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Classic Powell and Pressburger

The golden years of the Archers partnership

Main image of Classic Powell and Pressburger

Today the films made by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are celebrated not only for their wit, conceptual audacity and visual flamboyance but also for their willingness to take risks and go against the prevailing tastes and attitudes of their times. This is especially true of the classic films they made during their critical and commercial heyday, from 1941 to 1948, a period book-ended by two Oscar-winning films, 49th Parallel and The Red Shoes, also their two most popular films at the 1940s box office.

During these years they jointly wrote, produced and directed eight extraordinarily ingenious and utterly distinctive films that rate among the most ambitious and important works of British cinema. Complex issues - relating to their appeal to high art (often taken as a form of elitism); frequent charges of incoherence and inconsistency, in both their politics and their use of dream or fantasy narratives; persistent accusations of 'bad taste' - all mean that a critical consensus even about their best-known work is still far from being reached, although ironically the exploration of how to harmonise group dynamics was a major theme of their classic period.

Powell and Pressburger's delight in wrong-footing viewer expectations, narrative reversals and use of paradox was already evident in their debut collaborations, The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), both starring German idol Conrad Veidt and released just as war was breaking out in Europe. Their next project was 49th Parallel, an original and highly idiosyncratic propaganda piece backed by the Ministry of Information. Leslie Howard plays a British professor seen living in a Native American tepee, while Laurence Olivier is cast as a French-Canadian fisherman who is initially uninterested in joining the war effort. These eccentricities are counterbalanced by a fine irony in the sequence in the German Hutterite settlement, in which the dogmatism of the leader of the stranded Nazi submariners leads to their exposure and expulsion. The team's follow-up '...One of Our Aircraft Is Missing' (1942) was their first film as 'The Archers' and also the first to bear their celebrated joint credit 'Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger'. This time it's the British that are stranded overseas, while the Nazis are ever present but never seen directly, only heard or seen in shadow.

Distinguishing Germans from Nazis would continue as a prime concern in their subsequent war films, never more brilliantly than in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which became controversial before even a foot of film had been exposed. Almost three hours in length, this romantic epic was seen by some as downright subversive, not least because its most well-rounded and sympathetic character is the German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff.

The disputes over this film are well known, but its singular virtues and the cause of some of the disquiet and consternation it aroused may be usefully gauged by comparing it with Goodbye, Mr Chips (d. Sam Wood, 1939), one of the most popular films of the time. Both films tell their stories in flashback, with a narrative spread across nearly half a century, and follow their title characters from early manhood to moustachioed old age, their chronological progress marked by the recurrence of different characters played by the same actor. Both Chips and Blimp have a best friend who fights with the Germans in the First World War; both lose their red-haired wives early and never remarry. As the decades pass, Chips and Blimp become figures of fun to younger characters for dedicating themselves to a single profession and for their old-fashioned worldviews. The structure, story, characters and incidents of both films are frequently identical, but their treatment couldn't be more different. While Chips reinforces tradition and ideas of national identity, Blimp challenges them, while the syntax of its film storytelling is often thrilling in its daring.

Similarly, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) contained strong fantasy elements, as did many other war films of the time. But whereas usually these were cosy and reassuring visions, here forces within the hereafter, daringly represented by the Americans, want the hero to die and not live happily ever after.

Their following two films were less expansive and made more economically in black and white, seemingly much closer to the kinds of films being made by the duo's fellows in the Rank-funded Independent Producers partnership. A Canterbury Tale (1944), with its strong comic overtones and central land girl character, is reminiscent of Launder and Gilliatt (Individual Pictures) films like Millions Like Us (1943), while I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), with its focus on the emotional turmoil of a woman torn between a relationship of love and passion and a marriage of wealth and status, recalls David Lean's Cineguild production Brief Encounter (1945). The Archers' films, however, are distinguished by their sardonic disposition, with characters that are defiantly less romantic and approachable because they (initially) seem too self-confident and secure, a certitude born of the inevitable polarisations of wartime.

Powell and Pressburger's films are also notable for providing prominent roles for women, especially the two final films from their classic period, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes. Both offer highly eroticised and distinctly exotic looks at the pressure on women to conform within specific social groups (nunnery and corps de ballet respectively) and climax with extended wordless sequences dominated by the music of Brian Easdale and the magnificent colour cinematography of Jack Cardiff. The desire to escape from bourgeois conventions, a constant theme of The Archers, is here expressed thematically and structurally with great boldness and imagination. These doom-laden and fatalistic works are resolutely autumnal - gone is the exuberance and frivolity of such characters as the 'glueman' or Conductor 71, replaced by neurotic fables of sexual repression and displacement in which the passions of Sister Clodagh and Lermontov are sublimated and subsumed into their professions; both will end in death and failure with women driven mad, and ultimately to their deaths, by their duelling emotions.

After disagreements with Rank over The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger rejoined Alexander Korda, but his financial footing was much less secure and they frequently had to bend their visions to suit his international co-producers. Only a few of their later films would match the works they made in their classic period.

Sergio Angelini

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

Metaphysical love story, beautifully filmed in the Scottish Hebrides

Thumbnail image of ...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

Documentary-style WWII drama about an air crew stranded in Holland

Thumbnail image of 49th Parallel (1941)49th Parallel (1941)

Wartime drama: a Nazi U-boat crew is stranded in Canada

Thumbnail image of Black Narcissus (1947)Black Narcissus (1947)

Remarkably passionate melodrama set in a Himalayan convent

Thumbnail image of Canterbury Tale, A (1944)Canterbury Tale, A (1944)

Weird and fascinating tale of modern-day pilgrims in WWII

Thumbnail image of Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)

Ambitious wartime saga which infuriated Churchill

Thumbnail image of Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

Romance fantasy bridging the gap between two worlds

Thumbnail image of Red Shoes, The (1948)Red Shoes, The (1948)

Powell and Pressburger's beautiful and delirious ballet film

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Powell, Michael (1905-1990)Powell, Michael (1905-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer

Thumbnail image of Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)

Director, Writer, Producer