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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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Archers on Target

In the 40s Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger set up a production company called The Archers. Their aim was to use cinema 'to create dreams, to inspire awe and wonder'. Together they brought their talents to a series of films intended not only for entertainment but for propaganda purposes in wartime Britain. A seven-week season of their films starts with the first full version of 'Colonel Blimp' to be shown commercially since 1943. Geoff Brown writes here.

Radio Times - 6-12 December, 1980

One of the most pleasurable moments in all British cinema is the sight of an arrow hitting its target to the sound of a firm thwack. For that is the trademark of The Archers, the production company established in 1942 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Joint devisers of British screen entertainment unequalled in ambition, audacity and imagination. Yet their films have rarely fitted easily into the perspective of critics and audiences. They worked away from the mainstream cinema tradition we lazily define as 'realism'; like the German impressionist masters Powell uses cinema to create dreams, to inspire awe and wonder.

     Their films also avoid conventional narratives; the original scripts of the Hungarian born Pressburger display his middle-European love of labyrinthine stories, packed with sudden twists and deceptions. Critics frequently complained that their cinematic flair took them beyond the bounds of 'good taste' (in 1960 the guns were to be fired particularly heavily at Powell's horror film Peeping Tom). But The Archers' only fault is that they were artists, making art films in a country whose cinema is mostly prosaic - and in a country where a suspicion of art is deeply ingrained in the national character. Some in the industry could also never forgive them for doing exactly what they wanted the way they wanted, and doing it successfully.

     Paradoxically, the team became established during the Second World War, when only films of patriotic endeavour were given Government support. Before this, Powell had toiled hard in the twilight of low-budget 'quota quickies', though he had gained much attention with The Edge of the World, shot on location in the Shetlands. Pressburger, in turn, had toiled as a writer at Germany's UFA studios until Hitler drove him to England.

     The team's earliest war films, such as Contraband (1940), continued the tradition of British thrillers established by Hitchcock, though Powell's visual treatment of London in the blackout was distinctive. And Pressburger's script bristled with quirks - the action at one point drifts into a store-room packed with unloved, unwanted busts of Neville Chamberlain. Then in One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) the pair constructed a more sober, thoughtful drama around the plight of an RAF crew who baled out over the occupied Netherlands.

     But the first film to show them working at full power (and incurring some official displeasure in the process) was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), inspired by David Low's cartoon character. Low's Blimp was a crusty old gent guided by patriotism and pig ignorance, a dangerous mixture familiar from the earlier war and still encountered in some officials in 1939.

     Churchill and others conveyed their unease in memoranda; army facilities and Laurence Olivier were denied the film-makers, the release print was much shortened and distribution abroad was hindered.

     It isn't hard to see why this story of Colonel Clive Candy's tangled experiences in the 20th century proved so disturbing. For one thing, the film simply bursts with a kind of cinematic excess to which the British audiences were not accustomed. For another, no clear moral judgements are offered. The Blimpish colonel (finally played by the under-rated Roger Livesey) is attractive in spite of his stupidities. And Anton Walbrook's German officer remains suavely civilised throughout. Pressburger had too much knowledge of the German character to bait the Hun in the brutal way of the Nazi's own propaganda. For The Archers, the best propaganda meant trying to understand the opponent's mind, not just his notorious surface characteristics.

     Their subsequent production A Canterbury Tale (1944) caused further scratching of heads, at least among audiences, though it has since emerged as one of Britain's most endlessly fascinating films. Again there is the initial problem of orientation. Wartime audiences were quite accustomed to propaganda about the importance of salvage or maintaining the blackout booming down from the silver screen. But they were not accustomed to poetic arguments for the importance of Britain's cultural and historical legacy or the need to avoid materialism.

     The Archers then moved even further from the normal patterns of British cinema. The delightful I Know Where I'm Going (1945) is their most compact film - a provoking debate on the value of moneyed married bliss presented as a modern-day fairy story, full of Celtic magic and mystery.

     But their most celebrated exercise in cinematic debate remains A Matter of Life and Death (1946). The Ministry of Information had suggested a film to improve Anglo-American relations after the war. From this starting point Powell and Pressburger developed an exhilarating fantasy of an RAF pilot's hallucinations, which take place half on earth (seen in rich, glorious Technicolor) and half in heaven (icy black-and-white). The script teems with bizarre notions and jokes, while Powell's technical ingenuity is particularly prodigious (note the subjective shot from inside David Niven's eyeballs!). No wonder it's his favourite from the films in the BBC Television season.

     Black Narcissus (1947) had no propaganda strings attached, though the subject was chosen to celebrate British cinema's return to pure entertainment. It's a version of Rumer Godden's novel, depicting a Christian community's battle against pagan superstitions and passions high in the Himalayas. Predictably the film shows none of the cold, academic correctness of Carol Reid or David Lean's literary adaptations; as one of the characters says, 'There's something in the air that makes everything seem exaggerated!' But the exaggeration is tightly controlled (the film was shot entirely in the studio).

     The Archers continued with singular entertainment, The Red Shoes inaugurated a series drawing on ballet and opera (the present season includes Oh... Rosalinda! from 1955, based on Die Fledermaus). In The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) they gamely tackles Baroness Orczy's wild historical novel, but producers Korda and Goldwyn kept them more fettered to the source than they wished.

     Then in 1957 the pair separated. Pressburger has written novels as well as film scripts. Powell became something of a nomad, directing for television, directing in Australia. At the moment, though, he certainly knows where he's going - to Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studios in Hollywood, where he will serve as artistic adviser on productions. 'We want to make it a home from home for iconoclasts and mavericks,' Powell says. Powell and Pressburger know well what it's like to be both.

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