Historical Oil Documentary Films

A chronicle of historical documentary films on oil: your parents and grandparents may have watched these on their old TV sets, but you can now see them on YouTube!
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 6 - 2013


Although a large number of documentary films (often negative) on oil have been produced over the past two decades (GEO ExPro, Vol. 9, No. 4), oil documentaries have been aired for decades. Recently, I searched for these historical oil documentaries produced in the USA, resulting in this brief report.

The first oil films were silent motion pictures produced by the US Bureau of Mines in Washington D.C.: The Story of Petroleum (1923) in collaboration with Sinclair Oil, and The Story of Gasoline in 1928 in collaboration with Standard Oil of Indiana. Some interesting statistics from the latter: “In 1927, the consumption of gasoline [petrol] in the United States reached more than 12.5 billion gallons; in addition, nearly two billion gallons were exported.” In 1927, the US population was 119 million. Compare those data with today: in 2011, 310 million Americans owning 254 million vehicles consumed 138 billion gallons of gasoline. In other words, from 1927 to 2011 the US population increased 2.5 times and its gasoline consumption 11 times. (A barrel contains 42 US gallons.)

From 1935-41, during the Great Depression, the Jam Handy Organization produced dozens of promotional films for the oil and automobile industries, including More Power to You, narrated by Lowell Thomas, Sr.; Down the Gasoline Trail; and Free Air.

After World War II, global demand for oil increased drastically, and in addition the use of television sets skyrocketed. The US, in particular, launched an aggressive expansion of automobile transportation and highways and petrochemical products began to dominate daily life in Western countries. The germinal ideas for all these developments are reflected in a number of oil documentaries produced shortly after the war: Gasoline for Everybody (1947), presented by the Ethyl Corporation; Oil for Aladdin’s Lamp (1949) and The Diesel Story (1952), both presented by Shell; Twenty-Four Hours of Progress (1950), presented by the American Petroleum Institute (API); and Oil Today, Power Tomorrow (1950), which is set in Long Beach, California. We learn from the latter film that “in 1950, the US produced 50% of the world’s oil, worth $3 billion.” This means a US production of 5.9 MMbopd in 1951 compared to 11.2 MM bopd in 1972 (US peak) and 7.8 MMbopd in 2011, which is about 9% of world production.

Color Arrives

The first color film on oil was The Inside Story of Modern Gasoline (1948), subtitled ‘Science-Fashioned Molecules for Top Performance’, produced for Standard Oil of Indiana and also presented under the title The Story of Gasoline by the US Bureau of Mines in cooperation with Standard Oil of Chicago. The film shows that distillation (fractionation by boiling points) of one barrel of crude oil yields gas (1%), gasoline (18%), kerosene (15%), fuel oil and gas oil (39%), lube oil and wax (7%), and residual oil and asphalt (20%). More gasoline can be produced from gas oil by catalyst-aided and thermal cracking.

Production from Bakken oil in Montana has become a hotspot in recent years (GEO ExPro, Vol. 7, No. 2). But this is not the first boom in the region: check out this 1953 black and white API film, American Frontier, which narrates how oil discovery on a wheat farm in the Williston Basin brings prosperity to the family of a local school teacher. A geologist in the film says that only one out of nine wildcats hits oil, and that a well in that part of America costs $0.5 million.

Three color films glorify the works of American oilmen abroad: Oil Across Arabia (1950) and Desert Venture (1958), both sponsored by Aramco (then a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California), are on Saudi Arabia, and Assignment: Venezuela (1956) is the story of an American engineer working on Lake Maracaibo oil fields for Creole Petroleum (then a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey).

In a 1956 color animation, Destination Earth, a Martian visits America and reports back how oil and free market have given the nation high standards of living and freedom of movement. Progress Parade (1960) is a collection of five brief oil-related stories including ‘Fishing on Dryland’, which shows how the broken drill bit – the fish – is taken out of the well.

The above-mentioned documentaries are oil industry-sponsored promotional films produced before the environmentalist movement took off in the 1960s. The films are in the public domain; more information can be obtained from National Archives and Records Administration, Room 4000, 8601 Adelphi Road, Hyattsville, MD 20740-6001 (


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