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The Glorious Indiscipline of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

May 18, 2012

The good people at FilmJuice have just updated their site and the latest update includes my article on the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Prior to agreeing to write this article, my experience of the Archers was (like many people) limited to some of their bigger and better-known films including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. However, after dusting off the excellent ITV box set and delving into Powell and Pressburger’s back catalogue, I quickly realised that posterity has done the Archers a grave disservice by choosing to pool its affections on so few of their films. Indeed, one of the things that distinguishes The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from films like The Battle of The River Plate or A Canterbury Tale is that they are a good deal more disciplined and thematically focused than many of the Archers’ less celebrated films. For example, The Battle of The River Plate begins by laying the foundations for what we expect to be a traditional World War II naval movie in the grand tradition of Noel Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve. However, halfway through the film the battle itself takes place and the action immediately moves away from the war ships on onto the journalists and diplomats reacting to the battle. From there, the film explodes into what can only be referred to as a ‘naval procedural’ in which people debate shipping laws and propaganda. However, rather than celebrating the cleverness of men in suits, the film concludes with an enigmatic but nonetheless moving scene in which a bluff British naval officer pays tribute to the aristocratic German captain who held him prisoner. This refusal to expand upon the relationship between the two men or relate it back to the core themes of the film may initially seem quite slapdash but it ultimately manages to capture something of the complexity of modern warfare. War, the Archers seem to suggest, is not about ships or spies or even victory… it is about people and people often get squeezed out when nations go looking for stories to tell their people. A similar thematic largesse features in A Canterbury Tale:

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.

In writing this article I realised that part of what makes the films of Powell and Pressburger so special is their refusal to pin themselves down to a single idea or a single theme. Filled with dangling threads and thematic bombast, the films of Powell and Pressburger are a mess. A glorious and undisciplined mess just like this sequence from their adaptation of The Tales of Hoffman:

One Comment
  1. ericmvan permalink
    December 30, 2012 5:33 pm

    Just found this blog (which appears to be popular with many folks I know in sf fandom) via an IMDB message board link to your entry on Le Quatro Volte …

    My fave overlooked Archers gem is The Small Back Room, their bomb-defusing drama which features a rare accurate portrayal of scientists at work and an ending where you honestly don’t now whether the protagonist will live or die, since they’ve set it up so that either would be thematically satisfying. That’s almost unseen in contemporary cinema.

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