January 2, 2017


Ian Dalrymple (1903-1989) b. Johannesburg, South Africa.

Ian Dalrymple

In the 1930s he turned to scriptwriting. His most notable credits were for South Riding (1938) and The Citadel (1938), two films which stood out for a rare social commitment. In their realist tone they had more in common with the story-documentaries of the GPO Film Unit than with the largely escapist fare of the British feature film industry of the late 1930s. So when in the early days of the war Alexander Korda wanted to make a morale-raising propaganda film about the RAF, it was natural that he should have turned to Dal. The Lion Has Wings (1939) was crude and hastily put together in five weeks, but as much as anything was intended as an experiment to see whether such a drama-documentary approach would appeal to a general audience. As the GPO Film Unit had for some time been pursuing the same formula – factual films which would have the appeal of entertainment – the box-office success of The Lion Has Wings was bound to be of extreme interest to them. In 1940 an idea that Michael Balcon should run the unit came to nothing, and at the same time Cavalcanti, who had been the unit’s acting producer, left to join Ealing. Dal met the two senior directors at the GPO, Harry Watt and Jack Holmes, and with the approval of the unit’s new masters, the Ministry of Information, it was decided that he would become the new producer. He listed the units achievements, which – on a budget that had not exceeded £100,000 a year – amounted to four feature-length films, fifteen featurettes and two-reelers and thirteen one-reel shorts. In the less than three-year period in which he had been in control there had been a return to the Treasury of £120,000, a figure that did not include the substantial income that would accrue from the release of Fires Were Started (1943) and Western Approaches (1944). He then pointed out that the unit was now well settled, and concluded: ‘I sincerely suggest that one of the first considerations before the Board of Management should be the appointment of a successor to myself. The time has come for a new impetus and new ideas: and for somebody less battle scarred than myself to act as Producer and Administrator.’ When he set up his own production company after the war, Dal tried to bring some of these qualities into feature films. It was called ‘Wessex’ because Dal planned to film Thomas Hardy’s novels. Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) was going to be the first production. In the event he would make none of the novels. Wessex’s second feature was based on the bleak George Moore novel, Esther Waters (1948). It was a box office flop and ended Dal’s hopes of filming the even bleaker Hardy. Wessex enjoyed one success, the prisoner-of-war drama The Wooden Horse (1950). It was not enough to prevent Dal from losing money badly as, typically failing to distinguish between the professional and the private, he poured his own resources into his films. A man, who had been of some means, he died extremely poor. Dal’s importance as the driving force behind the wartime achievements of the Crown Film Unit is beyond dispute. As The Times obituarist wrote, ‘under Dalrymple it transcended its immediate purpose to produce work of lasting quality which has triumphantly stood the test of time’. Listen to Britain (1942) and Western Approaches (1944) – Dal deserves his share in the glory of films which are acknowledged classics of British cinema. But he also deserves to be remembered for his valiant attempts to build on the achievement of the documentarists and to bring a realist approach into features.

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