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Western Approaches (1944)

Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Main image of Western Approaches (1944)
35mm, 60 min, Technicolor
DirectorPat Jackson
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
SponsorMinistry of Information
ProducerIan Dalrymple
ScriptPat Jackson
PhotographyJack Cardiff
MusicClifton Parker

Cast: Jack Cardiff (sub-officer); Pat Jackson

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Survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship, adrift in a lifeboat in the Atlantic, are shadowed by a U-Boat waiting to torpedo the ship coming to their rescue.

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Regarded by the Ministry of Information as one of the finest propaganda films made during the war, Western Approaches is nevertheless more noted for the difficulty of its production than for its aesthetic qualities. Its chief attribute is Jack Cardiff's beautiful cinematography, here using a combination of three-strip Technicolor for interiors and the newly-devised Monopack system for location work. The Crown Unit requested colour film to add a depth and shape to the sea that black-and-white couldn't capture. Technicolor was rare enough in British cinema at the time, but for it to be used on such an ambitious project, with footage shot at sea in all weather conditions, is particularly remarkable. Furthermore, the film crew were under genuine threat of U-boat attack; writer-director Pat Jackson has said that three boats were sunk on the convoy they filmed and that footage of a tanker on fire was taken, though not used.

The lifeboat sequences were, of necessity, filmed in calmer circumstances - often only about 500 yards out of Holyhead harbour. But Cardiff's ingenuity is constant throughout - using night filters to bathe the ocean in cool blue moonlight, popping the camera in a crate that bobs through the water cascading into a sinking submarine.

Though the film is technically impressive, however, this should not obscure its considerable impact as both human drama and gripping thriller. Jackson teases out an involving game of cat-and-mouse, cross-cutting between three ships, as the crew of a lifeboat desperately try to warn their rescuers of an enemy submarine (a story devised solely as a means for structuring the documentary footage, but which actually turned out to have precedents in fact).

More importantly, the narrative, as originally devised, was going to centre on the Royal Navy, but in Jackson's version, the emphasis falls on the merchant seamen themselves. Jackson revels in both their raw physical presence and their good-natured repartee, but he is also prepared to show the reality of these ordinary men under pressure when they come close to mutinying against their captain. This sympathy towards the sailors is carried over to all the characters in the film, including the crew of the U-boat.

Furthermore, Western Approaches adheres to all the conventions of the Crown Film Unit, particularly in the use of actual, serving sailors instead of professional actors - an approach that has arguably never been properly recognised by film historians as one that anticipates Italian neorealism.

Michael Bartlett

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Video Clips
1. The convoy sets sail (1:57)
2. Danger by night (3:11)
3. The other side of the horizon (1:20)
4. Mutiny (3:40)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Cardiff, Jack (1914-2009)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
Jackson, Pat (1916-2011)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Crown Film Unit