Presenting Powell and Pressburger
by Stuart Millson
During the 1940s and ‘50s, cinema in this country was revolutionised by the work of two film-makers, the Kent-born Michael Powell, and his friend and colleague, the Hungarian-born émigré and veteran of continental and German cinema, Emeric Pressburger. It might seem, at first sight, as if these two cultural forces were contradictory, but in some of their finest films – A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death – the English vision of Michael Powell was intensified, and made more mysterious, more atmospheric, by Pressburger’s heritage as an “outsider”. It was said that Pressburger never lost his sense of middle-Europe – and even his retirement home in the Suffolk countryside, Shoemaker’s Cottage, was compared to a fairy tale dwelling from a Brothers Grimm story. Yet, just like the Czech writer Karel Capek, he saw the heart of England. Michael Powell’s cinematography lifted the films which they made together to the level of art, but it was Emeric’s screenplays and stories, with their riddles and unexpected twists and outcomes, which gave each production its stamp of uniqueness.
Their production company – named The Archers – had a well-known trademark: at the outset of each film, a spine-tingling whoosh is heard, and an arrow thumps into a target. For the beginning of their 1944 film, A Canterbury Tale, there could be no better prelude; as the archery gives way to the bells of Canterbury, and the voice of actor Esmond Knight slowly and gently reads to the cinema audience the Prologue from Chaucer’s great panoply of life, people and pilgrimage…
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich 3 licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour… So priketh hem nature in hir corages, than longen folk to go on pilgrimages…
A map of the old pilgrim route, from Winchester, to Rochester, to Canterbury is unfolded, leading into a sequence (which was filmed at St. Martha’s Hill in Surrey) with actors in the costumes of the Middle Ages. In turn, this procession of merchants, clerks and pardoners, and a laughing wife of Bath, gives way to the stark sight of a British soldier of the wartime Home Front half-a-millennium later, armed and ready. A 14th-century falconer releases a hawk, and in the blink of an eye, or the click of a “jump-cut” by Director Michael Powell (a simple but effective example of special effects) the hawk has turned into a Spitfire, patrolling the skies of Southern England.
We discover that A Canterbury Tale is not entirely about the distant past, but the anxieties and thoughts of three modern pilgrims – a British and a United States sergeant, and a girl from the Women’s Land Army. They are marooned late one night at the Kent station of Chillingbourne, which is not a real place, but an amalgam of the actual timber-framed streets and square of Chilham and any number of quiet East Kent villages, virtually undisturbed since the “Domesday book” – as the American sergeant, impatient with slow English ways, quips. Film enthusiasts may well remember the railway station scene, with the assistant station-master played by that mainstay of Carry On! Films, Charles Hawtrey. He reminds the U.S. soldier that “Chillingbourne was constituted a municipal borough” long before Columbus discovered America, but also – disturbingly – warns the three visitors to be wary of “The Glue Man”; a strange and sinister figure who has been frightening the local girls of the village, by appearing late at night and throwing glue into their hair.
But Pressburger’s story has a point, and as the English mist clears, the finger of guilt is pointed at a local historian and archaeologist, the JP and magus of the village, Thomas Colepepper, played by the star of many a wartime film, Eric Portman. Through his natural authority and position, Mr. Colepepper emerges as a guardian of the village, a man who wishes to “pour a knowledge of England” into people’s heads: the glue-attacks being a way of frightening the girls of the village from venturing out, giving nothing for the soldiers at the local camp to do but come to the Colepepper lectures on Belgian coins and Roman remains found on the North Downs!
The sense of the passage of time, of old and faded glories but with a potential to seize once again the force of life, also appears in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – from 1943 – the story of a once-dashing young officer of the Edwardian British Army, reduced to an anachronistic figure by the time of the Second World War, out-manoeuvred by a new generation of soldier and a more technocratic, ruthless form of warfare. Roger Livesey stars as “Colonel Blimp” (the character of Low’s famous cartoon character), Clive Wynne-Candy, who achieves the rank of Major-General. An English gentleman to the core, he befriends in the pre-Great War cafes of Berlin a young German officer, Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff, played by Anton Walbrook. But from the desolation of the Western Front – and look out in this sequence for an appearance by John Laurie (Private Frazer in Dad’s Army) – the fortunes of war turn Theodore into a beaten, scorned enemy. Yet Clive Wynne-Candy praises his German friend, introducing him to his social circle – fellows with great imperial moustaches and jobs as district commissioners, who boom out to Theo over the port glasses: “Pleased to meet you, me dear fellow!”
Theo, in turn, cannot comprehend the complacent, forgiving, self-contained attitude of the English; and when war is declared a second time in 1939, the German, now living in England and opposed to Hitlerism, has to appear before an enemy aliens’ tribunal. In this sequence, Anton Walbrook delivers a very fine monologue on England and how the war that is now starting will not be a typical cricket-match – with a possible English loss settled by a gentlemanly re-match. No – warns Theo: the war to come is against an enemy more ruthless, more infernal than anything we have ever encountered, an adversary who must – at all costs – be defeated.
Towards the end of the war, Powell and Pressburger turned their attention to a more psychological drama, one that begins in a soon-to-crash burning RAF bomber, in which the pilot, Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter, played by David Niven, dictates his last will and testament to the control tower of the nearest aerodrome. An American girl, from Boston, hears his last words, or what we think are his last words… The communication shuts down as the bomber hurtles to destruction through a thick sea-fog that has covered the British Isles.
Miraculously, the Squadron Leader has survived the plunge into the water, and at first, he believes that he has woken up in heaven. He wanders in a daze toward sand-dunes, where a dog appears. Peter Carter is glad that they have dogs in heaven… but suddenly, an aircraft roars overhead, and he realises that he is still in the world of the living. Almost desperate, and still confused, he sees a young woman – in uniform – cycling across the heathland beyond the dunes. It is the girl from the control tower – June, the American girl from Boston. They fall in love, but there appears to have been a mistake made by heaven: Peter was not meant to survive the bomber’s crash into the sea. Alarm bells ring in the heavenly bureaucracy, and the angels are concerned that a mistake has been made! The books no longer balance, and so an emissary (an aristocratic victim of the French revolution, played by Marius Goring) is sent down to earth. His mission – to bring Peter Carter out of the world of the living.
And so begins a struggle between this world and the world to come, with Peter tormented by what could be hallucinations of visits by a French aristocrat, but which may even be real. At this point, Dr. Frank Reeves, another great performance by Roger Livesey, enters the story. A brain surgeon and local eminence, like Mr. Colepepper in A Canterbury Tale, he keeps a close watch on all that goes on in the village. But a fatal motorcycle accident robs Dr. Reeves of his life, and he is transported to heaven – to defend the right of Peter Carter to stay alive and fall in love with June, against the powerful oratory of one inhabitant of the after-life, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) – a puritanical American revolutionary and patriot of the 18th-century, shot by the redcoats, who harbours an eternal hatred for Britain. Appalled that Peter Carter is in love with a girl from his native Boston, he sets out to thwart any action by the forces of heaven which could allow Carter to live out his life.
A court-room scene, somewhere in the heavenly galaxy, takes place – Farlan and Dr. Reeves exchanging many barbed and bad-tempered phrases against one another, with their native lands held up to scorn and ridicule. Farlan’s reaction as the Doctor plays a recording of modern American dance music is one of the high-points of the film, which is never without its humorous moments – especially when Marius Goring, much earlier on, descends from his black-and-white heaven, and remarks on how one is starved of Technicolor! In the end, after various points of law are considered, heaven awards Peter and June a generously long life, and the matter is settled.
For Powell and Pressburger – a creative partnership that had dissolved by the late 1950s – the unexpected and the supernatural were essential elements of film-making. In later life, when attempting in 1976 to make a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Michael Powell remarked of the film-makers’ art: “These lenses set men free.”
These two remarkable men were incorrigible romantics, and perhaps the most artistic and extravagant of their productions was in 1948, The Red Shoes– a compelling, epic story of a ballet-dancer’s brilliant career, as it spins towards obsession and death at the hands of Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the driven and maniacal impresario of post-war European ballet.
The legacy of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is one of artistic innovation and, above all, of good story-telling. One often wishes that their films would never end. Thanks to the miracle-working of ‘The Archers’, our imaginations and hopes will continue to be stirred for many years to come.
Stuart Millson is QR’s Classical Music Editor