Western Approaches Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed DD Video’s region 2 release of Western Approaches. A classic of wartime propaganda cinema, the film’s documentary techniques and non-professional actors, not to mention Jack Cardiff’s superb Technicolor photography, mean that it still holds up remarkalby well to this day. As a bonus, the disc also comes with excellent presentation and a pair of worthwhile extras.

Given the sheer wealth of World War II movies produced during the forties and fifties, it comes as something of a surprise to discover one that is so distinctly singular. With its lifeboat full of torpedo survivors, U-boat infested waters and precarious rescue mission finale, Western Approaches should be typical war in the Atlantic fare, yet this is to ignore the fact that it was also a product of the Crown Film Unit. By 1944, the year of Western Approaches release, the Crown Film Unit (prior to August of 1940, the GPO Film Unit) has been responsible for film by, amongst others, John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Humphrey Jennings and Len Lye; a fertile working ground, no doubt, for future director Pat Jackson. Indeed, he has served, uncredited, as an editor on the classic 1936 short Night Mail and had taken over the helming of Western Approaches from that film’s co-director Harry Watt (the initial aim had been to repeat the formula of his 1941 RAF-extolling effort, Target for Tonight), allowing him to produce one masterpiece before descending into the directorial anonymity of such assignments as What a Carve Up and the Somerset Maugham compendium Encore.

Whilst it may share the rather loose label of docu-drama with many of the efforts produced by his Crown contemporaries, Jackson’s take on Western Approaches forgoes the more poetic elements commonly found in their work and instead favours a grittier realism. (In this respect, it’s closest relation would perhaps be the films of Humphrey Jennings, a director who could seamlessly combine the two.) The film was shot at sea in hazardous wartime conditions and boasts a cast populated entirely by merchant seamen playing their fictional counterparts. Even without a knowledge of the film’s background these techniques are unmistakable, most pertinently because we immediately see that not everyone in a British war movie need speak like Noel Coward, John Mills or Richard Attenborough. (And I bet their wives don’t sound like Celia Johnson either.) Certainly, the presence of non-actors brings with it a modicum of awkwardness and a lack of finesse, but the overall freshness proves a more than adequate counterbalance. Moreover, Jackson shows himself to be completely unafraid in this approach, fully revelling in both the mundanity and casually morbid wit of the men he has taken as his focus, so much so that the BBFC had reservations about the coarseness of language. Only once does the lack of professional actors show, during an early situation room scene where the natural rhythms of the performers render the, admittedly wholly expository, dialogue interminable.

If, at this moment, one or two of his actors seem stifled, then this certainly isn’t the case with Jackson’s visual methods. Together with famed director of photography Jack Cardiff he has come up with a style that is almost vérité in its approach. Surprisingly, it is during the lifeboat scenes – surely the most difficult to film – that the pair prove most adept. These moments, which comprise the majority of Western Approaches’ running time, are undoubtedly integral to the picture’s overall success, both artistically and in terms of narrative. Rendering them in close-ups, Cardiff is able to do both: on the one hand, the shots look visually superb and perfectly capture the rarely seen physiognomy of these comparatively ordinary men, on the other, the claustrophobia of their situation is palpable from the off. What’s most impressive, however, is that these moments were achieved at all considering the treacherous conditions. Indeed, the impulse is to presume that the waves lapping behind them must surely be the result of some excellent back-projection.

It’s important to note, however, that this isn’t simply a small-scale character based piece in the manner of, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, made the same year, but also a grand cinematic exercise. Of course, its purposes were propagandist and as such the lifeboat episodes are complemented by an effort to provide a bigger picture of the war at sea, but it is in more obvious areas where Western Approaches achieves its sense of proportion. Firstly, there is Clifton Parker’s rousing score, proving that Jackson is as concerned with the sense of drama as he is with the documentary, and secondly, there is Cardiff’s glorious use of Technicolor. From the start Western Approaches is immediately set apart from its contemporaries, the In Which We Serves and We Dive at Dawns, yet the use of colour – despite its scarcity in British pictures at the time – is never employed as a mere gimmick. In stark contrast to, say, the artifice of Cardiff’s work on Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, it only serves to heighten the often grim realism.

The Disc

Obtained from a print housed at the Imperial War Museum’s archive, Western Approaches arrives on disc looking quite spectacular. Certainly, there are signs of the film’s age (sixty years when the disc was mastered), but the Technicolor still impresses. There are discrepancies between scenes, but, as the commentary reveals, owing to the conditions of filming the rich three-strip Technicolor stock could not always be employed owing to the bulkiness of the equipment. The soundtrack also impresses, maintaining the original mono (over the front two channels) and offering little in the way of difficulties beyond that expected from a 1944 recording.

Whilst this worthy presentation would be enough to justify a purchase, DD Video have also provided a pair of excellent extras. First is a commentary by Jackson and Dr. Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum. They make for a good double act with Jackson sounding surprisingly young for his age and has the memory to go with it, whilst Haggith has the knowledge and is able to point his co-commentator in the right directions. As such, the full 80 minutes of the film are employed fully and every possible question about the film is giving suitable discussion. Of course, the anecdotes are the main attraction, my particular favourite being about Cardiff’s constant seasickness that remarkably never affected his stunning photography. Note however that it is presumed that anyone listening has a fair knowledge of British cinema and so newcomers may become a little lost at times.

Equally worthwhile is the second addition, a short film from 1942 entitled A Seaman’s Story. Made by the Realistic Film Unit, its seven minutes offer an intriguing insight into early documentary techniques as well as serving as a thematic cousin to the main feature. The set up is simple: a seaman relates his wartime experiences on camera and they are illustrated (budget allowing) to a remote degree by the filmmakers. Not that this hinders enjoyment as the matter of fact manner in which the young man recounts his tales is utterly mesmerising. Indeed, such is the overall effect that one wishes the Imperial War Museum would issue an entire disc devoted to the Realistic Film Unit’s output.

As with the main feature, neither of these special features come with subtitles.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Feb 22, 2005

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