Western Approaches (UK 1944)
Writer and Director: Pat Jackson
Producer: Ian Dalrymple
Cinematographer: Jack Cardiff
Art director: Edward Garrick
Music: Clifton Parker
Production company: Crown Film Unit
Sound, Technicolor, 84 min.
Print source: Imperial War Museum, London
Filming Western Approaches with the huge three-strip Technicolor camera on board a flimsy lifeboat out in the Atlantic swell must have seemed a reckless enterprise, but director Pat Jackson wanted the audience to experience an authentic depiction of those risking their lives to bring vital supplies across the ocean during the Second World War. In pursuit of this ideal, he employed a cast entirely of serving officers and seamen, many of them veterans of Atlantic convoys, and for the most part he kept well away from the film studio. This was not without its problems. Shooting aboard a lifeboat drifting about the Irish Sea with the sound recording equipment on an adjacent fishing trawler posed considerable difficulties, not least of which was keeping the trawler out of shot when the weight of the cables repeatedly pulled the boats together. Jackson was frustrated that the boats were often too close to the coast where there was an insufficient Atlantic swell, not to mention the occasional seagull flying into shot. There was also the fact that the crew wasn’t able to take the Technicolor camera on an actual convoy and had to make do with the much inferior “monopack” system for these shots. And although Jackson coaxes some superbly assured performances from his cast of amateurs, the discipline required when filming did not always fit well with seamen whose natural shore habitat was the pub. Nevertheless, thanks to Jack Cardiff’s genius as a cinematographer, the film looks superb, despite being shot in wholly uncontrolled lighting conditions. Watching the opening storm scenes followed by a perfect transition to the complete calm of the Admiralty operations room, you know you are in the hands of assured filmmakers.
The master elements of this film, amounting to over seventy nitrate reels, were deposited with the Imperial War Museum in the 1970s, along with a single nitrate Technicolor print dated 1944. This would have been the Ministry of Information’s reference print rather than a library copy, and despite signs of considerable use, it remains in decent condition (shrinkage: 0.45%). When the print was last screened ten years ago as a reference for the digital restoration of the film, the colorist was amazed at how well the original color timing had ironed out the massive changes in color balance resulting from the wildly varying conditions under which the film had been shot. A tribute indeed to Technicolor technology. —David Walsh