble piece, so there are no leading characters, through whose perspective we view the action, such as with the Paul Newman/Steve McQueen figures in The Towering Inferno.
The store was actually a conglomeration of some 6 acquired interconnected shops spread over about an acre of city space, with much of the buildings being made of wood. What this film is very good at relaying, is the complete lack of emergency planning on the part of Ballantyne's management. Though not high-rise, the buildings were multi-story, with little communication between different departments. When the fire breaks out, it's amazing to witness the apathy towards the initial smoke warnings and the authoritarian, but clueless control exerted by floor managers, not just on staff, but customers as well. They just stand around in smoky environments just non-plussed, as apparently occurred in real life. Even when the fire brigade arrive, a lack of training and confidence amongst its members seems pretty obvious too.
Ablaze, unusually filmed in black and white, is not a great film but is an ambitious and quite absorbing movie given it's limitations. Towards the end, there is a transition coda to both black and white and colour news footage of the fire being fought and we are listed more information about the fates of some of the real life characters.
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