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Lee, Jack (1913-2002)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Lee, Jack (1913-2002)

Wilfred John Raymond Lee was born on 27 January 1913 in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Brought up in near poverty, his childhood is well covered in his brother Laurie's classic book Cider With Rosie. After studying photography at the Regent St Polytechnic, in 1938 he was taken on by Alberto Cavalcanti as an assistant at the GPO Film Unit. Working in the unstructured world of documentary gave him the opportunity to do a bit of everything: camerawork, editing, even directing the occasional 2nd unit sequence. When war broke out, the GPO unit became the Crown Film Unit and the need to produce large numbers of documentaries in the propaganda offensive gave Lee the opportunity to direct. Under the tutelage of the CFU's new head, Ian Dalrymple, he was given responsibility for Close Quarters (1943), a feature-length drama-documentary about life aboard a Royal Navy submarine.

When the war ended, Lee made Children On Trial (1946), a sympathetic account of the treatment of young offenders, and then joined Dalrymple at his production company, Wessex where he made his first three feature films. The Woman in the Hall (1947), a studio-bound melodrama about a mother who uses her children to extort money, seems atypical of Lee's later films, but the struggles of an individual to achieve a goal and through that struggle develop into a better person was a recurrent theme. Once A Jolly Swagman (1948), set against the background of speedway racing, showed Lee still needing to refine his dramatic skills but using his documentary experience to deliver some stunning racing sequences. The Wooden Horse (1950), a reconstruction of the escape from Stalag Luft III during World War II, showed Lee had reached maturity as a filmmaker. It was a box-office success and set the parameters for a genre of British prisoner-of-war camp films. Given the endless repetition of its themes and devices, The Wooden Horse still looks remarkably fresh: a stirring story told in a deliberately understated way with a convincing array of cameo characters, and a real feeling for the physicality of life in a POW camp.

After South Of Algiers (1952) a Hollywood-style adventure yarn set in North Africa, and Turn The Key Softly (1953), a small-scale drama about three women released from prison, Lee returned to the prisoner of war theme in A Town Like Alice (1956), this time offering a deeper, darker exploration. A huge critical and popular success, it subtly integrates a moving love story with the odyssey of a group of women stranded by the Japanese capture of Singapore, who trek through the jungle, desperately trying to survive in a perilous environment which their previous colonial lifestyle has ill-fitted them to cope with.

After a commercially unsuccessful Australian western, Robbery Under Arms (1957), and an amiable comedy, The Captain's Table (1958), Lee made Circle of Deception (1960), his last and darkest film. It centres upon an idealistic young man being sent into Occupied France by British Intelligence where he is tortured by the Nazis to reveal the false information with which he has been trusted. It proved too grim to do well at the box-office, and Lee found himself being passed over when it came to projects - such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960) - he really wanted to do. Disillusioned, he decided to emigrate to Australia, where he made commercials before becoming chairman of the South Australian Film Board during the formative years of the Australian film industry. While helping to launch directors such as Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford, his own career as a director had come to a full-stop.

With The Wooden Horse and A Town Like Alice, Jack Lee made two of the finest films of the 1950s, but there is a transparency to his work which almost invites dismissal of him as a competent but conventional director. A taciturn man, who felt his films should speak for themselves, he had nevertheless a strong vision of what was needed to make the drama true, and this involved real characterisation, real issues and real settings. It was this ethos which marks the divide between Lee and the previous generation of filmmakers.

British cinema of the pre-war era was a rather genteel affair, which conscientiously avoided social and political issues of the day, but Lee came from a generation for whom the predominant influence was the Second World War, a major radicalising experience which discredited the previous order and gave a greater sense of self-worth to those who survived. Moreover, his ten years working for the GPO and Crown film units had given him a strong commitment to using film as a tool to improve society. Lee was attracted to stories with a strong narrative element in which the environment almost becomes part of the film, and he used narrative as a vehicle to explore ideas. His heroes are very ordinary people (epitomised by the characters played by Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch in A Town Like Alice), not super-heroes or super-intellectuals, but when put to the test they show themselves capable of extraordinary behaviour, and through adversity acquire self-knowledge.

Though the New Wave directors of the 1960s were credited with bringing realism to British cinema, the all-important groundwork had been done for them by Lee and directors like Philip Leacock, Pat Jackson and Harry Watt, who shared his background in documentaries. Because they came from documentary, where filming in situ was done as a matter of course, they brought this approach to feature film-making and, at a time when British cinema was studio-bound because of the technical difficulties of working on location, they pushed to make features against real backgrounds. This added an extra dimension to the quality of their films and, certainly in Lee's case, was never achieved at the expense of the script or characters. Lee and the other ex-documentary-makers set about a revolution in filmmaking and, though largely unacknowledged in the UK, his influence has been considerable. He died on 15 October 2002 in Sydney, Australia.

Linda Wood, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Close Quarters (1943)Close Quarters (1943)

Gripping WWII propaganda film, re-enacted by a real submarine crew

Thumbnail image of Ordinary People (1941)Ordinary People (1941)

Documentary about an average day during the Blitz

Thumbnail image of Town Like Alice, A (1956)Town Like Alice, A (1956)

WWII drama about women and children forced to trek across Malaya

Thumbnail image of Wooden Horse, The (1950)Wooden Horse, The (1950)

Three British POWs escape from the notorious Stalag Luft III

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