Alliance of Nations: Powell and Pressburger on Great Britain


Great Britain, as it emerged in the years between the Act of Union and the accession of Queen Victoria, and as it exists today, must be seen both as one relatively new nation, and as an alliance of several older nations — with the precise relationship between these old and new alignments still changing even as I write.
Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1)

The capacity for love or friendship always indicates a superior and generous nature, and when we see them in life or art, they always engage our sympathies. They are witness to an expansive being that can in the pursuit of his own happiness encompass the happiness of another. In such a person the perennial tension between the pleasant and the noble seems to disappear. The lover or friend does what he most passionately wants to do and in doing so benefits the friend or the beloved.
Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (2)

I: Partners

In 1938, Alexander Korda had a problem. Having led the British film industry out of the dead-end of the 1920s “quota quickies” with his ambitious production company London films — with some help from his brilliant young director, Michael Powell — he proceeded to build the most advanced studio in Britain at Denham in Buckinghamshire, opening it in 1936. Korda was a flamboyant and ruthless operator: a Hungarian immigrant who combined a studied appreciation of English society with the perspective of a cosmopolitan European outsider. He could, according to the film critic Ian Christie, “be credited with inventing — or at least importing — the idea of cinema as a cultural enterprise of national importance for his adopted country” (3). However, by 1938, London films had lost so much money that Denham had been handed over to Pinewood mogul Arthur J Rank by Korda’s primary financial backer. Not only this, but his latest production — the First World War espionage thriller The Spy in Black — was a mess: Powell had been assigned to the project, but hated the script and could not work out a way to film it. Korda’s solution was to draft in one of his fellow Hungarian émigrés — the scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger — to help Powell fix the problem. This was, to say the least, an inspired choice.

Powell and Pressburger worked beautifully together: the immediate result was a nuanced and tense spy movie that hit the zeitgeist in the early months of the Second World War and was a smash hit at the box office. Their partnership was, in more ways than one, an international partnership. Powell had launched his film career in Nice, working as mop boy for the Hollywood crew of Rex Ingram, a job that exposed him to the craft of script-writing and film-editing and meant that he briefly “belonged to a versatile and cosmopolitan company which regularly entertained the great names of European and American cinema” (4), as Christie wrote in his monograph Arrows of Desire. Pressburger had also left home to start his career, moving to Berlin in the 1920s to work at Germany’s mighty UFA studios, until the rise of the Nazi regime forced him to leave for Paris and then London, where he joined Korda’s émigré network. Like Korda, Pressburger became an expert Anglophile, with a continental perspective that included practical experience of competing nationalisms and their imagery, fantasies and propaganda.

At the heart of Powell and Pressburger’s work together was the idea of the nation and its relation to their basic preoccupations, summarised by Dr. Frank Reeves in A Matter of Life and Death as “love and truth and friendship.” This was rooted in their own biographies, but functioned at a more universal level than that: it was an attitude to life and living clarified during the darkest moments of the Second World War. Their early collaboration on propaganda films was made easier by the understanding that Nazism stood for everything that they stood against: human identity defined by division, exclusion, violence and conquest. This was articulated in the two great anti-Nazi speeches penned by Pressburger and performed by the Austrian émigré Anton Walbrook as Hutterite community leader Peter in 49th Parallel and the exiled German exile Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp — speeches given powerful eloquence by Pressburger and Walbrook’s own experiences of Nazism in Berlin and Vienna. 

In contrast to the Nazi’s genocidal ideology, Powell and Pressburger presented a British identity informed by its own history and landscapes but also enriched by interaction and alliance with other nations. In all of their films, the theme of partnership — whether through wartime alliance, cultural collaboration, personal friendship, or love — provided them with the most important tool in their construction of national identity. The portrait that they created did not reduce to racial propaganda or political revisionism, but was subtle and intelligent enough to register historical ironies, errors and even crimes. It was, ultimately, positive, an affirmation: the end credit of the international ballet production Tales of Hoffman was defiantly stamped ‘Made in England’; the Archers logo itself combined a visual echo of the RAF roundel with reference to that crucial tool of Medieval nation-building, the long-bow. It was also a constructive project that emphasised alliance and common destiny, and had this much in common with the later work of Linda Colley who wrote in the preface to Britons:

English, Welsh and Scottish history have more often than not been taught and interpreted separately…quarantining these societies from each other, and concentrating only on what is distinctive about their respective pasts, quickly results in distorted and shrunken history. There are important separate stories that need prising open, to be sure, but there are also shared, interlinked and over-arching stories. (5)

Like Colley, Powell and Pressburger took a “broad-angled vision” in their presentation of the British and their countries, a vision that found focus across their filmography in the central themes of love and friendship. 


II: War             

Powell and Pressburger’s own partnership was consolidated during the early years of the Second World War and their films from this period had a thematic purpose specific to British war aims. 49th Parallel, for example, highlighted the vulnerability of the Canadian border in the effort to undermine isolationist sentiment in America. From this government instruction and upon the basic plot of a stranded German U-Boat crew attempting to escape Canadian territory, Powell and Pressburger created a portrait of Canadian society drawn in sharp contrast to the narrow insularity and violent intolerance of Nazi ideals. From the film’s opening dedication to “Canada and Canadians all over the Dominion who helped us to make it” the theme of cooperation and fraternity is made explicit — as is Canada’s place within the British Empire. The complexity of this position is not hidden: Laurence Olivier plays a French Canadian trapper who is initially indifferent to the British defence of Poland but also dismisses the attempt by Nazi Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) to play off French Canadian interests against British imperialism. Within Canadian borders and given prominence in the film are communities of Inuits and Native Indians who live peacefully alongside a modern, urbanised Anglo-Saxon class glimpsed in Banff, Alberta. This idealised representation of coexistence serves to distinguish Canadian parliamentary democracy from the Nazi’s pseudo-biological racism and totalitarianism, a contrast clarified by Hirth’s dismissal of “Eskimos and Negros, only one degree above Jews” moments before he coldly orders the massacre of a boatload of Inuits. This is further underlined by the Nazi crew’s interaction with a Hutterite community they encounter: Hirth believes he can appeal to their ethnic German instincts, but his sub-Hilerite oration is met with stunned and chilly silence by the pacifistic Anabaptist settlers. 

The contrast drawn between the Nazis and the heterogeneous Canadian communities they interact with is not crude or simple. The scale and diversity of the territory and its inhabitants multiplies the political, economic and social power of the Canadian state and by extension the empire. The message is that difference can be an advantage when contained in a free society, although this is not without its own ironies and contradictions. Towards the end of their escape, the two surviving Germans Hirth and Lorhman receive the hospitality of the writer and anthropologist Philip Armstrong Scott, who is studying native Indian tribes in the Rockies. Scott’s otherworldly, cultivated and slightly camp English persona — played to perfection by Leslie Howard — provokes another Nazi rant from Hirth. Scott’s avoidance of conflict, aristocratic self-possession and interest in modern art is enough to stir the ideological prejudices and nationalist instincts of the indoctrinated Nazis. The ensuing fight serves to reinforce Scott’s own identity as a British subject and representative of its multiracial empire as he finally traps and kills Lorhman with the help of the Indian tribesmen he lives with and a contingent of Mounties. For this reason, the casting of Howard was inspired and possibly unavoidable: the son of a Hungarian Jew, he specialised in playing the ideal English gentleman on screen, a role which made him as popular in America and Canada as Britain (less than two years after 49th Parallel he was dead, shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Atlantic). As Krishan Kumar wrote,

[Howard] made it clear in all his lectures and broadcasts that what was at stake was ‘the destiny of Britain’, and indeed of all English-speaking peoples. It was ‘the British soul’, he told Americans, that responded in sympathy with the principle of American freedom. In his documentary film From the Four Corners, soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada are shown the sights of London, culminating in Westminster, the mother of parliaments. The sights and what they symbolize celebrate their shared heritage as Britons. It was this breadth of vision that might explain why…Howard had a fervent following not just in North America but all over the British Empire. (6) 

Howard literally embodies this breadth of vision and it is the role of Scott — the phlegmatic explorer seeking to understand the most extreme margins of British territory — to articulate this cooperative ideal of democratic internationalism from a British perspective. 

In 49th Parallel, the Nazis pursue their escape through robbery, trickery, violence and murder; they are unable to cooperate with anybody, even when they try to convert other ethnic Germans, not only because they are on enemy territory, but because their ideology cannot allow it. Powell and Pressburger’s next film reversed the formula: in One of Our Aircraft is Missing a British bomber crew is forced to bail out over Nazi-occupied Netherlands and escape back to England. The film opens by paying tribute to Dutch assistance in both production of the film and prosecution of the war; this has  propaganda value but also underlines the themes of cooperation and collaboration. The crew of B for Bertie is itself a cross-section of English society — a heterogeneous mix of Northerners and Southerners, old and young, classes and professions — and individual differences are foregrounded immediately in order to emphasize their cohesion as a team (when the crew regroups on the ground, they have to decide whether to “go it alone or stick together” and choose the latter). Unlike the U-Boat crew in 49th Parallel, the progress of the B for Bertie crew is only made possible by the assistance of the Dutch resistance within a tightly controlled Nazi occupation, here led by women: school teacher Else Meertens (Pamela Brown) and the businesswoman Jo de Vries (Googie Withers). As Ian Christie notes, “[t]he Dutch are seen to draw on their historic tradition of independence, and to counter the German forces by understanding their psychology and playing upon it” (7). Dutch national identity therefore provides the foundation upon which to resist not just German occupation but also subjugation to the aggressive and alien ideology of Nazism.

In this underground struggle, the Dutch pretend to collaborate with the Germans, while secretly collaborating with the British who can only offer “love, gratitude and admiration” in return, at least for the moment. (The feeling was mutual, in the end: at Churchill’s funeral, the Dutch formed part of a one hundred flag salute by European resistance fighters as his cortege passed through Whitehall, 8.)  In her key speech, de Vries describes the air raid blackouts as a source of hope and courage for the entire occupied continent:

You see. That’s what you’re doing for us. Can you hear them running for shelter? Can you understand what that means to all the occupied countries? To enslaved people, having it drummed into their ears that the Germans are masters of the Earth. Seeing these masters running for shelter. Seeing them crouching under tables. And hearing that steady hum night after night. That noise which is oil for the burning fire in our hearts.

This minor masterpiece of tension and economy is also a magnificent tribute to the Dutch resistance which reflects back on the varied but coherent national character of the English crew, who prove resourceful, pragmatic, humorous and polite in all interactions with their Dutch helpers. This is nationalism — in both British and Dutch iterations — that is confident and at ease with  itself and consequently able to treat alliances with equanimity and grace, in contrast to German nationalism which is shown in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to be fatally driven by a crisis of legitimacy and lack of achievement. Here, Powell and Pressburger also begin to portray an Englishness that is inherently diverse and therefore, at crucial moments, open to difference and outside influences, a principle which is expanded to incorporate the complexities of Great Britain and the British Empire as a whole.

MV5BNjA0MDRhMzQtMDU1Yy00YWMzLTliODktMjc4NTNmY2ZkMjFmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQ1NjgzOTA@._V1_ (1)

III: Empire

If you go calmly and look English, there is no particular danger.
Walter Bagehot 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is Powell and Pressburger’s national epic. The sudden leap in artistic ambition and technical execution from the preceding films is startling: not simply because of the transition to radiant Technicolour but also because of the complex structure, thematic depth, scope of time, daring depiction of British flaws and German honour in the time of war and, maybe most of all, the film’s infinitely rich and moving portrayal of love and friendship. The film begins with a series of stereotypes that are gradually undermined and complicated: the haughty, punctilious German officers; Deborah Kerr’s series of female love ideals; and the Blimp himself, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy. Through Roger Livsey’s sensitive performance, Candy develops from a one-dimensional David Low doppelganger to a multi-layered composite of the flaws and strengths of the late Victorian ruling class, but with his own characteristics: romantic, bullish, gentle, ebullient, melancholy, stoically cheerful, yet quietly tragic.

The time frame of the film stretches from the Boer War to the middle of the Second World War (when it was made). Candy’s generational experience is very close to Churchill and it is hard to avoid the impression that the Prime Minister’s open hostility to the film was influenced by a suspicion that the whole thing was aimed directly at him. He shouldn’t have worried. One of the key concerns of the film is how late Victorian codes of behaviour left Britain vulnerable to more ruthless Nazi methods, while the adoption of these methods risked undermining the ethical foundation of Anglo-Saxon civilisation. This is the same problem Churchill had been grappling with since 1914, although he probably found it gratuitous to say out loud in 1943; nevertheless, he was always ready to sack Generals for lacking the ingenuity, ruthlessness and foresight demanded by Lieutenant “Spud” Wilson in the film’s framing skit. Churchill also took exception to the neutral treatment of Germans in the film, but the sympathetic portrayal of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff is a penetrating condemnation of the ideology that estranged Theo from his two fanatical Nazi children, invading his home with a chauvinism and brutality he detests and denounces in a quietly ferocious soliloquy. If anything, this is the perfect propaganda film for the precise conflict at hand. 

The context for all of this — the background that informs every aspect of the film without being its principal subject — is Great Britain’s own national epic, the second British Empire. Candy is the ultimate product of his time: the peak of British imperial power in the Victorian and Edwardian era, with the empire perpetuated as an end in itself, celebrated in what existed of mass culture, considered a birthright and inheritance by the aristocratic and administrative classes and, as in its earliest periods, an opportunity for ambitious Britons of all nationalities seeking glory, fortune and distinction. Candy’s portrait opens with the aftermath of his VC-winning heroics in the Boer War, itself the first major reversal in Great Britain’s Victorian triumph. The war has made Candy’s career but also damaged the global reputation of Britain, delivering a propaganda coup for German agents who gleefully distribute stories of British atrocities and concentration camps. As Lawrence James wrote in his account of the British Empire, the Boer war met its ultimate aim “in international terms, a demonstration of Britain’s imperial will and determination to regain global power, whatever the cost” (9), although the financial cost was high and the damage to British morale incalculable. None of this particularly registers with Candy who leaves the war with a memory of adventure and military honour and travels to Berlin ostensibly to rebut German propaganda, but also on a jaunt to diffidently woo Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), the woman he loses honorably to Theo but whose image haunts him for the rest of his life. Candy sublimates heartbreak through an orgy of big-game hunting, represented by the appearance of animal busts on the walls of his London home, collected in a succession of British African colonies. This is Candy’s world, a vast imperial playground, open and available on a whim. 

It is upon this inheritance, however brutally maintained in Southern Africa, that the confidence and manners of the British elite rests. This is encapsulated by the British government ministers sat around Candy’s dinner table after the conclusion of the First World War: representatives of a global power with cosmopolitan aspirations, heirs to Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors, living proof of Great Britain’s providential destiny (10).  These high-ranking men dress in the dark and sober tailoring of the Victorian era, a specifically British style that developed after the French Revolution, according to Colley: 

[B]y the early 1800s, superbly cut but essentially subdued and understated London tailoring had not only become fashionable throughout the western world, but had spawned its own powerful etiquette at home. The apparently unwritten rules…were, in fact, promulgated in a spate of dress-guides issued in the early nineteenth century. However formal the occasion, patrician males now dressed in British fashions – and like men with work to do. (11)

This male patrician class, with its self-conscious, cultivated manners of reserve, cynicism and moderation, is beautifully depicted in Powell and Pressburger’s recreation of the 1902 Berlin Embassy staff and their interaction with German military representatives: the bombast and pretension of the Germans undercut by British indifference to their military code and barely disguised contempt for the arcane etiquette of German dueling. This is not simply a portrait of national characteristics, but a contrast of self-image and comparative global prestige: even after the Boer experience, Britain was an enormous territorial power built on military victory and economic conquest, which can account for the complacent attitude of British administrators. Germany, in comparison, was a relatively new state, forging a coherent identity and looking for national myths upon which to do so, conscious of its potential strength but missing the colonial spoils to represent this on the world stage. As Theo admits to Candy as they recover from the wounds of their duel and establish their friendship, he envies Candy and the British their imperial wars and wishes he had one to fight in; but the fragility of German nationalism, compounded by defeat in 1918, leads directly to its virulent deformation in Nazism, from which Theo eventually flees. 

As can be seen in 49th Parallel, the empire is present in some form in all of the Powell and Pressburger films of the 1930s and 1940s: it is the backdrop and atmosphere upon which these films proceed. But it is only in Black Narcissus that they locate a film in the heart of that empire: India. The film was produced and released in 1947, the year that Mountbatten was fatally botching Britain’s exit from the subcontinent (by the end of the year even Mountbatten’s promoter Churchill had been moved to point out that “at least half a million Indians have already perished at each other’s hands by violent means and now some seven or eight millions are homeless fugitives,” because of the Viceroy’s vanity and incompetence, 12). The Himalayan backdrop was entirely fabricated in Pinewood Studios and on location at Leonardslee Gardens, West Sussex, with visual wonders being worked by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, art director Alfred Junge and painter W. Percy Day. Despite this, incidental details linked the making of the film directly into the dissolving empire: Indian cast members were recruited from war-time immigrant communities congregated in the London docklands, while Leonardslee Gardens was chosen for its selection of Himalayan cedars and azaleas imported from India under imperial auspices by the plant collector Sir Edmund Loder (13). 

At Pinewood, Percy Day composed enormous matte paintings of the wild Himalayan edges of a princely state in which the Anglican Order of the Servants of Mary set up their convent, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). This represented the other side of British imperialism: a spiritual colonialism led by missionaries. The convent is located in a reclaimed seraglio, the abandoned quarters of the royal harem that is still decorated with erotic frescoes on crumbling walls. This undertone of exotic sensuality is heightened by the arrival of Kanchi, a beautiful peasant girl who seduces the local prince’s young general (Sabu). Played by Jean Simmons against type in every sense (it would be politically impossible now), her brief irruption onto the screen is fraught with an eroticism that prompted an incredulous Laurence Olivier, then directing her in Hamlet, to ask Powell, “what have you done to my Ophelia?” The other source of sensual breakdown is Mr Dean (David Farrar), the general’s British agent who considers the ‘civilising’ mission of the sisters to be futile and inadvertently causes Sister Ruth’s (Kathleen Byron) psychosexual unraveling. Dean’s roles encapsulates the ambiguities of empire: a local administrator caught between the authority of his position as an imperial representative technically subordinate to the local ruler. His attitude combines patrician cynicism with an awareness of his exposure in a foreign landscape and culture. He “translates” this ultimately hostile environment for Sister Clodagh, who does not fully heed his warnings until her final retreat from the monastery in pouring monsoon rain. This finale has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of British withdrawal from India, and the attitude to empire in Black Narcissus is ultimately critical: the imperial project, in its local administrative manifestations, has become illogical, cynical and doomed to failure. 


IV: Landscape

A Canterbury Tale (1944) opens with an extract from Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, described by Adrian Hastings as “the best literary expression of national maturity to be found in the fourteenth-century English renaissance” (14) and a triumph for English as a language of poetry to rival medieval French and Italian. For Hastings, the emergence of a vernacular literature is a key component in the construction of nations:

The more a vernacular develops a literature with a popular impact, particularly a religious and legal literature, the more it seems to push its speakers from the category of an ethnicity towards that of a nation. (15)

Or, in other words, “texts can produce peoples,” a point at least partly applicable to the way in which British wartime propaganda films, including those of Powell and Pressburger, produced a British image that fostered national cohesion in the service of international alliances and military victory. According to Hastings, English national identity can be traced back to the time of King Alfred partly on the basis of this development of a vernacular literature, a tradition triumphantly reaffirmed in the fourteenth century by Chaucer’s Prologue. However, as Krishan Kumar points out in his own study of English identity, Chaucer’s achievement was not simply parochial but “a distinctly European project whose aim was the creation of vernacular literatures as the common property of all the educated classes of Europe” (16). The world of The Canterbury Tales is defined, then, by the relationship between local identities (towns, counties, nation) and a cosmopolitan European circuit of court and pilgrimage — or, to quote Thomas Wyatt, “Kent and Christendom” (17). 

The entwining of local detail with international connections is delicately portrayed in the rambling episodes of Powell and Pressburger’s film. The basic narrative frame is as simple as Chaucer’s — a chance assembly of strangers making their individual pilgrimage to Canterbury — but in 1944 the reason for being in Kent is to prepare for the Allied invasion of Normandy. There is, therefore, an international cooperative enterprise at the heart of the film’s narrative. The selection from Chaucer’s Prologue draws attention to the landscape on which this plays out: the Kent countryside in spring, when “shoures soote…bathed every veyne in swich licuor”, and  

…Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages) (18)

For Powell and Pressburger this Kent landscape is precisely woven into the thematic and visual fabric of the film: cloud-watching; the cycle of sunlight; bluebells and wild thyme; the sound of horses, church bells, lute and hedgerow birds. This connects the pilgrims across 600 years: the natural and atmospheric details are, in this sense, everything.

In the summer of 1944, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) meets Acting Sgt. Bob Johnson from Oregon (played by a real Sgt., John Sweet) when their train stops at the fictional town of Chillingbourne: she is going to start work as a Land Girl, while he is on furlough, travelling to meet a friend at Canterbury Cathedral. The Kent they encounter is a heightened portrait of rural Southern county society, a landscape shaped by modern agriculture and artisan industries. This is also a specific English ideal, developed in counterpoint to the Romantic sublime found in the Scottish Highlands and islands that Powell and Pressburger would explore in their 1945 film I Know Where I’m Going! The old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the South would provide, in the late 19th century, a pastoral image for poets and writers that Powell and Pressburger draw upon: a lush prospect of downland, woodland, enclosed fields, meadows and farmsteads; parish churches, public houses and Tudor cottages; ironmongers, oast houses, cart horses and hay-bales. Cinematographer Erwin Hillier drenches this landscape in translucent washes of sunlight that become, at certain moments, transcendent, timeless, mystical. As in the narrative of Chaucer, the spiritual infuses the more earthy reality of work and human agency. For Powell and Pressburger this reality transcends time, connecting individual human activities, aspirations and emotions across hundreds of years — an idea articulated by Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), an obsessive amateur historian with a mystical view of the Kent landscape transfigured, but not haunted, by its own history. This particular interpretation of time and human experience is captured in the opening scenes of the film, when a tranquil view of the pilgrims’ trail is suddenly interrupted by a tank crashing across the screen and the transformation of a kestrel into a Spitfire. Even by 1944, the fields of Kent had acquired national resonance as the stage for military salvation in the victorious air battles of August and September 1940, a key part of their memorial power here.

Powell and Pressburger’s modern pilgrims follow the same route as Chaucer’s to the same historic destination: Canterbury Cathedral remains at the centre of this quest, while other parts of the town have been flattened by the Baedeker raids. Canterbury, itself, plays a central role in English nation-building through Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English, as Hastings notes: 

the ecclesiastical unity maintained by Canterbury was effectively the unity of the churches of the English. That is the point at which Bede’s ecclesiastical history becomes almost necessarily a national history, an account of the ‘gens Anglorum’. (19)

The ultimate journey in A Canterbury Tale is Normandy: the Cathedral organist allows Sgt. Peter Gibbs (a London cinema organist, played by Dennis Price) to play the organ during the thanksgiving service after asking the unadorned question, “you going too?” (he continues, “if you’re one of them, it’s only right that you should play it”). Filmed just before and during the D-Day landings, Operation Overlord is peripheral to all action and dialogue in the film, but is its central fact (it is worth remembering that the outcome, at this point, was still unknown). In contrast to the Kent idyll depicted by Powell and Pressburger lie the imagined and experienced killing fields of Nazi Europe. The English countryside is a spiritual reservoir for the Allied invading force. In this sense, the figure of Chaucer is  a symbol of cosmopolitan European culture, tolerant of diversity and hostile to irrational authority, set against a new Teutonic pagan barbarism. Chaucer — multilingual and with personal and professional connections to France — is very close to the kind of ideal English identity that Powell and Pressburger construct: an England open to partnership, influence, alliance and fraternity with other nations and cultures. To this end, the intensely localised and intricately detailed landscape depicted in A Canterbury Tale is not used for narrow nationalist aims, but is rich with connections across borders and time. The mix of localism and internationalism that Powell and Pressburger present is something distinct from the ethnic mass nationalism that finds its ultimate manifestation in Nazism.

In Gone to Earth (1950) the Shropshire landscape has a similar thematic function, but the human connection is as destructive and sensual as it is in Black Narcissus. As in A Canterbury Tale the film is enriched by Powell’s own familiarity with the landscape he chooses to portray (he went to school in Canterbury and both of his parents had roots in Shropshire). Gone to Earth is set in 1897 at an earlier stage of  agricultural production and social demarcation than 1944, in a landscape precisely defined by class structure and its attendant roles and pursuits. The central metaphor of the film is the fox hunt: the gypsy peasant Hazel (Jennifer Jones) is associated with her half-tame pet fox (who she names Foxy) and is pursued by Jack Reddin (David Farrar), the local squire and leader of the hunt who is always flanked by his bloodhound (“he’s got the blood of little foxes on him, Foxy” Hazel exclaims, caught between horror and arousal). Hazel’s spirit is elemental, supernatural, pantheistic: she carries a book of spells inherited from her mother and shares an instinctual connection to the natural world. Reddin owns the land and, effectively, controls nature.

Shot on location, the agricultural demarcations of Much Wenlock are on full display in Gone to Earth and form part of its rich symbolic economy. As W. G. Hoskins detailed in The Making of the English Landscape, the countryside produced by the enclosures was a landscape stripped of trees and woodland, arranged for specific human needs. In the neighbouring Midlands,

the enclosure of heaths and commons reduced the extent of natural gorse patches where a fox could hide…to get more foxes and to get them distributed more evenly over the country, gorse covers and spinneys were started by hunting landlords in well chose spots. (20)

The landscape was organised, partly, for the requirements of the hunt which had a specific social function, as Colley described it: 

Fox-hunting attracted a broad spectrum of rural society, but the main expense of breeding and feeding hounds and hunters fell to the great landowners, who thereby reaffirmed their prominence in the local community…Hunting enabled a gentleman to flaunt his leisure without seeming in the process to be idle or effete…Foxes were vermin. By hunting them to death – and thereby safeguarding their smallholder’s chickens or lambs – elite males proclaimed their social utility, while at the same time enjoying themselves enormously. (21)

Reddin dominates and shapes this landscape, whether through the agricultural or industrial activities of his tenants or his own sporting pursuits. He is the stereotypical embodiment of the English squirearchy as it had developed by 1897, focused on the landed estate with its rental income and its attendant rural pursuits: breeding horses, training hounds, hunting foxes, shooting game and catching salmon. This sense of entitlement is embedded deep in his psyche, and extends to Hazel: his domination is not just economic, but also physical and sexual. 

Samm Deighan, in her essay on the “pagan pastoral” in Gone to Earth, identifies the film’s roots in a Gothic literary tradition as well as its anticipation of the British ‘folk horror’ cycle of the 1970s:

Reddin…can be seen as a pagan lord of the Wild Hunt, while [Hazel’s husband] Edward is a Christian civilizer. A ritual from [Hazel’s] mother’s magic book drove her to Reddin, even though she professed not to want to go, and in the concluding scenes of the film he takes on a hellish aspect…When [he] enters the room, he’s shot through the flames in his own fireplace, sealing his symbolic link to sex, fire, and death, just as Marston is repeatedly connected to purity, water, and rebirth… (22)

Hazel’s connection with nature is implicitly supernatural, although her book of spells is an heirloom and superstition rather than actual witchcraft. The film is a Gothic melodrama, but not a supernatural tale: it is firmly rooted in the realities of the landscape and rural society. Hazel keeps Foxy close at all times and crows in her home, rescues a rabbit from a trap, mimics birds and believes animals have souls. She is half-wild herself and her erotic energy is untamed, violating the Christian moral codes of the local Shropshire town. This is inexplicable and ultimately ruinous for her husband, the Baptist minister Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), but it is a source of compulsive attraction for Reddin. The wild landscape, untameable nature and eros are linked in the dangerous but authentic physical and emotional connection he has with Hazel. This attraction undermines Reddin’s rational control of the landscape while he also captures and corrupts Hazel within the bounds of his own world. In this story, the layers of country life that define the Shropshire landscape are torn apart, and the wildness of that landscape overwhelms the human actors who destroy themselves within it. 

The power of the wild landscape, and the relationship between human agency and the natural world, also defined Powell and Pressburger’s portrayal of another, more marginal, British landscape: the remote Scottish Highlands and islands. Before he met Pressburger, Powell had already depicted this relationship in his 1937 film The Edge of the World, a fictionalised account of the evacuation of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. In this drama the tensions between island and mainland, tradition and modernity, explode in the struggle between different factions of the island population. The island can no longer sustain a living, isolated from the mainland and superseded by a modern fishing industry. The struggle of this marginal community to accept their inevitable assimilation is precisely about the meaning and limits of national identity — in this case Scottish and British. The more recalcitrant elements on the island, represented by the shepherd Peter Manson (John Laurie), dismiss any connection to Scottish identity: the spirit, in this case, is independent, isolated, defined by the geographical and cultural limits of the archipelago. But for those advocating evacuation, led by Peter’s son Robbie (Eric Berry), the decision to leave is a positive choice: explicit identification with a national unit and with all of the opportunities of a wider world. The film beautifully conveys the balance between these two perspectives without advocating for one or the other: the sublime shots of island cliffs and sea life drenched in shafts of sunlight or menaced by broiling storms add depth to this emotional and psychological bind. For Powell, the island community represents the cultural diversity of the ‘internal’ empire of Great Britain, as well as the complexity and underlying drama of cultural and economic assimilation (a reality shared by the Highlanders, only fully subdued by central state violence in 1746 and thereafter enthusiastic participants in global empire, 23). 

Powell and Pressburger returned to the Hebridean margins in I Know Where I’m Going! Here, the landscape fully serves the story of Joan Webster’s (Wendy Hiller) journey from her Manchester home to join her new husband, a wealthy industrialist who is leasing the Isle of Kiloran. The ‘Highland economics’ that underpin this arrangement are made clear when Joan meets, and eventually falls for, the Laird of Kiloran Torquil MacNeal (Roger Livesey) while waiting out bad weather on the Isle of Mull. Joan is now caught between two realities of land use. Her husband’s life on Kiloran is a pursuit of leisure: he imports salmon to his house and is building a swimming pool. In contrast, the life of the Laird and the local tenants of Mull and Kiloran is a life of hunting, fishing, and farming; the sea is used for travel, food and commerce and is treated with caution (as Joan discovers when she encounters the legendary whirlpool of Kiloran in her desperate attempt to reach the island). They cannot comprehend why somebody would live on the island and import salmon rather than catch it. Nevertheless, they also fully understand the separation of values that distinguishes them for the Southern lowlands and English cities. As MacNeal explains to Joan, whose marriage is almost reducible to a financial arrangement, the locals are “not poor, they just have no money.” They are aware of their difference to her, and draw attention to it, reveling in the obscure Highland and island traditions and the cruelty of the natural world in which they participate. They live in a landscape in which eagles carry off lambs so farmers shoot eagles, a pragmatic and unromantic relationship with nature that is, in turn, incomprehensible to Joan. She is fundamentally alienated from this world, and the empty luxury which her husband offers; MacNeal — Laird and Royal Navy Officer — is also caught between two extremes. 

The resolution is love. 


V: Decline

The Archers partnership of Powell and Pressburger spanned the key years of British decline, from the outbreak of war (The Spy in Black, 1938) to the immediate aftermath of the Suez Crisis (Ill Met by Moonlight, 1957). During that time, as I have tried to show in this essay, they created a rich and broad national portrait, an assertion of national values and character that was self-confident enough to be ironic and critical when necessary. Elements of eroticism, luxury, decadence, melodrama and the macabre revealed a European sensibility fundamental to their work, which often jarred with the sober and decorous mores and expectations of British critics. In their films, style and substance were intimately fused, without one being subordinate to the other. The English critical preference for realism was not treated as a cinematic value to be respected, but a tool to be used among a range of others. This explosive proposition could meet with triumph (The Red Shoes) or disaster (Gone to Earth) and sometimes both at once (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). It was a daring partnership, supported by an extended company of artistic collaborators, that was often misunderstood and sometimes censored or dismissed. Despite this, their work was an affirmation of a society that treated them with suspicion and even contempt. 

By 1946, Great Britain was shrinking. There was no money left to maintain tangible commitments and what remained was image, fantasy and cultural influence. This seeped into the fabric of Powell and Pressburger’s films. Black Narcissus was a meditation on imperial collapse and Gone to Earth presented an image of society undermined by its own moral and social strictures. The finale of Powell and Pressburger’s gorgeous existential fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1946) served as an explicit recognition of the eclipse of British power relative to America’s rise. In the film, a celestial tribunal is established to decide the fate of British pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) and Bostonian radio operator June (Kim Hunter) whose love affair hangs in the balance following a clerical error by Heaven’s Recording Angel (Kathleen Byron). The legal arguments presented by English doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) and American revolutionary martyr Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) drift from the case at hand to the relative merits of British and American democracy and culture. The thrusts and counter thrusts are tart and telling: Farlan recounts the crimes of the British Empire, Reeves enlists the glories of English literature; Farlan plays a listless English test match commentary, Reeves replies with a raucous swing band. Nobody wins this exchange: it is only resolved by love. The propaganda purpose of this film was to foster Anglo-American partnership, but in the process it betrayed the insecurity felt by the British in their post-war relationship with America.

The radiant triumph of The Red Shoes in 1948 — a distraction, if anything, from bankruptcy, rationing and crumbling prestige, and a profoundly European film anyway —  was followed by the insular and pessimistic drama The Small Back Room (1950). The story of Sammy Rice (David Farrar) — a scientist who wears an artificial foot following a failed bomb disposal operation and battles physical and psychological pain with whiskey — is shot in brooding monochrome, and largely takes place in dark, constricted lodgings, jazz clubs, dingy laboratories, tube trains, bare offices that desperately need decorating and Whitehall meeting rooms disturbed by the noise of building work. The tone is insular, claustrophobic and anguished: a world of breakdown, decadence, paranoia and dissolution. As a post-war war film it is startling in its cynicism and lack of illusions: key decisions about weapons programmes are ensnared in departmental vendettas and petty personality clashes fought out in hostile committee meetings (a world Churchill would have recognised). Rice’s relationship with his secretary Susan (Kathleen Byron) is fraught with misunderstanding, alienation, jealousy and suppressed violence. On the edge of this is the new cultural climate of post-war urban Britain, gestating during war-time but fully forming by 1950, a world framed by Kray Twins ultra-violence, Tony Hancock dankness and Diana Dors orgies. The Small Back Room is subtly suffused with this emerging atmosphere, a compelling and modern mire of existential despair and imported kicks, suicidal drinking and promiscuous nightlife, a world that would finally find apotheosis and implosion in Powell’s own 1960 horror masterpiece Peeping Tom

When Powell and Pressburger returned to the war at the end of their Archers partnership, the balance between art and propaganda was still in perfect accord, but the purpose was very different. The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) were both tales of British style and courage made at a time of political trauma: the administration of Eden, culminating in Suez, represented a moment of insecurity and malaise, with Britain’s declining power visible to all. In this context, it is not hard to understand the box office success of The Battle of the River Plate, or the assistance provided by the Royal Navy in its production (HMNZS Achilles and HMS Cumberland were both loaned to reprise their original battle roles). In contrast to their earlier war films, this was a straightforward presentation of the first Allied naval victory of the war and a handsome portrayal of imperial naval discipline and daring. The scale of the film was grand and the final shot of the battle group in formation against the Atlantic sunset made explicit its elegiac nature. Ill Met By Moonlight takes this same instinct into the covert operations of W. Stanley Moss (David Oxley) and Patrick Leigh Furmer (Dirk Bogarde). Based on Moss’ memoir, the film recounts the abduction of the German Commander Heinrich Kreipe (Marius Goring) on Crete: Powell and Pressburger re-stage this as a tale of British ingenuity and (in the hands of Oxley and Bogarde) English upper class dash and panache: an attempt to boost rapidly collapsing national self-esteem. It also foregrounds the themes that underpinned the early war films and makes it, in a sense, a resurrection of those first collaborations: the British can only succeed in their enterprise by establishing a bond of fraternity with the Cretans and collaborating with them as equal partners, if only temporarily. As Furmer reminds Kreipe, who considers the Cretans to be savages and protests at being left in their charge: “we are all in the hands of Cretans here.” From the professional collaboration of the Royal Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy to the British alliance with the Cretan resistance, both films replay the key themes of cooperation and friendship in Powell and Pressburger’s portrayal of the British at the twilight of their global power. 

After this, everything got smaller. The partnership of Powell and Pressburger broke up, the Archers wound down, and their next films met with respective ill fortune: the Pressburger-scripted Miracle in Soho simply sank, while Peeping Tom sank Powell’s career. The world that Peeping Tom portrayed was the same dank, constricted London depicted in The Small Back Room, but with the focus on the underworld of Soho prostitution and seedy book stores, back street photo studios, film sets, theatres and lodgings. This was an underground, urban landscape filled with hidden, exploited lives and enlivened by an encroaching American pop and club culture that was slowly seeping into the fabric of English society. In the film this is not an optimistic cultural development but a corruption, and the context of photographer Mark Lewis’ own morbid psychosis and homicidal sexual obsession. For 1960, Peeping Tom is sexually graphic, but it is not an erotic movie: even more than Psycho (from the same year) it is the embryonic slasher movie, already deconstructing the psychological mechanics of the genre in the same way that Dario Argento would with Tenebrae in 1982. Even though the protagonist is foreign (Mark was played by the Austrian actor Carl Boehm), the film plays on the hypocrisy and prurience of the British attitude to sex — an under-the-counter mentality that literally feeds the world in which Mark makes his living and stalks his victims. This depiction of the post-war London underworld and British sexual psychology are only two of the many thematic layers in the film and not the most important ones, but the descent from the deck of HMS Ajax to the lodgings of a murdered Soho prostitute was steep and shocking. British critics did not forgive Powell for it. This was a particular portrait of Britain — corrupt, hypocritical, violent, voyeuristic — they did not wish to look at in 1960.

In fact nobody had done more — in aesthetic terms — to create a rich portrait of the British during the Second World War and its aftermath. This portrait was a positive, if complex, contribution to the national mythos. As Linda Colley wrote in the conclusion to Britons:

We need to stop confusing patriotism with simple conservatism, or smothering it with damning and dismissive references to chauvinism and jingoism. Quite as much as any other human activity, the patriotism of the past requires flexible, sensitive and above all, imaginative reconstruction. (24)

Powell and Pressburger avoided chauvinism and jingoism by linking patriotism to their key themes of love, friendship and cooperation, themes that connected all of their movies, even those that did not necessarily focus on the British or Great Britain. Their theory of a total cinema found its apotheosis in the visual-musical productions The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman, and both of these films were outstanding examples of multinational artistic collaborations, ensemble pieces that recalled the Ballet Russes productions that Nijinsky vividly described in his autobiography (Korda had himself planned a biopic of Nijinsky in 1934, and, of course, the character of Boris Lermontov is partly drawn from Diaghilev, as well as Korda himself). It is precisely because Powell and Pressburger broke out of the parochial limitations and aesthetic confines of British cinema that they received a suspicious, uncomprehending and even hostile critical reception during the lifetime of The Archers. But it is this extensive vision, which incorporated their representation of Great Britain and the British as well as their theory of film, that would secure their final legacy. As Ian Christie wrote in 1985, in a revised version of a book written to accompany the 1978 British Film Institute retrospective, among the first high profile reappraisals of their oeuvre in Britain: 

English cinema, like English literature, is in perpetual danger of being seen within a parochial perspective. The Archers aimed beyond Margate, at the world’s screens, and in doing so helped revive the nineteenth century dream of a total cinema that would transcend the traditional arts. (25) 

In pursuit of this dream, Powell and Pressburger also presented the British with an image of themselves and their countries to counter the narrow ethnic nationalisms that would aim at division and dissolution. Whatever utility or relevance this portrayal had, it was, at least, expansive and open, built on the principles of cooperation, alliance and solidarity. The films of Powell and Pressburger tell us that national character and tradition remain real and insoluble, but will always be transcended by love and friendship: with this understanding at the heart of things, they had no problem putting the Nazis in their place in the 1930s. Despite their sometimes morbid, spectral or horrific shades, at the centre of all of these films was that basic concern of the soul: the connection between people.

  1. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 2005), p.373
  2. Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (Simon and Schuster, 1993), p.548
  3. Ian Christie, Arrows of Desire – The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Faber & Faber, 1994), p.27
  4. Christie, p. 12 
  5. Colley, p.xii
  6. Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pps. 234-5            
  7. Christie, p.40              
  8. Andrew Roberts, Churchill – Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane, 2018), p 963      
  9. Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Abacus, 1998), p.268  
  10. See Kumar, p186; Colley, p.368
  11. Colley, pps. 187-8        
  12. Quoted in Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians (Phoenix, 1994), p.131      
  13. These details are provided by Powell himself, in his 1991 commentary on the film available on the ITV blu-ray restoration. 
  14. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.47
  15. Hastings, p.20
  16. Kumar, p.57
  17. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Mine own John Poyntz…’, The Collected Poems (Penguin, 1978), p.189    
  18. The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford University Press, 1987), p23   
  19. Hastings, p.37          
  20. W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Penguin, 1985), p.197      
  21. Colley, pps. 171-2 
  22. Samm Deighan, ‘Gone to Earth: The Pagan Pastoral in Powell and Pressburger’, Senses of Cinema website:
  23. Colley, p.144, “a major share in the work (and the profits) of constructing Greater Britain would for a long time be sufficient for Scottish ambition.” 
  24. Colley, p.372          
  25. Christie, p.8                     


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s