Pat Jackson is one of the reasons we are “going retro” with CIFF. It is exhilarating for a programmer to follow trails of discovery and find outstanding films that have been overlooked in our accepted understanding of the past.
Back in the 1940s, Penguin Film Review wrote about Pat Jackson as “a brilliant young director”, and he was cultivated by the British establishment as one of the bright hopes for the future of British filmmaking. But today he is tragically forgotten by most.
As a teenager, Jackson was introduced to the film world in the best possible way. In the mid 1930s, he was recruited by John Grierson into the progressive G.P.O. Film Unit, then at the cutting edge of experimentation in non-fiction cinema. The young Jackson began as a runner but soon came under the wing of Harry Watt – the best possible mentor. Watt was a gruff Scotsman who was a key figure in British documentary and later made THE OVERLANDERS in Australia. Watt brought Jackson in to work as a production assistant on the landmark documentary, NIGHT MAIL (1936), and gradually Jackson made his way up to editing, then directing. His first credited documentary as director was THE HORSEY MAIL (1938), a short film which immediately displayed his interest in blending dramatised scenes with documentary: in this joyously eccentric little film, Jackson amazingly broke free of the rules by having the off-screen narrator exchange bantering remarks with an on-screen character far away in a remote location.
Jackson’s experiments in breaking down “the fourth wall” continued with films for the G.P.O. and its wartime successors. In BUILDERS (1942), for example, he had a bricklayer on-camera chatting with the audience as he worked. In 1944, Jackson’s big break came. He was still only in his 20s when he was commissioned to make WESTERN APPROACHES, a feature-length film designed to reveal the extreme perils of the daily work of the Merchant Navy in the near Atlantic where a horde of German U-boats ravaged the supply routes from the USA to Britain. Jackson scrapped the usual narrated approach, and created a hybrid docu-drama, filmed on “real” locations, with naval crew playing themselves in a fully dramatised composite of actual events. As the film developed, a range of non-professional players from other fields supplemented the cast, and the locations, while genuinely in the Atlantic Ocean, were within ready reach of a port of refuge. The story, scripted by Jackson after extensive interviews with seamen, followed the plight of a Merchant Navy crew stranded in a life-boat in the “Western Approaches” (being the Atlantic to the immediate west of the British isles) and engaged in a desperate battle of wits with a relentless U-boat. In a way that would be impossible today because of OH&S regulations, the film was shot at sea in a genuine life-boat – in Technicolor! – with a camera the size of a refrigerator sitting in the middle of the boat! Not only that, but Jackson felt he needed more flexibility with the camera so had his team build tracks on the floor of the lifeboat so that the camera could move around! The contrast with Hitchcock, making LIFEBOAT at the same time in a studio tank with a cast of movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead, is extreme.
WESTERN APPROACHES was released into mainstream British cinemas in 1944 and screened world-wide, and in Australia in 1945. It was a popular and critical success domestically and internationally. Harry Watt, in his memoirs, called it “the best war documentary” made in Britain. In the USA, where it was released as THE RAIDER, the film was welcomed by the renowned critic, James Agee, for its “humanity” and “authenticity,” and he ranked it as one of the five best films he’d seen in 1946. The film is to be “permanently respected”, Agee wrote, for the way in which “art and actuality work on each other like live chemicals.”
In the wake of this success, Jackson was offered a contract to make films for MGM in Britain, to be produced by Alexander Korda. But fate stepped in: Korda and MGM split up, and Jackson was flown to Hollywood where no-one knew what to do with a very young British documentary director. He was offered a Lassie picture, which he turned down, and spent several years developing projects of his own before he was given his first film to direct – SHADOW ON THE WALL (1950), a low-budget thriller with minor stars (Ann Sothern, Zachary Scott and most impressively Nancy Davis – later Nancy Reagan). Rather like an Ealing social issue drama about child psychiatry, blended with a Hollywood genre thriller, SHADOW ON THE WALL is immediately impressive as a film rich in superbly choreographed suspense and closely observed interactions between a traumatised child and the adults around her. It’s a fascinating film which, on its own, is sufficient reason for re-evaluating Jackson’s early work. If all goes well, I’m inclined to try to source it for screening in CIFF in 2018.
Soon after SHADOW ON THE WALL, Jackson broke his MGM contract and returned to London where he quickly found a chance to direct his next feature in 1951. The new film was a hospital drama, WHITE CORRIDORS (screening in CIFF on Saturday 4 November). In Jackson’s preferred style, WHITE CORRIDORS was largely shot on location in a working hospital, with professional actors (led by Googie Withers in one of her finest roles) surrounded by non-professionals – real nurses, real staff.
WHITE CORRIDORS was a critical success in the UK and in the USA, but the 1950s were tough years for British cinema. The closing of Ealing’s production program reduced Jackson’s options, and he became a free-lance writer-director for hire. There were long gaps between films, and he was soon directing B-movies and turning to television to survive. Film enthusiasts lost sight of him and his reputation withered.
Yet, his three first features – WESTERN APPROACHES, SHADOW ON THE WALL and WHITE CORRIDORS – remain remarkable evidence of his talents, and it is exciting to re-discover his work. CIFF is extremely pleased to be putting Jackson forward as a gifted director who commands re-appraisal.
– Andrew Pike, 12 September 2017