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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Neil Murray

MULL: I Know Where I'm Going
From: 'Scotland the Movie' by David Bruce (Polygon 1996)

The partnership of Michael Powell (1905-90) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-88) was one of the most creative in the history of British cinema.

Between 1943 and 1956 they produced fourteen films under the banner of their company The Archers, giving themselves joint credits as director, producer and writer.

Although Powell was brought up in Kent, he became very interested in Scotland. His first film north of the border, the twelfth of his career, was Red Ensign (1934) about Clyde shipbuilding, but it was The Edge of the World (1936), the story of the last days of St. Kilda, shot on Foula, that he said changed his life. In 1939 he joined with Pressburger to make The Spy in Black and in 1943 they produced The Silver Fleet partly in Dundee.

Clearly one of the best products of the Powell-Pressburger collaboration was I Know Where I'm Going! Shot mainly on Mull, using Carsaig as a base, with scenes at Duart Castle and Calgary, the film was released in October 1945. The timing of its appearance was important. Although set during wartime it was concerned with changes in society at that crucial and unsettling period and therefore with the clash of values between the traditions of an island community and those of more mercenary incomers. In this it was another manifestation of The Archers' ethos in which spiritual values must win out over materialism. Superficially, the plot resembles that of many of the 'incomer' films made in Scotland over the years. The central character, this time a woman, is wilful, headstrong and arrogant. She despises the natives and their outmoded culture but falls under the spell of the landscape and the sound of Gaelic spoken and sung, eventually finding love, happiness and her true self.

I Know Where I'm Going! is far more interesting in its approach than most in its genre. The woman, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), sets off from Manchester where her father is a bank manager, single-mindedly determined to marry her rich businessman fiance who, she believes, owns an island called 'Kiloran' where he waits to marry her. Everybody else knows that this is a bad idea and much of the interest of the film is in waiting to see when the truth will dawn on her. Overlaying this, is the story of a journey frustrated by West Highland weather so that, although the heroine makes it to Mull, she cannot get to 'Kiloran' (Colonsay) until fog and gales give way. The handsome naval officer on leave, with whom she is forced to share her impatience, turns out to be the real owner of the island, Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). He saves her from drowning in the Corryvreckan whirlpool and from herself, ensuring a happy ending.

What makes the difference between this film and most of its successors is its visual conception and the obvious effort on the part of the film-makers to engage sympathetically with the indigenous culture as far as they possibly can. There are the conventional markers of 'Hebrideanism', kilts, the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and small flurries of Gaelic (actually, rather more Gaelic, better deployed, than usual, including remarkably credible place names [They should be, most are real places. Certainly all the ones on Kiloran are]). Nonetheless there is a greater sense of place about it than in any incoming film for forty years (with the possible exception of the two Mackendrick films, Whisky Galore (1949) and The Maggie (1954)).

I Know Where I'm Going! is arguably more complex than either of Mackendrick's films. Its sense of humour is very visual - the top hat that emits steam as it dissolves into the funnel of a railway engine or the telephone box (just as good as the one in Local Hero) sited so near the waterfall that conversation is impossible. The tale of the stranger subverted by myth and purified by ordeal, is certainly not unusual in cinema but it is rarely presented with such redeeming wit.

The film itself is surrounded by a sea of anecdotal detail. Much admired by Martin Scorsese, it has been compared to Mozart's 'Magic Flute'. It was made at short notice while Powell and Pressburger waited for Technicolour stock to start A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Roger Livesey, unlike the rest of the cast, never set foot on Mull because of West End engagements and a double stood in for him in the (extensive) scenes on the island, a deception of which Powell was very proud as it did no damage to the performances on screen. The ceilidh scene (obligatory in Highland movies) features John Laurie and Finlay Currie, seen briefly conducting the assembled singers and thereby relating to his past as a professional choirmaster. The improbable household full of wolfhounds was based on a real establishment on Mull. And no doubt there is much more.

Mull was the location for a very different kind of adventure a quarter of a century later. When Eight Bells Toll (1971) was full of action, gold bullion, and secret agents and as such was not untypical of most films based on the works of Alistair MacLean (1922-87). In terms of novels translated to the screen MacLean was one of the most successful Scottish authors. The films his work gave rise to were on a big scale, very exciting, and usually excellent box office if not much favoured by the critics. Among more than a dozen titles, the best, such as the Guns of Navarone (1961), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Puppet on a Chain (1970) could fill a cinema and give good value entertainment anywhere.

The unlikelihood of a link between Mull and Bette Davis is confounded by Madame Sin (1972) she plays an evil genius scientist whose 'Thought Factory' is located on the island, and who plans the hijacking of a Polaris submarine. Mull also provided locations for part of The Year of the Comet (1992) and Bill Anderson's National Film and Television School feature Creatures of Light (also 1992). Just off the west coast of Mull, Inch Kenneth was one of the locations for the Tim Neat international co-production with Dutch and German companies, Walk Me Home (1993).

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