THE British cinema of the Sixties was littered with the bones of directors who showed promise in the field of documentaries and shorts but came to grief in features; but James Hill was one of the most conspicuous exceptions. With Born Free (1965) he scored one of those freak successes of which all in the industry dream and one which fully exploited his early documentary training.
He had entered films with the GPO Film Unit in 1937 as an assistant, spent the war as a photographer for the RAF Film Unit and was awarded the DFC. With demobilisation he became a documentary director in his own right and later began making children's films, both feature-length (starting with The Stolen Plans, 1952) and short, his greatest success in the latter category being Giuseppina (1960), about an afternoon spent watching the customers come and go by the young daughter of an Italian garage proprietor, which won Hill the 1960 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subjects). An entire generation of children grew up on this, and his charming The Home-Made Car (1964): in the late Sixties and early Seventies they were never off BBC2, which used to show them during daytime gaps in their schedules as Trade Test Colour Films. Many mourned the Trade Tests' passing when the BBC ceased transmitting them in 1973.
Hill had by now graduated to feature films for grown-ups with The Kitchen (1961), a version of Arnold Wesker's play which took place on a kitchen set actually filled with all the paraphernalia, instead of being mimed as it was on stage. Next came a couple of chamber pieces by John Mortimer, The Dock Brief (1962) and Lunch Hour (1962), both virtual two-handers: the former about a barrister (Peter Sellers) making a botch of defending a wife-murderer (Richard Attenborough), the second detailing the disintegration of a lunchtime liaison between colleagues from work (Robert Stephens and Shirley Anne Field) when the girl takes too literally the cover stories concocted by the man as his alibi.
Neither were obvious hot commercial properties (especially with the latter's running time of a mere 64 minutes) and Hill now turned his hand to more colourful subject matter with Every Day's a Hoilday (1964), a teenage pop musical retitled Seaside Swingers in the United States, and especially with A Study in Terror (1965), which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper against the backdrop of a vivid Eastmancolor Whitechapel designed by the veteran Alex Vetchinsky. This film rambunctiously mixed gleefully gory stabbings with a remarkable line-up of some of Britain's finest acting talent, including John Neville (as Holmes), Donald Houston (as Watson), Frank Finlay (as Lestrade), Robert Morley, Anthony Quayle, Barry Jones and Judi Dench.
From Jack the Ripper to Elsa the lioness, Hill now came to a new point of departure with Born Free. Based on Joy Adamson's autobiographical account of life and wildlife in Kenya, the experience of making the film seems to have profoundly affected everyone involved, for, like his human stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, Hill thereafter seems to have lost interest in any subject other than animals, as practically all his subsequent titles show: An Elephant Called Slowly (1970), Black Beauty (1971), The Lion At World's End (which he co-directed with Travers, 1971) and The Belstone Fox (1973). Most of these are effectively feature-length wildlife documentaries held together by token human narratives, and even Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969) could be seen as having a 'green' message.
Latterly Hill worked on episodes of television series such as The Saint and The Avengers and the children's classic The Young Visiters, and his final cinema film, The Man from Nowhere (1976), was also a return to a children's subject.