Today: February 28, 2024

This week sees the return to cinemas of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at what made ‘The Archers’ two of cinemas most revered filmmakers.

This week sees the return to cinemas of Michael Powell and Emeric
Pressburger’s classic The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at what
made ‘The Archers’ two of cinemas most revered filmmakers.

Michael Powell and Emeric
Pressburger first worked together in 1939. Powell was a jobbing director with a
few films under his belt and Pressburger was a scriptwriter who honed his craft
by working as a journalist on the mean streets of Weimar-era Germany. Despite the differences in their backgrounds,
the pair evidently hit it off and so forged a creative partnership that would
span thirty-three years, twenty-one films and the decision to abandon
individual credits in favour of signing their films using the collective
nom-de-guerre The Archers. This
creative partnership proved so intimate and so successful that, to this day, it
is unclear where Powell’s directorial flair ends and Pressburger’s authorial
vision begins.

Despite producing a number of
commercial and critical successes, The Archers divided the critics of their day.
Some hailed them as visionaries while others dismissed them as a pair of
hopelessly self-indulgent buffoons whose lack of focus went unpunished thanks
to the Herculean efforts of their camera operator Jack Cardiff. In hindsight, it is easy to see why the charge of
self-indulgence might have stuck as The Tales
of Hoffman
(1951) really does come across as an aimless, ugly and
undisciplined riot of movement, colour and song. Indeed, where most directors
pick an idea and devote an entire film to exploring it, The Archers would
frequently flirt with half a dozen ideas without ever fully committing to any
of them.

One example of The Archers’
thematic largesse is their cruelly under-rated A Canterbury Tale (1944). Set in an idyllic English village, the
film follows a group of conscripts as they try to uncover the identity of the
man who is terrorising the local women by pouring glue in their hair. Initially
quite genteel and grounded in social realism, the film soon spirals out into a
demented meditation on the wartime emancipation of women and the ambiguous
nature of social change. Filled with lovely cinematic moments and a central
figure that would not be out of place in a J.G.
Ballard
novel, A Canterbury Tale never quite manages to present a coherent
argument or viewpoint and so comes across as the product of adoring foreign
eyes surveying a dying civilisation. Think of a Miss Marple film directed by Yasujiro Ozu and you will get a good
idea of the film’s tone and focus.

Similarly complex in its attitudes
to social change is the altogether better known The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Reportedly cut at the
behest of Winston Churchill, the film chronicles the life of a British soldier
in a way that enraged many critics at the time. Part of the problem is that the
film is far too dense and complex for it to fit into a reductive critical
analysis. Indeed, one can ask what the film is actually about but the only way
of answering it is by providing a list of themes including loss, regret, what it
means to be English, what it means to be German, what it means to be a soldier
and what it means to get old. Colonel Blimp is not really about any of these
things and yet it touches on all of them in ways that are not only profound and
sensitive but also utterly mesmerising.

Taken together, these two films
provide a sound introduction to Powell and Pressburger’s approach to
filmmaking. Filled with life and beauty, their films never once sacrificed the
complexities of life on the altar of story. However, while all of The Archers’
films are gloriously undisciplined, some of their films did a better job of
appearing to be coherent.

Famous for its scene featuring a
doomed bomber pilot flirting with a female radio operator, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) revolves around a man who survives
a fatal plane crash because Heaven managed to lose him in a fog. Having avoided
‘his time’ and fallen in love in the aftermath, the pilot reacts to the
appearance of an angel by lodging an appeal against his death. This appeal
results in a memorable trial sequence which, despite ostensibly being about the
power of love, actually manages to be about such perennial Powell and
Pressburger questions as regret, what it means to be English and what kind of
world we are leaving for those who come after us. Equally present in Colonel
Blimp, The Archers’ obsession with generational change also pervades their best
known and most widely celebrated film.

Built around a dance sequence so
flawlessly spectacular that it makes Avatar
and Transformers look like early 90s
screensavers, The Red Shoes (1949) (Main Picture)
tells of a ballet dancer who is driven mad when forced to choose between her
needs as a woman and her needs as an artist. Aside from the raw cinematic power
that bewitched Martin Scorsese and
compelled him to oversee the film’s recent (and sensational) restoration, The
Red Shoes also features some clever intertextual self-commentary and a
marvellous performance by Anton Walbrook
as the fickle and mercilessly demanding voice of artistic excellence. Though
just as thematically undisciplined as any of The Archers’ films, The Red Shoes
benefits hugely from its willingness to hang a wealth of themes and ideas on a
single human life. Thus a sprawling mess of half-formed ideas achieves some
element of focus thanks to the suggestion that life itself is a messy and
complex affair.

Arguably the most constrained of
Powell and Pressburger’s films is Black
Narcissus
(1947). Based on a novel by Rumer
Godden
and filled with just as much life and colour as The Red Shoes and
The Tales of Hoffman, Black Narcissus tells of a group of nuns who exile
themselves from the real world and move into an isolated Himalayan palace. Left
with little to do other than rehash mistakes of the past, the nuns soon find
themselves struggling with feelings of desire and obsession that rattle their
sanity just as the Himalayan winds rattle the shutters of their isolated
mountain-top palace.

When critics talk about directors
possessing a ‘unique vision’ what they usually mean is that said director has a
set of themes and techniques that make their films both distinctive and
recognisably theirs. The films of Powell and Pressburger are unique not only
because they are recognisably theirs but also because their approach to
filmmaking is fundamentally different to that of most directors. Nobody
produces films as chaotic and self-indulgent as Powell and Pressburger and yet
this is precisely why their films are so uniquely
compelling.

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