The Music of Words
Storytelling in Two Powell & Pressburger Films
"While Powell and Pressburger were masters of the classic show-don't-tell method, they also daringly broke the rule by telling, not showing. Both techniques ultimately serve the same purpose. Despite the aesthetic of excess often attributed to the Archers' films, they gain power by withholding certain elements, requiring the audience to supply what's not there."
"In my films, images are everything," Michael Powell declares in his autobiography; "words are used like music to distill emotion." Powell was justly proud of tour-de-force sequences that rely exclusively on visuals, scoring, and editing, like the Red Shoes ballet or the climactic attempt by Sister Ruth to murder Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus. These forays into what Powell called the "composed film" culminated in a feature-length cinematic opera, Tales of Hoffman (a film that, I must confess, I find airless.) With all respect, I would argue Powell's claim is too one-sided, and puzzling in some ways as well. What, for instance, does he mean when he says that the trial in heaven in A Matter of Life and Death — which involves extended speeches, battling wits, and even battling radios — is "essentially a silent film"?
For cinephiles, the silent era (when Powell got his start) can be a kind of lost Eden, a paradise of "pure cinema" from which the talkies have fallen. The conquest by sound, and the deadening limitations it initially placed on cameras, inspired many to reassert the primacy of images. Yet, given Powell's visual bent, it is striking how many scenes in earlier films by The Archers (as he and Emeric Pressburger named their filmmaking partnership) allow words to stand almost alone: Anton Walbrook's four-minute, single-take speech in the refugee office in Colonel Blimp; the anti- and pro-Nazi speeches by Walbrook and Eric Portman in The 49th Parallel; Portman's history lecture in A Canterbury Tale, Nancy Price's description of the Highland gathering at Oban in I Know Where I'm Going! While Powell and Pressburger were masters of the classic show-don't-tell method, they also daringly broke the rule by telling, not showing. Both techniques ultimately serve the same purpose. Despite the aesthetic of excess often attributed to the Archers' films, they gain power by withholding certain elements, requiring the audience to supply what's not there.
Powell and Pressburger both contributed to the scripts of their films, but Emeric Pressburger did the bulk of the writing. He is perennially overlooked and undervalued by fans of The Archers, partly because he was more retiring than Powell (spending his late years quietly in a cottage while his erstwhile partner hooked up with Scorsese and Coppola and produced his monumental autobiography), but also because the qualities he brought to their films were harder to define. Pressburger was a genius at structuring stories, a writer whose words have an extraordinary, multidimensional life, and who also knew when to use no words at all. David Low, creator of the Colonel Blimp character that inspired Pressburger's favorite Archers film, praised the screenwriter's "phenomenal power of story-telling," quipping, "He left Scheherezade standing." (Macdonald, 209)
Scheherezade preserved her life by leaving her stories tantalizingly incomplete. Part of Pressburger's genius was to build into his screenplays chasms that the mind must leap, and blanks that the imagination must fill. These leaps of the mind create much of the joy and surprise you feel watching The Archers' movies: the thrill lies not in the arrow or in the target, but in the flight through space.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
is constructed around a series of ellipses. On the surface the film feels overstuffed, epic, as it follows career military man Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) from the turn of the 20th century to the Second World War. But again and again, big events happen offscreen. We don't see people die or fall in love or get married, we only hear what happened after the fact. The most emblematic and audacious instance of this method comes with the duel between Clive and a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The preparations are depicted in meticulous detail, but as soon as sabers are raised the camera draws back and glides away, to wait in a carriage outside the gymnasium. There we share the anxiety of Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), the British governess who feels responsible for getting Clive into the duel, and like her we don't learn the outcome until she arrives at the hospital and questions the staff. This is not merely a trick to draw out suspense: instead it demonstrates the peculiar unimportance of the fight itself. What matters is the buildup, which gives us a portrait of a world through the ridiculously elaborate dueling protocol; and the aftermath, which results in the lifelong friendship between Clive and Theo.
Colonel Blimp lavishes attention on the texture of life, especially the rococo flourishes of the pre-World War I era that forms Clive Candy, who returns from the Boer War having won the Victoria Cross, and promptly sets off for Germany in a quixotic effort to combat false propaganda about British war atrocities. This quest is soon sidetracked when he is challenged to a duel after an argument in an opulent fin de siècle café (the two sides strike at each other by bribing and counter-bribing the orchestra to play tunes that will annoy the enemy), but it introduces a theme that will thread through the entire film: Clive's unshakable faith in the ideal of fair play in battle.
To present-day viewers, the notion of war as a clean and honorable pursuit can only seem naïve at best, at worst willfully blind. "Right is might after all," Clive announces happily at one point. His adherence to this faith, as he slogs through World War I and dodders through World War II, will eventually turn him into the buffoonish, and tragic, figure of Blimp: symbol of a pompous old guard incapable of comprehending how the world has changed. But by that time we have been stealthily made complicit in Candy's illusion, because of the way it is woven into the vibrant tapestry of the film. The duel, for all the irreverent humor with which the filmmakers send up the painstaking decorum involved, is also an oddly touching and persuasive illustration of a lost ideal, the fair fight between gentlemen who bear no grudges despite slicing up one another's faces.
Theo is immediately introduced as both Clive's counterpart — they are both career soldiers, and their skill at fencing is identical — and also as a more sophisticated and thoughtful man, who doesn't approve of dueling. He serves as a stand-in for the viewer: because he loves Clive's innocence, which he can't share, he allows us to love it. In his first scenes, when the dueling opponents become friends while recuperating at the hospital, Theo only knows two English phrases, "Very much" and "Not very much," but Walbrook's glittering eyes reveal the sharp mind behind his halting inarticulacy. He far outpaces the Englishman in the arena of romance, wooing Edith behind Clive's oblivious back. Their courtship disappears into another ellipsis: we see nothing between their obvious attraction at their first meeting and the announcement that they are engaged. Later, we will not see Clive meet and court his wife Barbara Wynne (also Kerr); we will not see Edith or Barbara sicken and die. These lacunae create a palpable sense of years passing, and of loss, because so much is already in the past by the time we know about it. They also give the film its powerful emotional reticence.
This reticence goes to the heart of the film's central figure: Clive Candy is straightforward and openhearted, yet at the same time so deeply reserved that his emotions are hidden even from himself. He doesn't realize he loves Edith until he returns to England without her, and while the emptiness of his life is conveyed with mischievous wit by the proliferation of big-game trophies on the walls of his house,1
the depth of his feeling is never fully expressed until late in the film, when he tells Theo — both now widowers — that he never got over losing Edith. There's nothing melodramatic in this statement: Clive is simply a man whose ideas and feelings cannot change.
The triple casting of Deborah Kerr (she also plays Angela aka "Johnny," Clive's spunky driver in the WWII scenes) is a brilliant visual device to convey the nature of Clive's obsession. We never see her grow old, because Clive's ideal of womanhood never alters. When he proudly shows Barbara's portrait to Theo, he expects him to be amazed by the physical resemblance: but Theo has seen Edith age, and her youthful image is not frozen in his mind as it is in Clive's. Does Clive really love Barbara, the woman he courted and married because she looked like Edith? Or are his feelings so abstract, so impersonal, that the question doesn't make any sense? For all his heartiness and apparently uncomplicated solidity, Clive is a kind of shell surrounding a void, a man who is a stranger to himself. By not dramatizing major events, the film subtly creates a feeling of Clive as a man who has missed his own life. It's not literally true, but there's psychological truth in it. Since the entire flashback sequence is apparently playing out in the elderly Clive's memory, it must be he who elides over major events. He's someone who, until the final tragic epiphany, never fully touches reality.
How does an intelligent actor portray a rather dim character without lapsing into condescending caricature? This feat is achieved with apparent ease by Roger Livesey — an actor of modest reputation at the time, which was why The Archers were able to use him, after they were denied the services of Laurence Olivier by the War Office, which disapproved of the film and refused to release Olivier from wartime service to star in it. Livesey starts off as a live-action cartoon — the aged General Wynne-Candy is bald, bloated, beet-red, eyes popping in apoplectic fury — and proceeds to humanize the cartoon, giving him not only warmth and decency, but a melancholy and deeply submerged capacity for reflection. At the same time, he never betrays the essential dimness of the character, remaining true to the conception of David Low, who created the character of Blimp as a symbol of stupidity, with the specific intention of demonstrating that "even nice people can be fools."
Clive Candy embodies the British Empire, flaunting the heads of African beasts on his wall and colonial skirmishes on his resumé. That Powell and Pressburger, who were themselves the same kind of ambitious, rule-breaking young Turks as the soldiers who jump the gun on the war game, could summon so much understanding for this representative of the establishment is an exceptional act of imaginative sympathy. In the scene where Theo, before returning to Germany after WWI, comes to dinner with Clive and his friends, the stodgy old gents sitting around the table are treated with disinterested fairness. They spout platitudes about how England is Germany's friend and wants to see the country prosper, which Theo later sneers at as naïve piffle. But each of the men is granted a close-up and an introduction; their well-meaning sincerity comes across as strongly as their simple-mindedness. If the film does have a sentimental streak, it is in the great love for England that suffuses the whole. But that this love could be expressed with so much sophistication and irreverent humor at a time when England was at war proves that patriotism doesn't always shut down the critical faculties. Anton Walbrook made this point when he defended the film to the offended Churchill, writing, "No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell people such unvarnished truth" (Macdonald, 224).
Yet there is something troubling about the film too, in the way it continually elides over violence. Clive devotes his life to fighting and killing, but we never see him in combat or shooting the animals whose heads appear on his walls. Clive likes war, because he believes in passionless battles in which there are no hard feelings, nothing personal, and everything is done above-board. He can't understand why Theo is so bitter as a POW. in the First World War, how he could let his country's defeat translate into personal enmity. By not showing any violence, the film echoes Clive's own blindness to its real nature. But this also makes it easier for the film to deliver its most overt message — that WWII is not a "gentleman's war," that the stakes are too high to choose honorable defeat over dishonorable victory. Arguably, this is cheating: we're asked to accept that foul fighting might be needed, but we're not made to witness it. For instance, we don't see the South African Van Zijl's third-degree tactics, which it's strongly implied will succeed where Clive's ineffectual questioning of captured German soldiers failed.
While turning away from physical violence, the film dramatizes the emotional violence in Clive's loss of his lifelong certainty, as well as the quiet violence of time. The richness with which it evokes the arc of a life, the universal tragedy of old age, and the ineluctable changes wrought by time, leads us, ultimately, to a painful ability to see both sides of the issue. When Candy is humiliated by young soldiers who scoff at his obsolete notions of playing by the rules, we can see that they, like Theo (who returns to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany), are right: the war against Hitler must be won by any means necessary. At the same time, we are heartbroken to see the old man confront his obsolescence, rudely awoken to the fact that his experience is not respected and his life not understood by the young.
This ambivalence was too subtle for many people at the time. On the one hand, some critics complained that the film "whitewashed" the satirical figure of Blimp, who was "made unrecognizable under a thick coating of Technicolor sugar, to be laughed at, loved, and made piteous as just a dear, sentimental doddering old fool." On the other, some objected that the film should not be shown abroad because it was a "gross travesty" of the British military man, depicting him as "stupid, complacent, self-satisfied and ridiculous" (Macdonald, 226). The Ministry of Information, ironically, got closer to the truth, reporting that the most dangerous aspect of the script was its "over complication of ideas" (Kennedy, 18).
Accusations of sentimentality still adhere to the film, coming even from its admirers, but despite its humane warmth I find the ending more than poignant: it is unsparing in its portrayal of a man at the end of his life — having already lost his wife, his home, and his cherished rank — suddenly confronted by the truth about himself. Gazing down at the serene lake filling the bomb crater where his house used to be — a very Japanese image of flux, with a dry leaf carried lightly on the tide — he sees that the world has changed and he has not; the floods have come, and his staunchness is now irrelevant. This solitary moment of clarity is all the more moving because it pierces a lifetime of bluff confidence. This is the "death" in the title.
But there is life too, in all its ridiculous detail: the public-school nickname ("Sugar Candy," or "Shuggie") that sticks to Clive through life; the stuffed grizzly in his hallway holding a tray for the mail; his "little habit" of tunelessly humming; the mustache he grows to cover his dueling scar. The stuffed bird ludicrously perched on Edith's hat, and the birdsong in no-man's land when the guns fall silent at the end of the First World War. "We can go home," Murdoch (John Laurie) says on hearing it, "Everyone can go home." Home is at the heart of the film: a place of safety, familiarity and certainty. In the end, it appears, it may be a place that doesn't exist.
Colonel Blimp differs from many of the Archers' other films in that it is more about time than about place. Unlike A Canterbury Tale, IKWIG or Black Narcissus, it is not suffused with a powerful sense of location. Clive's house is significant, but largely for the way it feels vacant; in the end it disappears and is replaced by that lake. Colonel Blimp is instead about the idea of England, a place built out of words by Theo in his speech about his disillusionment with Germany and his longing to return to his wife's country. He invokes the English landscape, which is little seen in the film, and also beautifully conveys how he loves the country because it was a part of his dead wife. The speech, delivered by Walbrook in a single take with quiet, hypnotic interiority, is one of the most sensitive and moving expressions ever of love for a nation. Blimp is a film about the power of ideals, even as it is also about the tragedy of living inside them.
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
I Know Where I'm Going! (IKWIG) is also about someone trapped inside a blinkered and inflexible mind, though this film ends with a triumphant escape. The story sprang from the long-nursed kernel of an idea Emeric Pressburger had. A girl wants to get to an island, but is prevented from reaching it, and by the time she can make the trip, she no longer wants to go. Why doesn't she want to? Michael Powell asked. Pressburger (smiling "one of his mysterious smiles") answered, "Let's make the film and find out!" (Powell, 459)
In the script he developed from this seed, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is a headstrong young woman who believes she has scored life's greatest prize when she gets engaged to her boss, Sir Robert Bellinger, the obscenely wealthy owner of Consolidated Chemical Industries. She sets off to meet him on a remote island in the Hebrides, but when she reaches the Isle of Mull, from where she is to take the ferry to her fiancé's island, bad weather prevents her from crossing. While stranded she meets a Scottish naval officer, Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), who threatens to undo her plans by stirring unruly passion in her calculating breast.
Pressburger wove his initial idea into the script through a sly bit of wordplay. The island Joan wants to get to is called Kiloran; but so is Torquil. He is the laird of the island, and the locals on the Mull address him as "Kiloran" (just as in Shakespeare the Duke of Gloucester is called "Gloucester.") This conflation of person with place hints at the mystical side of the movie, which like Black Narcissus and A Canterbury Tale explores the power of places to transform, define, and unsettle people. Language and stories and music and voices are elements of place as much as rocks or trees.
Voices crowd the film, starting with the jovial narrator of the clever prologue (also Pressburger's idea) that spoofs newsreel commentaries. The itinerary for Joan's meticulously arranged trip to the highlands is read out in a rapping mechanical voice that's eventually swallowed in the slap of waves, to be replaced by the softer, lilting island voices. Joan is disoriented by the natives speaking Gaelic, as alien to her as the seals "singing" in the harbor. As for the voice that speaks to her out of the fog as she waits on the dock for her ferry ("Bad luck, no crossing today"), if ever there was a voice you would want to hear in a cold, strange place it would be this one: a voice that warms you to the marrow of your bones, like excellent brandy.
It's no accident that Roger Livesey is introduced by his inimitable voice. Michael Powell claimed in his autobiography that when he first encountered Livesey at an audition years earlier, producer Michael Balcon rejected him because he didn't like the actor's husky voice, and Powell vowed to prove him wrong. It seems inconceivable that anyone could dislike Livesey's corduroy voice, which has inspired elaborate flights of description from fans (A. L. Kennedy compares it to pipe smoke and "audible cake"). One of the first signs that Joan's mind and heart are being changed is her surprise on hearing Sir Robert's voice — audible roast beef — over the wireless. After only a day on the island, it already sounds strange to her.
The battle of voices continues, with the whining drawl of the English Robinson family juxtaposed with the Scottish eloquence of the stately Rebecca Crozier (Nancy Price), mistress of Achnacroish, who mesmerizes Joan with her description of the Highland gathering at Oban. The magnificence of the harbor, the Highland games, the ball, the finery of the guests, are evoked through words alone (with some low underscoring of bagpipes and voices2
), carried entirely by Price's performance: her eyes shining, her rich voice savoring the images. The monologue is unbroken except for a cut-in shot of Joan's gaze helplessly swerving to Torquil as her hostess describes the splendor of the Highland men.
Storytelling, music, and wordless drama combine in the thrilling sequence of the Campbells' ceilidh (a party with music and dancing) at Achnacroish. The music is a varied collage, passing from a rousing Schottische through a dazzling display of "mouth music" (rapid-fire nonsense verses sung in a macaronic of English and Gaelic); a snippet of the joyously swaggering clan march, "The Campbells Are Coming"; a mournful a capella Gaelic lament; and a drunken shanty drowned out by the Gaelic love song "The Nutbrown Maid." (The ceilidh sequence was devised by Archers stalwart John Laurie, who also puts in a sprightly appearance as John Campbell, the master of ceremonies.) Under the music we see a lovers' quarrel play out in dumbshow, without knowing that the young couple, Kenny and Bridie, are about to become important characters in the story. As with the duel in Colonel Blimp
, there is a big build-up to Joan and Torquil dancing together at the ceilidh, a crucial step in the intensification of their romance; but as soon as they get onto the floor the scene cuts to Joan hastening away afterward. Only her panicked flight tells us how deeply their dance has affected her. Earlier, as they stand dangerously close to each other, Torquil declares himself under the cover of translating the lyrics of "The Nutbrown Maid," fixing her with a piercing gaze as he recites, "You're the maid for me." Later, she will reply through the same song.
Finally, there are two legends that become entwined with the film's story: the curse on Moy Castle, which we hear in the remembered voice of Torquil's childhood nanny, and the tale of the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, recounted by Torquil in the Tobermory post office. Both stories are interrupted. Joan learns about the curse early in the film, in a visit to the castle that happens offscreen, but we don't hear the full story until the final scene. Torquil doesn't get around to completing the story of the whirlpool until he and Joan are almost in it. This method of delaying information and teasing out story-lines serves a different purpose here than it did in Colonel Blimp: it evokes a heroine who deliberately shuts her ears to the voice of her heart, and the suppressed and frustrated yearning that builds beneath her stubbornness.
Both legends bring in fierce, dark notes: the tale of Corryvreckan ends with a prince of Norway drowning in the deadly whirlpool after his anchor rope — woven from the hair of faithful maidens — breaks because one girl was unfaithful. Moy Castle was cursed by the wife of one of Torquil's MacNeil ancestors, who chained her and her lover together and watched them die in a watery dungeon. These grisly stories, taken for granted by the locals and recited by kindly old women, underscore the high stakes and potential violence tied up in love and betrayal. The motif of hunting — Catriona MacLaine with her brace of rabbits, Colonel Barnstaple urging his eagle to swoop down on a fox — adds to this bloody streak. Joan, a Manchester girl who doesn't know how to skin a rabbit, has never been confronted with the raw facts of life and death, and she blindly refuses to face the real danger of the elements, or her own feelings.
Powell had originally wanted James Mason and Deborah Kerr to play Torquil and Joan. Mason possessed another of cinema's best voices, but his dark, melancholy and sinister sexiness couldn't be more different from Roger Livesey's solid, comforting warmth. And while Kerr was superb in her other roles for the Archers, she seems too immediately sensitive and soulful for the hard-headed Joan Webster. What makes Wendy Hiller so good is that she seems, at first, to have no vulnerability, and little sensitivity; it's thus all the more dramatic to watch her struggle against unaccustomed feelings. Livesey and Hiller are not romantic types, though the attraction between them thrums like an electric current. Their dry, bracing quality sets off the romance and mystery of the island, giving the film a perfect blend of the unearthly and the down-to-earth.
Among the many reasons to cherish I Know Where I'm Going! is as a rare love story in which it is the woman who is flawed, behaves badly, and needs to be saved from herself. This is usually the prerogative of the man, who despite his faults is redeemed by the love of a good woman. Here, instead, a woman who is disastrously wrong-headed wins the love of an essentially perfect man.
Joan embodies the materialism, conventional values, and bourgeois insecurity that the film condemns. Raised in a prosaic suburb by a bank manager father who frets about propriety, Joan is contrasted with Catriona MacLaine (Pamela Brown), who despite her poverty has a landed-gentry indifference to appearances.3
She can stride around in moth-eaten sweaters with her hair stringy and loose, while Joan — the working girl who landed her boss — foolishly primps before speaking to Sir Robert over the wireless. Catriona with her witch-like beauty and her pack of wolfhounds embodies the island's wildness and magic, yet also voices its level-headed values: everyone needs money, but "money isn't everything."
But the movie's message is more complicated than anti-materialism, or marrying for love rather than money. Joan's painful confusion springs from the fact that she is stubbornly determined to get her way, to be her own mistress, yet if she achieves her goal of marrying Sir Robert, she will become an obedient possession. She sees the gently virile Torquil as an enemy because he endangers her long-cherished dream, but submitting to him will free her to be her authentic self. On Mull, Joan is a stranger and even an antagonist — an Englishwoman, set in her modern ways, who insists she'd rather swim in a man-made pool than in the ocean and eat imported fish than catch her own. Yet she's at heart a native: her bold spirit fits the island with its blustering winds and mulish boatmen; its half-tamed wild creatures like Torquil's namesake, Colonel Barnstaple's golden eagle.
Everything on Mull is continually in motion — an effect that Emeric Pressburger specifically desired and that is sublimely captured by cinematographer Erwin Hillier, master of the turbulent cloudscape. Waves crash against piers, trees lash about in the gale, the grass ripples like water, waterfalls tumble down hillsides. Wind is literally the obstacle barring Joan's journey, and it becomes an embodiment of all she feels herself to be fighting against. From the film's opening image, Joan is moving forward, first as a crawling infant; then as a coltish, sprinting schoolgirl; then as a smart young woman with terrific legs, striding briskly through a crowd. When her journey comes to a halt, the immobility throws her off balance. When she marches stiffly to the boat after bribing a boy to take her to Kiloran despite the storm, her stubborn, selfish, almost hysterical determination grotesquely parodies that bumptious stride in the opening scene. Only her brush with death on this misguided journey frightens her into some sense of humility.
This humility is the movie's real message: the necessity of recognizing the superior power of the sea, and the weather, and the natural passions. Joan has to learn to submit, but in the end it's she who takes charge, first asking Torquil to kiss her (he complies with alacrity), then admitting her defeat as proudly as a conquered queen, marching boldly up the road behind the pipers. For his part, Torquil gladly accepts the curse of Moy Castle, that he will be "chained to a woman" for the rest of his life "and die in his chains." These are the last words in the film. It takes a clever, confident writer to realize that "and die in his chains" can mean the same thing as "they lived happily ever after."
It is characteristic of their splendidly immodest ambition that Powell and Pressburger made two films that have the phrase "life and death" in the title. It is also telling that while Pressburger insisted that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
was the best thing they had ever done — it certainly has the finest script — Powell was equally convinced that their best work was A Matter of Life and Death
(1946), perhaps their most visually inventive movie and a turning point in their development. It is still a cornucopia of words, but it is also a film in which everything
is visualized. In a sense it's a film about visualizing the invisible, and its glory is the vibrancy, the sheer chutzpah with which it solves metaphysical mysteries through purely cinematic means. In comparison with other Archers films, particularly Colonel Blimp
, it lacks complex or ambivalent characters. Here the inner life is externalized, and also somewhat simplified.
Even this film starts with a scene that hangs on words: Peter Carter (David Niven), the pilot of a doomed aircraft, pours his ebbing life into a radio conversation with a girl working at ground control (Kim Hunter). He quotes Sir Walter Ralegh (a poem about heaven and the judgment of the soul, which Ralegh is thought to have written while under sentence of death), and says farewell to the world in a gallant splurge of loquacity. He and the girl fall in love with each other's disembodied voices.
A Matter of Life and Death was the third Archers film featuring Roger Livesey, who plays Dr. Reeves, the neurologist who treats Peter after he mysteriously survives bailing out of his plane without a parachute. Dr. Reeves articulates the ambiguity at the heart of the film: he identifies the medical origin of Peter's hallucinations and the surgery needed to save him, yet also accepts these hallucinations of the afterlife as his patient's reality. The ability to see both sides of an issue — here, the scientific and the spiritual — and to accept the irreducible complexity of human experience is a hallmark of the Archers' best work, in which the dazzling inventiveness of their filmmaking is matched by the sophistication and maturity of the stories they tell.
The importance of language in Powell and Pressburger's films is easily overshadowed by their staggering visual richness, but it is especially interesting in the context of 1940s cinema. The coming of sound at the end of the 1920s challenged the primacy of images, and the influence of radio in the following decades further elevated dialogue and voice-over narration — often redundantly, resulting in films that tell us what we're seeing, and spell things out so insistently that they lull the brain to sleep. Few filmmakers grasped how to use what was actually powerful about radio, the way it stimulates the imagination by launching words alone into the ether, like Peter Carter from his burning cockpit. Here, as in so many other ways, Powell and Pressburger were the most advanced filmmakers of their time. They understood how words could be cinematic, projecting moving pictures not on the retinas, but on the mind.
1. These hilarious and stylish sequences, a prime example of information conveyed through purely visual means, were shot by assistant cameraman Jack Cardiff, who would rise to heights of Technicolor wizardry as the cinematographer of later Archers films, including A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, and Black Narcissus. The main cinematographer on Colonel Blimp was George Perinal.
2. The same technique was used in A Canterbury Tale, when Eric Portman’s character describes medieval travelers along the pilgrim road, and his words are underscored by music and sound effects. It’s a highly effective method: my mother confirms that after her first viewing of IKWIG, she was convinced that the Highland gathering at Oban was actually depicted in the film.
3. Powell and Pressburger disagreed about the character of Catriona — as well as about the actress, Pamela Brown, who was Powell's lover at the time but whom Pressburger found unattractive. Powell expanded her part, making Catriona Torquil's childhood sweetheart and still in love with him. Eventually this was cut, and even Powell agreed it had been for the best; as the film stands, Catriona is an observer who knows exactly what is going on between Torquil and Joan, but whose feelings about it are never spelled out.
Kennedy, A. L. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. London: British Film Institute, 1997.
Macdonald, K. Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. London: Faber & Faber, 1994.
Powell, M. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1987.