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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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The Archers: Part 2

The end of the war found The Archers among the front ranks of a new wave of British filmmakers whose work had found a major audience in the United States. For their next film, the team chose to adapt Rumer Godden's novel Black Narcissus, a story of nuns struggling against elemental hardships and repressed passions to found a convent at the foot of the Himalayas. Despite the fact that this was a British film focused on Anglican nuns, the movie was scrutinized by the Catholic Legion of Decency in the United States, and was heavily cut on its original American release. The controversy didn't prevent cinematographer Jack Cardiff from winning an Oscar® for his stunning Technicolor photography. The film, however, wasn't widely available in America in its full-length version until the end of the 1970's.

The Red Shoes originated as a screenplay that Pressburger had written as a vehicle for Merle Oberon, during his days at London Films. The Archers purchased Pressburger's script from Korda and extensively revised it. The result became the most celebrated British film of its time, as well as the biggest financial success that Powell and Pressburger ever had. Ironically, The Red Shoes and its long and expensive post-production work created major problems between The Archers and the increasingly parsimonious Rank Organisation. This resulted in a split between the two for the first time since 1942, when Rank had turned down One of Our Aircraft is Missing. For their next picture, an adaptation of Nigel Balchin's 1946 novel The Small Back Room, Powell and Pressburger moved to Alexander Korda's re-established London Films, which was only too glad to have back their two pre-war alumni. The Small Back Room marked a return not only to black and white, but also to the World War II setting that had yielded some of their finest pictures. The Small Back Room concerns an engineer battling alcoholism, depression, and his resentment toward the politics in his office. The drama intertwines with his mission to uncover and defuse a series of deadly German booby traps. Oddly enough, it was the only one of the team's films that received unqualified praise from the British critics. "The English critics always hated our pictures," Michael Powell remarked in 1984, "but they loved The Small Back Room." Despite this reception, it was a complete and immediate box office failure in England. Powell said, "We'd done it too long after the war, and no one wanted to see it." The film wasn't released in America until three years later, in the wake of The Red Shoes' immense success, under the title Hour of Glory.

The Archers' move to London Films involved them in two difficult transatlantic partnerships. The first of these was an adaptation of Mary Webb's novel Gone to Earth, about a young, superstitious but loving Welsh girl (Jennifer Jones) and her doomed romantic entanglements with two men from her village. Jones' contract was held by her husband, David O. Selznick--co-producer of the picture with Korda -- who had his own ideas about what the movie should contain. The resulting film was one of the best that Jones ever made, but Selznick was extremely unhappy with the results and attempted to sue The Archers. A judge later ruled that there were no grounds to sue the filmmakers, but that Selznick could modify the film in any way that he chose for its American release, where he controlled its distribution. This he did, under the title The Wild Heart , with extensive cuts and new footage shot by Rouben Mamoulian.

The complications surrounding Gone to Earth were echoed on The Archers' next production, The Elusive Pimpernel, a Technicolor remake of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which had been one of London Films' biggest successes of the 1930s. It stars David Niven, who plays Sir Percy Blakeney aka The Scarlet Pimpernel, battling to save innocent French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror. Samuel Goldwyn had Niven under contract and co-produced the film with Korda. Originally planned as a musical -- one can still see where the production numbers were to have been -- the film instead was shot as a costume drama. The resulting picture was beautiful and clever, but lacked the depth of Powell and Pressburger's usual work. The finished film also led to a lawsuit -- subsequently dropped -- by Goldwyn against the filmmakers and Korda.

As Powell later remarked in an interview, The Archers' contract with London Films was turning out very poorly for all concerned, mostly because of the awkward American co-production deals. Korda was also using The Archers and their previous track record to secure financing for remakes of properties that he already owned, rather than allowing them to make the films they wanted. The team realized the need to come up with a film based on an idea of their own, before, in Powell's words, "Korda had us doing a musical remake of Sherlock Holmes." The result was The Tales of Hoffmann. Sir Thomas Beecham, who had conducted the ballet music for The Red Shoes, suggested a filmed version of Offenbach's opera to Powell and Pressburger. The Tales of Hoffmann was a Technicolor ballet/opera extravaganza, based on Offenbach's fantasy about the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann and his star-crossed romances with three women. The movie fulfilled all of its promise, carrying the cinematic advances made in The Red Shoes several steps further. It was the only film The Archers made for Korda that turned a profit, albeit a small one. The American distributor, however, balked at releasing a 127-minute opera film and chopped 14 minutes out of it for the United States opening. The missing footage was not restored until 40 years later.

After completing their contract with London Films, Powell and Pressburger took a three-year hiatus from their partnership. Both pursued projects separately, Powell writing and producing for the stage in London, while Pressburger directed a movie adaptation of his friend Erich Kastner's book Twice Upon A Time, later remade by Disney as The Parent Trap. One proposed Archers film, Taj Mahal, went through several screenplay drafts but never materialized. Both the British Empire and the British film industry were in full retrenchment; an epic about the construction of the Taj Mahal was beyond anyone's capacity to produce. A planned film of The Tempest, to star Moira Shearer, also failed to find financing, as did Powell's notion of a series of art films to involve Dylan Thomas and Igor Stravinsky. In 1955, The Archers resumed work together on Oh ... Rosalinda!!, an adaptation of the Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, set in four-power occupied Vienna. The plot concerns a debonair master of ceremonies who exacts revenge on four officers who once played a practical joke on him. It was to be the only film they would ever make in CinemaScope®.;

Oh ... Rosalinda!! was followed by a rather more conventional if equally challenging vehicle, The Battle of the River Plate . Pressburger suggested a film about the sinking of the German battleship Graf Spee, one of the few British naval successes in the early days of World War II. The Admiralty was extremely cooperative, and many witnesses to the epic sea battle were available. With seed money from 20th Century-Fox and assistance from the Admiralty (and the American navy, which loaned one of its cruisers), the story was duly restaged and proved extremely appealing. The Battle of The River Plate , retitled Pursuit of the Graf Spee, [So that Americans wouldn't think it was the River Platte and therefore a Western - Steve] became only the third Archers film of the 1950s to get an American release reasonably close to its British release date, and from a major distributor.

The final film in the formal Powell/Pressburger partnership, Ill Met by Moonlight (U.S. title: Night Ambush), was based on W. Stanley Moss's account of British commando action on the isle of Crete during World War II. It tells the story of the kidnapping of a German general. At first glance, it seems like an off-kilter, anemic work, harking back awkwardly to the glory days of World War II. Produced amid the turmoil of the Suez Crisis and other signs of England's decline on the world scene, it seems a strangely odd filmmaking project. But a fresh viewing reveals it as perhaps the most consistently engaging, suspenseful, and witty of all England's postwar action films.

The Archers' partnership ended after Ill Met by Moonlight, and Michael Powell continued as a producer/director on his own, culminating with his 1960 thriller Peeping Tom. Emeric Pressburger produced one film, based on his long-cherished script The Miracle of St. Anthony's Lane, which was released as Miracle In Soho in 1957. He later resumed the literary career that poverty and the rise of the Nazis had interrupted during the early 1930's. His novel, Killing A Mouse on Sunday, was subsequently filmed under the title Behold A Pale Horse by director Fred Zinnemann. During 1972, Powell and Pressburger were briefly reunited for the Children's Film Foundation release of The Boy Who Turned Yellow, a whimsical fantasy written by Pressburger and directed by Powell, about a boy who has an adventure with a man who is the walking manifestation of electricity.

During the mid-1970s, Powell and Presburger also produced one joint literary effort, a novel based on The Red Shoes, which was published by Avon Books. The tributes devoted to their work together began soon after, first in England with showings of the restored edition of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp . This was followed by full-blown career-length retrospectives, at London's National Film Theatre and in America at the Museum of Modern Art. The 1980s saw restoration work carried out in England on all of the major Powell/Pressburger films, and 40th anniversary tributes to The Red Shoes in America. Powell and Pressburger's influence can be seen in dozens of films, and they are freely acknowledged as sources of inspiration by directors as diverse as Brian DePalma, Derek Jarman, Vincente Minelli, George Romero, and Martin Scorsese. Monuments to the most daring artistic impulses of two vastly talented men, the films of Powell and Pressburger are a remarkable and rich legacy from two of the greatest filmmakers in the history of British cinema.


Ian Christie: Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Faber & Faber)

Kevin Macdonald: Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (Faber & Faber)

Michael Powell: A Life in Movies (out of print)
[Since been reprinted. Often available secondhand]

Michael Powell: Million Dollar Movie (Random House)

Back to The Archers Home Page

Available on laserdisc from
The Criterion Collection
     Available on VHS tape (NTSC) from
Home Vision Cinema
Black Narcissus
49th Parallel
I Know Where I'm Going
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Peeping Tom
The Red Shoes
The Tales of Hoffmann
The Elusive Pimpernel
Peeping Tom
The Tales of Hoffmann