Few film historians would, I think, argue against the proposition that on any terms the history of the British cinema has been a chequered one. The advent of sound, symbolised by its introduction in Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) heralded a decade which saw hundreds of British films being made on the back of the dreaded ‘quota quickie’ system. In his invaluable book British Sound Films The Studio Years 1928 – 1959 David Quinlan amusingly refers to one Manchester cinema in 1935 flashing a notice before a British ‘B’ picture, apologising for having to show it, as the quota compelled them to do so by law. He also pertinently records that ‘in 1936 more than 200 British feature films were made and dumped on the home market, far more than it could hold, guaranteeing a further step towards financial disaster’. Although the 1930s saw the emergence of a number of highly popular British film artists – Jessie Matthews, Gracie Fields, George Formby (remarkably so, given his limited talent) and Will Hay – the decade as a whole was characterised by a numbing mediocrity in terms of film as an art form.
Yet there were a few features of genuine, even outstanding, merit that can be viewed even today with pleasure and admiration: among these may be mentioned Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) (still the best film version of Buchan’s popular novel) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), Korda’s Things to Come (1936) and The Four Feathers (1939) (also acknowledged to be the best version) and Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938), jointly directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, with superb performances from Howard and the young Wendy Hiller and what must be accounted one of the most literate screenplays ever written. But by 1939 there were signs that a new era might be dawning. Film-makers of talent and enterprise had begun to emerge: in addition to Anthony Asquith there were David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Powell, Michael Balcon, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. But arguably the greatest talent of all was destined to be lost to the indigenous film industry: Hitchcock took himself off to America to return only when, so to speak, the wind blew him hither.
The catalyst for what proved to be the rebirth, perhaps the birth, of a British film industry of real artistic merit was, of course, the outbreak of the Second World War. Suddenly these filmmakers found themselves with the financial resources (thanks mainly to one J. Arthur Rank), the motivation and a supreme subject matter – the war itself – to make films of genuine quality. The conflict could be viewed either from the fighting front itself or the equally important home front (or, indeed, from both). Thus, for example, there emerged Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944) which expertly chronicled the transformation of a group of unwilling civilians into fighting (and implicitly doomed) front-line soldiers; on the home front, Launder and Gilliat’s Millions Like Us (1943) showed the impact of the war on one particular family and, significantly, indicated how class barriers were breaking down for the sake of a common cause; and Olivier’s Henry V (1944) dealt, via Shakespeare, with a great English victory on the Continent and foreshadowed another one, propaganda allied to high art in the most potent manner. Occasionally a film would postulate a deeper and more disturbing variation on the general theme.
So in Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well? (1942), an Ealing Studios film based on a Graham Greene story, a quiet English village finds itself invaded by an advance guard of the German army, revealing a traitor in its midst and the readiness of the normally mild-mannered villagers to kill the enemy without compunction – and also be killed. A pacifist sub-text of this unusual film was identified by Cavalcanti himself at a time when pacifism was definitely not the order of the day. While a great war was ranging in the real world some escapism was permitted, and relished by cinemagoers, if not by the critics. Thus the costume melodrama The Man in Grey (1942) pulled in the crowds and made stars out of James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. Later, the same actors had an equally big hit with The Wicked Lady (1945).
David Lean The renaissance, if such it was, of the British cinema continued for several years after the war. The same talented film makers continued to create worthwhile films and the advent of peace enabled them to widen their subject matter. So David Lean followed the classic ‘train weepie’; Brief Encounter (1945) with two fine Dickens adaptations in Great Expectations (1946), perhaps the best film version of the work of England’s greatest novelist, and Oliver Twist (1948); Carol Reed directed Odd Man Out (1946), The Fallen Idol (1948) and, supremely, The Third Man (1949), the first of this trio introducing a Continental-style realism in its evocation of the dark, rain-sodden streets of a Belfast even then plagued by the ruthless aspirations of political extremists. And Olivier, essentially a man of the theatre, brought his equally dark, pared-down version of Hamlet (1948) to the screen. And then the bright vision, the Brave New World of the British cinema, began to fade, for both economic and artistic reasons. There were the wonderful, the inimitable, Ealing comedies of course: Whisky Galore (1948), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and perhaps the subversive jewel in the crown – Kind Hearts Coronets (1949). But for directors like Lean and Reed their best work was now arguably in the past. An era seemed to be over.
Now, looking back, it is possible to assess how far the best films of the period have endured, how some now appear faded or hopelessly dated while others seem to have acquired a greater reputation than that which they enjoyed at the time of their initial release. And this is precisely where the major films of one production company, and four in particular (all made in TechniColour), come gloriously into their own.
The backgrounds of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were very different. Powell, born in 1905, was a man of Kent; Pressburger, born (as Imre Pressburger) in 1902, was an Hungarian expatriate. Powell was a director who had slogged his way through the quota-quickie jungle of British films of the 1930s. (According to Ian Christie in his fascinating Powell-Pressburger study Arrows of Desire no fewer than 19 such features by him have been lost). Pressburger was a screenwriter who had worked in the German and French film industries from 1930 and came to Britain in the middle of the decade. His first British commission was The Challenge (1938). And it was the flamboyant, in some ways irresistible, Alexander Korda who brought them together to work on The Spy in Black (1939), starring the German actor Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The production credits read: ‘Directed by Michael Powell, Production Company Harefield, Presented by Alexander Korda, Produced by Irving Asher, Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger from Roland Pertwee’s adaptation of a novel by J. Storer Clouston’. Yet Christie gives a more precise indication of the Powell-Pressburger collaboration: ‘with Korda’s blessing, Pressburger and Powell worked on the script together with the stars…’
There followed three more collaborations: Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), their first major success (with Pressburger winning an Oscar for his script) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Then, in 1943, came their first film under the banner of The Archers, with its distinctive pre-credit image. This was The Silver Fleet. Yet Powell and Pressburger were only the producers. Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley were jointly responsible for both the direction and the screenplay.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp In the same year as The Silver Fleet came the defining moment in the history of the collaboration between these highly gifted but always controversial artists. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the first film to bear the credits which even today excite their admirers ‘A Production of The Archers’; Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Put bluntly, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) may be the finest film ever to come out of a British studio. At the very least it is a particularly interesting, intelligent and idiosyncratic work by any standards and, bearing in mind when it was made, far more telling as a piece of propaganda than the usual flag-waving epics. It is also, ultimately, a very moving film with a great generosity of spirit.
Blimp was the bewhiskered character whom the New Zealand-born cartoonist David Low made famous as the embodiment of a rather blinkered type of military conservatism. In the film he becomes Clive Candy, who in 1902 is a Boer War VC hero on leave in London. He goes to Berlin, unofficially, with the intention of helping a young English governess, Edith Hunter, to counter anti-British propaganda but finishes up by insulting a German regiment and having to fight a duel of honour with one of the latter’s officers, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, who has been selected at random. Both of them survive and they become close friends. Ironically, Candy, having unconsciously fallen in love with Edith, loses her to his new friend. The film then traces, at length, both the relationship between the two men and the consequences of Candy’s lost love during the next 40 years with, of course, the complications of two world wars. It culminates in Kretschmar-Schuldorff, now a lonely refugee from the Nazis, convincing Candy that the latter’s notion of fighting a ‘clean’ war, as he did in South Africa and the Western Front, is now outmoded as a way of defeating Nazism.
This is a film which works effectively on four levels: as a love story – the governess becomes Candy’s ‘ideal woman’; so he marries her double, a nurse in the First World War, and later appoints another double as his driver in the Second (when he becomes a stalwart of the Home Guard); as a story of friendship, which is portrayed with great sensitivity; as a satire on stiff-necked militarism (on both sides); and, most importantly to its wartime context, as a brilliantly deceptive piece of propaganda – the German is shown as far more perceptive than Candy and to be the ‘good enemy’ (in the middle of the war!) who shows the way to an Allied victory. It is fascinating to learn that the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and his Information Minister, Brendan Bracken, did much to frustrate the film’s making. They are said to have ordered sizeable cuts because they considered its message defeatist. Roger Livesey, particularly, and Anton Walbrook are quite superb as the two friends and the young Deborah Kerr, playing all three variations of Candy’s ‘ideal woman’, is herself ideal in the part. The film may, indeed, be the Archers’s masterpiece and the film critic David Thomson’s description of it as ‘a beautiful salute to Englishness’ is entirely apt. In the Time Out Film Guide’s Centenary Top One Hundred Films it shared 23rd place with Some Like It Hot and Taxi Driver.
Following The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Powell and Pressburger made two interesting full-length features in black and white, A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945), before embarking on what was to prove their most sensational film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Whereas its great predecessor had considerable emotional resonance, this new film offered a dazzlingly inventive display of cinematic technique, which did not, however, lack either wit or feeling.
One night in May 1945 an RAF pilot bails out of a blazing bomber over a foggy English channel and, despite having no parachute, survives. It seems there has been an administrative error in heaven and Conductor 71, an 18th century French aristocrat, is sent down to rectify it. But the pilot (who in reality is suffering from hallucinations) has fallen in love with an American girl, a ground controller with whom he was in radio contact just before bailing out. When faced by the Conductor he refuses to accompany him, claiming that his personal situation has changed because of heaven’s mistake. A battle between earth and heaven for his body and soul ensues, culminating in an appeal court hearing in heaven to decide his fate. Love – and, as it turns out, Anglo-American co-operation – triumph.
The film was made at the instigation of the Ministry of Information, which was concerned to improve transatlantic relations now that victory had been won. What Powell and Pressburger came up with is one of the most remarkable and imaginative films in the history of the cinema, a bizarre and beautiful fantasy which cunningly serves its propaganda purposes through its simple love story and a reconciliation between Anglo-American prejudices. The extraordinary special effects, including a huge heavenly court attended by thousands of the dead of all periods, ages and persuasions, make some of the computer-generated counterparts of contemporary cinema look childish; and Powell and Pressburger enhance the film’s exceptional visual quality by having the earthly scenes shot in colour and the heavenly ones in monochrome. David Niven, as debonair as ever, makes an appealing hero and Kim Hunter is quite adorable as the girl from Boston with whom he falls in love before he has ever seen her. Roger Livesey is excellent as the doctor who, with his knowledge of neurology, helps Niven and, after being killed in a road accident, defends him at his trial (there is no limit to the Archers outrageous inventiveness). But the acting honours go to Marius Goring as Conductor 71, a totally delightful performance. A controversial film on its initial release (when it became the first Royal Command Performance film) it has since achieved the considerable distinction of being in the top twenty of both the Time Out Film Guide’s Centenary Top One Hundred Films and its Readers’ Top One Hundred.
Powell and Pressburger’s next film in the quartet was Black Narcissus (1947), rightly described by Leslie Halliwell as ‘one of the cinema’s most beautiful films, a visual and emotional stunner’. Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, the central characters are a small group of Anglican nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) who are sent by their Order to open a school and dispensary high up in an isolated Himalayan kingdom. Despite their vocation the kingdom’s ruler houses them in an old, windswept House of Women with its erotic murals, fluttering draperies and echoes of long-gone royal concubines. The sceptical and disrespectful English agent Dean (David Farrar) has turned native, hints at sexual relations with local girls and expects the group to fail by the time the rains come.
Sure enough, problems soon mount, exacerbated by the unhealthy environment, the local customs, Sister Clodagh’s remembrance of an unhappy love affair back in Ireland and the waywardness of a dancing girl, Kanchi (Jean Simmons), who leads astray the nuns most distinguished pupil, the Young General (Sabu). (It is the latter’s perfume, purchased from the Army and Navy Stores in London, which gives the story its title.) More dangerously, the neurotic Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) lusts after Dean and, driven by jealousy, attempts to murder Sister Clodagh in the film’s wonderfully melodramatic, even operatic, climax. Contrary to general accounts the film was not wholly shot at Pinewood (some of the jungle scenes were filmed at Leonardslee Gardens near Horsham in Sussex) but it is nevertheless a visual wonder that is wholly convincing, not to say astonishing. (Jack Cardiff, the photographer and Alfred Junge, the German-born production designer, both won Oscars.) Above all, few British films can match its extraordinary atmosphere of repressed and hinted emotions – or , indeed, sexuality. (The moment when Sister Ruth, having discarded her nun’s habit, applies make-up is charged with eroticism.) As the noted film historian Jeffrey Richards has acutely observed, ‘the result is a heady brew of 19th century Romanticism, Oriental mysticism and religious and cultural conflict’. Kerr and Byron, in their different ways, are superb. Black Narcissus also bears the distinction of appearing in both of the Time Out Film Guide’s polls.
And so to the final film of the four: The Red Shoes (1948). Aspiring ballet dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer, making her film debut) and aspiring composer conductor Julian Craster (Marius Goring) are new recruits to the Ballet Lermontov, run with a ruthless devotion to high art by impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Recognising their respective talents he commissions Craster to write the score for a new fantasy ballet, The Red Shoes, in which Vicky will dance the leading role.
It is a great success and a glittering future for both seems assured. Unfortunately for them professionally they fall in love, a heinous crime in Lermontov’s eyes. Craster has a dispute with him and leaves the company, taking Vicky with him. They are married but what follows is essentially a battle between Craster and Lermontov for Vicky’s soul. It ends, in the manner of the story by Hans Christian Andersen on which the screenplay is based, with Vicky’s melodramatic suicide. (She jumps from the balcony of a theatre onto a railway track.) This essentially trite scenario is merely a narrative peg for a film aptly described by Leslie Halliwell as ‘charged with excitement’. The background of the ballet company is made incomparably vivid by a team that not only include Powell and Pressburger but production designer Hein Heckroth (another German), photographer Jack Cardiff and composer Brian Easdale, whose superb score for The Red Shoes ballet – the film’s astonishingly imaginative centrepiece – brought him an Oscar. Authenticity is assured with the presence in the cast of such ballet luminaries as Robert Helpmann, Leonid Massine and Ludmilla Tcherina. Any explicitly homosexual element is understandably absent (given the film’s year of release) but the ambivalent feelings Lermontov develops for Vicky is subtly conveyed. Walbrook’s is a consummate performance, one that binds together the story’s disparate emotional tensions. In no other work in the cinema is such a spectrum of art forms fused in quite the way it is here. No wonder the production went 100% over budget. It was, incidentally, the most successful British film in America until Chariots of Fire 33 years later and appeared, like the other three films, in the Time Out Film Guide’s Centenary Top One Hundred Films.
Powell and Pressburger went on to make eight more films together. Several are not without interest (particularly The Small Back Room (1949), in which David Farrar and Kathleen Byron were re-united, and the opera film The Tales of Hoffman (1951)) but they do not reach the achievements of their four predecessors. There was something about the period from 1943 to 1948 which invited innovation and it was never quite to return.
How can these films best be categorised in the context of the British cinema of their era? They are bold in concept, unconventional, enormously creative. And whereas even fine films like Great Expectations and The Third Man are, in the final analysis, ‘safe’ these are palpably ‘unsafe’. They took risks and consequently attracted as much criticism as praise. Even today Powell and Pressburger no doubt continue to have their detractors. But these films stand apart, they work ‘against the grain’ and are truly ‘charged with excitement’.
N.B Since the publication of Arrows of Desire there are now only 11 films missing, believed lost.