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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Michael Powell
Myths and Supermen
John Russell Taylor - Sight and Sound (Autumn 1978)

There can have been few sillier or more improbable cinematic squabbles than the one which began in April 1942 in the columns of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, was pursued in 1944 in E.W. and M.M. Robson's booklet The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp, and again in 1947 in the Robsons' book The World is My Cinema. The Robsons at this time were running something called the Sidneyan Society (named, rather obscurely, after Sir Philip Sidney), the ultimate aim of which was to "stimulate public opinion so that the British-film industry may take the lead (not lag behind America, as hitherto), and prosper as the standard-bearers to the world of all that is finest in British thought, action, leadership, enterprise and moral supremacy." Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (note the German name) were, it would seem, not living up to these ideals. In 49th Parallel ("this monumental example of filmic folly") Nazis on the run were allowed to talk about the decadence of the British and not instantly struck down. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ("the most disgraceful production that has ever emanated from a British film studio") so blurred the public consciousness that the Government started to release unimpeachably anti-Nazi German refugees from internment camps and a wave of strikes swept the country. And in A Matter of Life and Death "the black-hearted bitterness against Britain, which was implicit in [the Powell-Pressburger school's] wartime output, The Spy in Black, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, 49th Parallel, A Canterbury Tale and Blimp, is now explicit, openly and sneeringly anti-British ... now that the war is over."

What it amounts to is that the extreme right wing, jingoistic Robsons were accusing the high Tory Powell and the committedly anti-Nazi Pressburger of being insufficiently out of sympathy with that famous reactionary zealot Adolf Hitler and his pack of unspeakable Huns. All very weird, and happily now long forgotten. We should after all, as we are always told, consider the source. By now several generations, if they were aware of the Robsons at all, have done just that. And yet in a strange way they were on to something: it was strange that they, of all people, should have been on to it, and it is obvious that they did not realise at all what it was. For their writings, though they appear to be about politics and implicit political attitudes in film, are really vitiated by a truly astonishing naivety and are not finally about politics at all, remaining at the simplest level of jingoistic patriotism, very much on a par with Ethel Smyth ordering Violet Woodhouse in World War 1, "Don't play Bach, Violet; it's playing the German game", while crazed spinsters stoned dachshunds in the streets. They were worried only about certain things in the Powell-Pressburger films which seemed to them not totally anti-German; as far as the deeper ideology of the films was concerned. they really knew nothing and cared less.

But they were affected, powerfully, by a strong irritant quality in the films -something which still makes the considerable body of Michael Powell's work disturbing and controversial today. And that, I think, resides mainly in the ideological basis of the films. Curiously enough, since Powell has tended to be regarded as above all a wayward aesthete, whose films have no message beyond the medium. (Not, of course, that that is not also an ideological basis, and in terms of conventional British attitudes to film a very irritating and disturbing one.) But Powell's films do have another kind of consistency, which is perfectly susceptible to analysis in political terms. I specify Powell's films rather than the Powell-Pressburger corpus because, although the attitudes and donnes I am referring to are very evident in the Archers films, and it might be natural to suppose that Pressburger, as the accredited writer of the team, had a great deal to do with them, they are also in fact clearly definable in Powell's work both before and after his teaming with Pressburger. And there is quite a bit of evidence that it was Powell's influence even at the scripting stage that pushed the films in just this direction.

Perhaps the easiest, because most Provocative, way of encapsulating this is to say that the most immediate comparison which springs to mind in the cinema is with the films of Leni Riefenstahl. If that seems to be going a bit far, a more respectable literary analogue presents itself: there are many obvious parallels with D.H. Lawrence. And how indicative that Martin Scorsese, fascinated as he is by the figure of the unpleasant hero, should quote Powell as one of his great devotions in the cinema, even though he can surely not have seen many of the films which would most clearly bear out this instinctive sense of affinity. But let us start with a specific illustration: one of Powell's less known films, and rightly so, for truth to tell it is not very good. But failures, after all, often leave their creators more open to analysis than d triumphantly self-defining successes.

A Canterbury Tale is, even seen today, defiantly odd. In 1944 it must have seemed quite insane. Briefly, it concerns three characters, all in the Services, who converge accidentally on Canterbury in the middle of the war - present-day Canterbury Pilgrims, as the film rather obtrusively insists - and whose problems are all sorted out, as it we by supernatural intervention, in the final scenes in war-torn Canterbury itself. It is the American soldier who believes that his girl has forgotten him because he has not, heard from her since leaving home, the landgirl whose archaeologist fiancée is missing, believed dead, and the organist who worked before the war in a cinema and cultivates cynicism about his early musical ambitions. They arrive late at night in the village of Chillingham, just outside Canterbury, and the girl promptly has glue dumped in her hair in the blackout. It is the work of the 'glueman', who apparently has been doing this to all the local girls who go out, or might go out, with soldiers from the nearby camp.

The body of the film is a whodunit, with diversions. Rather rapidly it becomes evident that the glueman is actually the local mayor, J.P. and petty dictator of the area, played by Eric Portman in his most spiky manner. But then something very weird starts, to happen. The character, who sounds like some kind of sex maniac (kinky misogynist, lives with mother), is gradually presented in a more and more sympathetic light. He is the one who is concerned for the fabric of England and its preservation; he sets out to open the eyes of the philistine servicemen to the significance of the Pilgrim's Way and the mystical meaning of Canterbury, and before long even the least imaginative begin to have dreams and visions. He is, perhaps, Puck of Pook's Hill (one of Powell's favourite books, by the way), a mischievous and unpredictable force of nature, one of the dark gods surviving and superficially domesticated, working at once to disorient and in the long run effectively to reorient people, destroying in order to create. At least, that seems to be the conclusion the other principal characters come to: maybe he was a little high-handed. but he meant well, and after all glue does wash out, eventually.

All the subsidiary themes point in the same direction. Correspondences are constantly being found. The American serviceman can communicate with the local wheelwright because they both know about wood and how it should be treated; even if the accents are different, the language is the same. The newcomers to Canterbury are specifically identified, in curious prologue, wit Chaucer's pilgrims, as a hawk dissolves into a fighter plane and horses are replaced by tanks - but all under the same sky, in the same unchanging landscape of England, where the same road bends over the same hill immemorially ("The blood that warms an English yeoman/The thoughts that hurt him they were there"). The film is all about continuity and pattern, the importance of tradition and discipline, the mystical forces that reside in nature, for that special few who can feel and channel them - and, of course, the vital role of the superior being who point other, lesser mortals in the right direction, who inspires them, and who may use unconventional or downright immoral methods to do it. The Portman character is clearly beyond good and evil, a sort of Home Counties superman who dares to dream, one of those people he talks about "who walk step by step so that one day they can climb Mount Everest."

Here you have, on the script level (and a too talky, too explicit script it is, to be sure), most of the leading themes of Powell's cinema neatly packaged. In this film they are not, for the most part, very successfully absorbed into the style and substance of the work: they lie about in awkward nuggets on the surface There are moments, even so: Sheila Sim hearing the pilgrim bells on the site of the old straight track; Dennis Price aureoled in sunlight at precisely the moment he is saying "To believe that, I'd have to see myself with halo first"; the very peculiar 'bad taste' seen mocking the village idiot, who is yet presented as something more than a joke, mysterious, magical figure in the mists. But these remain moments, hinting at the existence of a different order of reality from the normally apparent, 'documentary' kind. More typically, and more effectively, the same sort of effect is created in Powell's film by the overall atmosphere he evokes; it is easy enough to feel, but very difficult to pin down chapter and verse for someone who is not on the same wavelength. How, for instance, can one establish that The Red Shoes (1948) is a fairy-tale, permeated by the atmosphere and attitudes of a fairy-tale, rather than just a novelette which goes over from time to time into a sort of brutality seemingly quite at odds with the rest? (Powell himself says, "I only said what was in the fairy story: they cut her feet off and she goes to heaven on her stumps. This was a proper fairy-tale.")

But clearly Powell is totally conscious of what he is doing. In a 1971 interview with Kevin Gough-Yates he goes into some detail: "I distrust documentary. Always have. I have no interest in what people tell me is the truth. How do I know it's the truth? I'd rather make up my own truth ... Any painter will tell you that, or any poet. The trouble is I have a poetic approach too. I have to find a theme or something which appeals to my imagination and work on it from there. Sometimes people get the better of me, like Emeric, who was always trying to get rid of this mystical sort of dual theme that went on. For instance, in I Know Where I'm Going, when Pamela [Brown] played this part I saw what a marvellous creature this was and what an interesting part if we could somehow link it with the old legend without her knowing it. And so I shot her entire sequence-and nearly drove everybody mad - so that I would link her half consciously and half unconsciously with what was going on - not exactly spying on things but being drawn."

This sense that something lies beyond the scene is everywhere apparent in Powell's work once one is alerted to it. Sometimes it is unmistakably central to the subject. The 1940 Thief of Bagdad (which seems to be much more Powell's film than anyone else's) is the only one which is overtly a fairy story, and arguably the film which, in the whole history of the cinema, functions most perfectly on that level. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is clearly at least a fantasy, taking place mostly in a dream world created (or is it?) in the mind of the airman hovering between life and death. The opera films, Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and Bluebeard's Castle (1964), are obviously a special case, though it is surely significant that both operas chosen are out and out fantasies, with no hint of verismo.

But much more telling from our point of view are the films which superficially appear to take place in a world we can more or less recognise, and establish a constant reference with reality, yet have pervasively these other terms of reference too. If The Red Shoes is inherently a fairy story, so, certainly, is I Know Where I'm Going (1945), with its headstrong heroine played by Wendy Hiller, its fairy prince in disguise (Roger Livesey). its oracular double meanings, romantic curses and magical kisses. Curses and riddles and spells and fate are an essential part of the dramatic structure in an amazing number of Powell's films. Right back to The Phantom Light in 1935 the tales of ghosts and the creation of an other-worldly atmosphere play an important role, even though there everything is eventually explained away as a wreckers' stratagem. Much more important, The Edge of the World (1937) which seems from evidence which has been available up to the National Film Theatre's Powell season in autumn 1978 to be the first truly personal Powell film, is entirely based on the working of signs and omens, particularly the evil fate which always attends a sighting of the hills of Scotland from Hirta (the very name of the island means 'death'), as happens just when the crucial quarrel between the two young men takes place. And the whole story. which superficially looks as though it should be a sub-Flaherty essay in romantic docu-drama, is given a very different colouring by being told in dreamlike flashback and scattered through with visions (the old, blind grandmother somehow knows when the young man plummets to his death on a distant cliff. just as the blind mother in Peeping Tom is the only character who sees true) and portents and the supernatural interpenetration of nature and the weather with human life and emotion.

In terms of realisation, The Edge of the World contains many devices which are to recur in Powell's later films. In particular, there is the habit of cutting away from human characters at important moments to concentrate on natural phenomena of various kinds-a tree. a stone, the passing of a cloud across the sky-which make some kind of mute comment on the human action, clarify or intensify or maybe undermine and redirect the emotional content of a scene. Nature in Powell's films is never "l'impassible théâtre" in which mankind's little dramas are played out. but an active participant. This is particularly evident in such post-war films as Black Narcissus (1947) and Gone to Earth (1950). The intrigues of both might be, more or less, susceptible to normal psychological explanation: a group of nuns posted to a remote part of India go in various ways funny because of sexual frustration and social isolation; an educationally underprivileged girl., prey to primitive superstition., comes to feel, neurotically, that her fate is linked to that of her pet fox. But in practice the realistic psychological explanations are minimised; there are, the mise en scène constantly implies, more things in heaven and earth ...

But how, precisely, does it imply this? In Black Narcissus the first important element is the decision to make the whole thing in a studio, with no Indian locations at all, thereby ensuring stylistic unity but at the same time throwing the emphasis on a subjective, romantic evocation of India rather than anything which could be mistaken for documentary veracity (a bold, if not wilfully perverse, decision to make in the heyday of neo-realism). From this starting point everything is conventionalised and choreographed. The routine assurances of the Indian characters that the nuns are meddling with stronger, stranger forces than they can recognise are combined with the similar, though differently motivated, warnings of the British resident and built into a sort of recurrent chorus. And from the very opening glimpses we are given of the convent awaiting the nuns'arrival, with the old Indian woman scurrying round as though involved in some intricate ritual dance, the magical tone of the story is established.

In the body of the film sequence after sequence has the air of being patterned, built according to some hidden plan. In fact, several of the key scenes, such as that long, virtually wordless sequence in which the nun played by Kathleen Byron runs amok, attacks the mother superior and sets off, extravagantly made up, for the nearest European man, were composed first by Brian Easdale and then storyboarded like an animated cartoon to the music and the 'orchestrated' sound effects on the track. The overall effect of this treatment is to suggest the objective reality of the primitive forces which are shaping the characters' destinies, instead of permitting us to dismiss them as mere superstitions in the heads of the natives.

Gone to Earth * carries the 'Disneyish' side of Black Narcissus still further. Since the plot it derives from Mary Webb's rather silly novel is minimal, most of the points in the film are made by quite non-literary means. Characterisation and mood are taken care of largely by a very bold and simple use of colour in the costumes. Red, the colour of blood and the huntsman's coat, is used in its traditional role as the colour of passion, the flash and the devil. It is the colour of the dress in the portrait of 'milady' which the animal squire Jack Reddin first offers Hazel and which she refuses. Later, when she has married her pale cleric and decides to run off with Reddin, she finally puts it on, and wears it, somewhat unrealistically, at all hours of the day and night. Her other side, that of the elfin child of nature, is suggested by her dressing in pale, cool colours like the eau-de-nil of her first shop-bought dress.

Pictorial composition is used in the same bold, deliberately simple fashion to indicate the relationships among the characters: in particular, there is the omnipresence of Reddin, the horseman forever posed, it seems, on the nearest convenient horizon when Hazel does anything tending to assert her independence of him--the scene where she takes her unfortunate oath, "by God's Little Mountain", to marry the first man who asks her, the scene of her baptism by total immersion under the sceptical gaze of Reddin, riding by. And the punctuation of the human drama with almost abstract scenes of changing weather, wind bending the saplings double, clouds passing across the sun and the like-many of the details seem to be inserted into the Shropshire landscape through the designing art of Hein Heckroth - recalls in almost equal measures The Blue Light and Bambi. Not for nothing, clearly, has Powell hailed Disney as the greatest film-maker of all,

A pantheistic view of nature and wholesale indulgence in the pathetic fallacy represent one element of Powell's creative personality: one could hardly go so far as to call them a message, though they play an important part in the overall significance of his films. What does look much more like a message, in the normal sense of the term, is the whole nexus of ideas involving patriotism, the military, and traditions of discipline and ritual in British life. All of this comes up very evidently in his major wartime films -- 49th Parallel, Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale and most of the lesser works like One of Our Aircraft is Missing and The Volunteer. But it is obviously more than just a timely response to the specific conditions of the moment: occurs also in at least one pre-war film, The Spy in Black (1939), is central to The Small Back Room (1948), and recurs with equal force in the mid-50s films The Battle of the River Plate and Ill Met by Moonlight and even in that prime ideological anachronism The Queen's Guards (1960).

At first glance these may seem to be curiously inconsistent with the fey and pantheistic Powell. And yet a connection between the military mentality and esoteric mysticism should not surprise us, seeing that they are a combination so often found in the lives of famous British soldiers, sailors and, particularly, airmen. More curious is the question of how the two divergent images of the hero in Powell's work, the restrained, stiff-upper-lipped man of action and the temperamental artist-as-superman, can be reconciled. The answer, probably, is that they cannot. Each type hardly ever appears in a pure state. We are generally allowed to see an emotional and/or extravagantly eccentric side to the apparently ironclad military heroes Colonel Blimp dedicates nearly three hours to doing this for Clive Candy; The Small Back Room originally burst into full expressionism with a dream sequence dramatising Sammy Rice's urge for the bottle; Ill Met by Moonlight is a high-spirited and ruthless examination of the mad Englishman as hero - while the heroic status of the artist-superman, beyond good and evil, remains ambiguous in all the films in which he features.

And this ambiguity persists in spite of - is perhaps even intensified by - the ample evidence of Powell's own identification with his artist-supermen. He has, for instance, compared the film-maker's role so often to that of the Diaghilev type of impresario, channelling and co-ordinating the headstrong talents of many other artists to one unified end, that it is barely conceivable there could be no sort of identification in his own mind between himself and the impresario Lermontov in The Red Shoes. It seems, too, that some of the more abrasive and highly coloured of his favourite actors, Eric Portman and Anton Walbrook in particular, regularly stand in for the director as meneur du jeu and therefore represent Powell the artist, if not necessarily Powell the man, within his work. And of course in Peeping Tom (1959) he himself plays the father whose experiments on his son set off and condition the whole action of the film.

How far are any of these characters actually considered as heroic? There is certainly something demonic in all of them: Powell seems to share with Bergman and Fellini the vision of art as itself demonic, a magical mystery involving ruthlessness and martyrdom on the part of the artist. Colpeper in A Canterbury, Tale, as noted, appears finally to be manipulating the lives of the other characters for the better, from highly idealistic motives, even though his way of going about it is picturesquely sadistic and perverse, and although he seems to have sacrificed his own private happiness to the job of deus ex machina. Lermontov has the same character conformation: he requires impossible sacrifices from others because he is willing to make them, and more, himself. Those who work with him see him explicitly as a devil and totally inhuman ("Ah, he has no heart, that man ..."), and yet we are allowed, some privileged indications that this effect is not achieved without pain and deliberate self sacrifice: his reactions to the turn of events when there is no one to see but the voyeuristic eye of the camera prove that. Of course the Bat character Walbrook plays in Oh, Rosalinda!! (1955) runs the same kind of game in a lighter register, while the various tempters and tormentors played by Robert Helpmann in Tales of Hoffmann weight it in the other direction in that they are given, and need be given, no realistically human dimension. If we do not see enough of the father in Peeping Tom really to speculate about his character and motivation, we do see enough of his creation, the son, to appreciate under the bland exterior of Carl Boehm the same tragic pursuit of perfection, the sense of being driven by a demon as well as a daemon, There is at least one character in Powell's films who seems to fuse the two types of hero, the epic and the tragic: Dr. Reeves in A Matter of Life and Death, played by Roger Livesey halfway between the young tearaway cum old fogey of Colonel Blimp and the sailor/laird of I Know Where I'm Going. Both these characters belong to the epic strain: military discipline with hidden depths. And a lot of that carries over in A Matter of Life and Death. But Reeves has another aspect there, as master of the camera obscura, a device which, in film terms, enables him to play God and the possession of which, Powell says, "makes Livesey seem more like God". At once it harks forward to Peeping Tom, a film about scoptophilia, "the morbid urge to gaze", and back to the comment of Clive Candy in Colonel Blimp when the nurse he fancies appears and disappears: "It's like the Indian rope trick: first you want to see it, and then you see it." If the creator is in some way essentially devilish, in a more general sense his activities are benign, and it is perhaps significant that the last artist-figure in Powell's cinema to date, Morahan in the 1969 Age of Consent, is played by James Mason, at this stage in his career a primarily gentlemanly actor (though- no doubt Powell remembers The Man in Grey and Fanny by Gaslight), and that he comes over as celibate and benign to the point of incomprehensibility, at least as far as the girl is concerned.

In other words, much of Powell's work is concerned with the rapprochement, if not the total reconciliation, of opposite ideals: the artist's self-indulgence is inseparable from the artist's self-sacrifice, which becomes a sort of ritual purification, immaculate disciplining of the surface, such as is required of the military hero, does not preclude his also being hooked in to the big connection, secretly but surely aware of the dark forces. All Powell's characters are - to use a title he might have used if Thorold Dickinson had not got there first - men of two worlds, and the balancing of these two is the central act in Powell's creation. Ultimately his films are about cinema, they all take on the aspect of metaphors, more or less removed from the explicit, of the creative process. In it, as Powell shows it to us, creation and destruction are one and the same, each necessary to the other: all creation, finally, is the sport of my mad father, the man with the movie camera.

* There are two versions of Gone to Earth. The British version, discussed here, is entirely Powell and Pressburger's the American version, retitled The Wild Heart, which has been shown on British television, was reworked by Mamoulian for Selznick.

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