Landscapes of the Heart: The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger
It has often been said that the films of Powell and Pressburger (who called themselves the Archers, not to be confused with the radio series of that name) were ahead of their time. Sometimes it seems as if they are still ahead of this time, still too dazzlingly beautiful, robustly eccentric, and culturally allusive to be appreciated by audiences used to the more anaemic quirkiness of the modern-day art-house. That's as may be. Considered on their own merits, however, the films are fascinating, not only for their surreal edge, but also for their obsession with Englishness. At a time when most people still thought in terms of Britain and Britishness, Powell and Pressburger devoted themselves to an examination of various English topics, including the English heart (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), the nature of the relationship between the English and the Germans (also Colonel Blimp), and between England and America (A Matter of Life and Death), the affinity for the land and the way in which our literary heritage is written into it (A Canterbury Tale), middle-class Englishness versus Scottishness (I Know Where I'm Going), and English interactions with peoples on the fringes of Empire (Black Narcissus). They did all this in films which, despite these serious preoccupations, are visually stunning, extremely witty and hugely entertaining. They are also intensely spiritual in their eye for the landscape and their mystical view of history and heritage. Among post-war films, the Archer's films are unrivalled for their awareness of the effect of place on people. They were, nonetheless, greeted with bafflement and sometimes outright hostility by many contemporary viewers and critics. Powell was later to remark wryly in his autobiography A Life in Movies that the love of England which nurtured his work was never reciprocated. It is indeed ironic that the best-known of the Archers' major films, The Red Shoes, is also the one least concerned with Englishness.
Although their films were often focussed on English themes, they were made with the assistance of an extremely cosmopolitan team, many of them refugees from the Continent. Powell was aided in bringing his unique visual imagination to the screen by talented designers such as Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth, who had cut their teeth during the flowering of the modern visual arts in pre-Nazi Germany. The most important of these Europeans was, however, Powell's collaborator Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian Jewish refugee who, like his compatriot Alexander Korda, loved England intensely. He had perhaps the most original screenwriter's mind of the 1940s, producing storylines which depict an England seen through his quizzical and affectionate eyes. Michael Powell himself, who was fluent in French and had spent much of his growing-up years in France, away from his beloved native Canterbury, gained from this experience a keen appreciation of what makes England distinct from other cultures, as well as an affinity for Continentals and their approach to art.
Some of Powell and Pressburger's earlier films were notable, including Powell's fantastical Thief of Bagdad, and the first film to give an inkling of the feyness that would mark their later work, The 49th Parallel, which chronicles the misadventures of a group of Nazi invaders in war-time Canada. But the first film in their mature style was the magnificent 1943 epic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It has sometimes been called our answer to Citizen Kane, but this does not capture the film's warmth and essential Englishness, built around a recognizable and loveable English type. To create the character of Colonel Blimp, the Archers took David Low's cartoon Colonel (a reactionary figure usually portrayed wearing a sauna towel and saying "Gad sir, so-and-so is right" ), and changed him into Clive Candy, humanising him in the process. Beginning with Candy's young manhood as a British officer during the Boer War, the film follows his life through an enduring friendship with a good German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, and three sentimental attachments. Wars and promotions pass, until the Candy, by now an old man, is confronted by the horrors of World War II and finds that his chivalric values are beginning to look unequal to the Nazi challenge. Roger Livesey plays Candy as warm-hearted, naive, child-like in some ways. Despite his bluff military exterior, Candy is a closet romantic, pursuing the face he fell hopelessly in love with as a young man through three successive generations. He is the perfect foil for Anton Walbrook's aware, suave, sensitive German, whose performance led Churchill to try and ban the film, apparently oblivious to the fact that it was perhaps the best propaganda film of the war; Walbrook's speech to the immigration officials when he comes to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany is one of the most moving scenes in all cinema. The twenty-one-year-old Deborah Kerr is also perfect, turning in a staggeringly assured and radiant performance as the three women with whom Candy falls in love. Rarely have there been three such perfectly-balanced bravura performances in any one film. Although it was made in wartime and ostensibly concerns itself with war, Colonel Blimp is really a film about love: love between friends, romantic love, love of country-- and its tenacity in the face of war. The portrayal of an English-German friendship across enemy lines was a triumph of generosity for Powell, whose beloved Canterbury had been heavily bombed, and especially for Pressburger, for reasons that are obvious. The film was also notable for the astonishing clarity and naturalness of its colour photography, streets ahead of what was then being done in Hollywood.
The following year's black-and-white film A Canterbury Tale is very different to Colonel Blimp, which, although highly unusual, had a fairly straightforward story-line. Set in the countryside surrounding Powell's native town, it evokes a line of continuity between the original Canterbury pilgrims of Chaucer's day and their modern, secular counterparts: an American G.I. of English ancestry, a cinema organist-turned-soldier, and a land girl, all of whom find in wartime Canterbury and its environs a spiritual solace as much pagan as Christian. Presiding Magus-like over the haunted and dreaming landscape is Eric Portman's eccentric rural magistrate, who views the sudden influx of people into his tiny village as a prime opportunity to educate the young men (though not, sadly, the young women) about their heritage. Canterbury forms the nerve-centre of the film's spiritual map, the place where all hopes are fulfilled. This fascinating combination of Anglican mysticism and pagan nature-worship makes A Canterbury Tale one of the strangest and most explicitly English films of the 1940s. The brilliant jump-cut at the start of the film, guaranteed to produce atavistic chills in even the most sophisticated English viewer, predates the famous example in Kubrick's 2001 by over twenty years. Once again, however, the film was controversial, making distributors worry about promoting such a vision of English oddity in the United States.
I Know Where I'm Going is in the same mode as A Canterbury Tale, equally concerned with the supernatural way in which landscape can shape people's lives, and even change their characters. Set in Scotland, it contrasts the materialism and ambition of a brittle Manchester girl, likeable at heart, with the gentleness of the people and laird (Roger Livesey in fine form) of a small Scottish island. (Powell was a life-long lover of Scotland, and The Edge of the World, one of his earliest and finest feature films, examined community life on an isolated Scottish island.) It is photographed by the great English-German expressionist photographer Erwin Hillier, in incredibly atmospheric black-and-white. In one beautiful shot, a cowherd emerges out of the mist to the jingling of cowbells. The film contains more than a few echoes of classical and Gaelic mythology, and there are some genuinely eerie moments, as well as a ravishing musical interlude provided by the superb Glasgow Orpheus Choir, in a rare film appearance. It also features the actor Esmond Knight's eccentric animal-loving uncle, Captain C.W.R. Knight, who blusters his way amusingly through the film in search of a missing eagle, and the young Petula Clark as a hyper-aware little girl.
A Matter of Life and Death, made the following year, was a return to the colour-epic style of Colonel Blimp. It was a feat of technical brilliance with, for the time, astounding special effects; the moving stairway to heaven is particularly awe-inspiring. After the warmth of the Archers' previous films, this one could strike the viewer as a little too consciously clever and occasionally lacking in heart (the decision to wipe out Roger Livesey's character in order to advance the plot is jarring). However, there are splendid performances all round, especially from David Niven as a poet and RAF pilot, before he became stereotype-cast by Hollywood as a piece of English cardboard. Few films of the time were quite this insouciant: earth is filmed in glorious colour, while heaven is filmed, daringly, in black-and-white, with Marius Goring gloriously campy as a French heavenly messenger. The film is a taking-stock after all the loss of life of a huge world war, poignantly referenced in the heaven scenes, with their enormous crowds of young soldiers, nurses, Ghurkas and pilots. Roger Livesey's speech before these heavenly multitudes strikes a hopeful note for better international understanding and co-operation in the post-war world, in spite of Anglo-American tensions. However, Raymond Massey's remarks as an American character, arguing that no foreign nations like the English, make one wonder whether this was quite the stuff to give the (demobbed) troops. This is the Archers' most literate film, with quotes from Andrew Marvell, Raleigh, and Sir Walter Scott. From the point of view of world cinema history, it is extremely important because it gave the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff his first big break. He would go on to photograph some of the most important movies of the post-war period.
1947's Black Narcissus contains more than a hint of the self-indulgence that was to afflict many later Powell and Pressburger films. Dealing with the amorous frustrations of a group of Anglican nuns who set up a school in the Himalayas, it examines --although not as intelligently as it might have done— relations between the English and colonial rural peoples in far-off corners of empire. Its over-heated storyline, with David Farrar striding about in rather brief shorts despite the howling wind, thereby tantalising the nuns (with fatal consequences for one of them), quickly makes it hard to take seriously. Visually, however, this is one of the team's most breath-taking films --Jack Cardiff's photography is stunning, particularly of the scenes set in Ireland-- and the film should be given top marks for bravely subversive subject matter. Although Deborah Kerr is not as masterful as Sister Clodagh, an Irish nun, as she was in Colonel Blimp, Kathleen Byron turns in an iconic performance as the mentally-disturbed Sister Ruth, while an extremely young Jean Simmons makes the most of a non-speaking part as an Indian girl.
The Red Shoes, made in the following year, is the Archers' most famous film and an indisputable masterpiece. However, it also unfortunately portends what was to come. Beautifully photographed but overly serious, this homage to the world of international ballet has a gruesome ending and, with a storyline more Continental European than English (about Love versus Art), it also lacks the subtle human interest of earlier Powell and Pressburger films. However, the central ballet sequence remains stunning for its colour and surrealism, influencing the ballet sequence in Gene Kelly's An American in Paris. (It is instructive to watch the two ballet sequences from both films back-to-back). The film is dominated by Anton Walbrook in a performance which defines elegant neurosis. Without a supporting cast of the calibre of Kerr or Livesey, he out-acts any of the other principals.
As if the clock had struck twelve and the ball was over, the colour films of Powell and Pressburger suddenly became overblown with the advent of 1950. The first, woeful example of this was that year's Gone to Earth, mystifyingly starring the American actress Jennifer Jones as Hazel, a Shropshire gypsy girl (surely an English actress with an authentic accent could have been found?) pursued by David Farrar as a sneering, bodice-ripping squire. The script does not help: when Hazel receives an offer of marriage, her father remarks dazedly that he can now line the whole garden with beehives. Although the photography of Shropshire is superb and there are some genuinely poetic scenes of the heroine wandering in the forest that is her habitat, the Cold Comfort Farm-ish rurality, lack of humour, and dreary storyline make the film ridiculous. This is artistic woolliness, but it is woolliness nonetheless.
With 1951's The Tales of Hoffmann, things only got worse. This overlong, teeming adaptation of Offenbach's opera has frankly ridiculous sets and costuming, with Robert Helpmann looming into what seems like every second shot. The Battle of the River Plate, made in1956, was a competent naval thriller, but not nearly as distinctive as the Archers' forties films. 1957's black-and-white Ill Met by Moonlight, which relates the exploits of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Stanley Moss on Crete during the war, has luminous photography but thin and self-conscious performances, particularly from the young Dirk Bogarde.
Michael Powell's interest in psychosexual themes tended to produce hysterical and humourless films when he allowed it free rein, and it was to bring about a retrospective critical condemnation of the Archers' work when he released 1960's notorious Peeping Tom. Nevertheless, throughout the 1940s he and Pressburger produced a clutch of extremely English masterpieces which regularly turn up in Greatest Film lists, not only in England but internationally. In America, Martin Scorsese has conducted a one-man campaign to raise awareness of their contribution to world cinema, and Joe Wright, the director of the latest film version of Pride and Prejudice, is frank about his debt to their visual sense. It is time that more of us started to appreciate their brilliant work. Now that their films are widely available in the UK, both singly and in bargain-priced DVD sets (with the choice of a three-film set of A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going, and Colonel Blimp, or, for the more extravagant, the nine-film Powell and Pressburger Collection), there really is no excuse.
More information about the films of Powell and Pressburger can be found on the BFI website, where there is an excellent microsite, Pilgrims' Progress, containing articles on their work and audio interviews with Michael Powell. The archived original reviews of their films are of particular interest. For sheer wealth of information, see also Steve Crook's fantastic The Powell and Pressburger Pages.--Isabel Taylor