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Powell and Pressburger: The War Years

The work that cemented The Archers partnership

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Powell and Pressburger's first collaboration, Spy in Black (1939), a WWI drama set in the Orkneys, received a box-office push thanks to its appearance in the early days of the war. Alexander Korda's London Films was one of the few studios to remain active during the war, and for the next few years, the pair devoted themselves to making propaganda films for the war effort.

Contraband (1940) was a witty, entertaining thriller set in a blacked-out but lively London and starring the legendary German actor Conrad Veidt. Meanwhile, Powell added his distinctive touch to the fantasy epic Thief of Bagdad (1940) - also starring Veidt - after Korda lost patience with its principal director Ludwig Berger.

In 1941, Powell and Pressburger were invited by the Ministry of Information to make a propaganda film designed to influence American public opinion into supporting their government's entry into the war. The result, 49th Parallel (1941), was a stirring film about a German U-boat crew stranded in Canada and attempting to reach neutral American soil, which won Pressburger the Oscar for Best Original Story.

"...One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942) celebrated the air force and the Dutch resistance - the latter also the subject of The Silver Fleet (1943), produced by Powell and Pressburger and directed by Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley.

But with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), their first production as The Archers, the duo found themselves in conflict with the War Office. The film was a subtle but unmistakable critique of Britain's military leaders, implying that they risked a catastrophic defeat by insisting on fighting by 'gentlemen's rules'. Churchill was so incensed by the film that he tried to prevent its release.

They ended the war years with their two most personal films yet, kicking off their most imaginative and captivating period. A Canterbury Tale (1944) was a self-conscious attempt to bring a spiritual dimension to the propaganda message of earlier films, in the form of a feature-length hymn to England, particularly Kent. Strange and haunting, it ended up baffling audiences and critics alike; it was only in the 1970s that the film came to be recognised as one of their very best (it was Pressburger's personal favourite). "I Know Where I'm Going!" was a mystical, anti-materialist love story set, again, in the Scottish islands, with the war a distant backdrop.

Mark Duguid

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 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 Silver Fleet, The (1943)Silver Fleet, The (1943)

WWII propaganda film set among the Dutch resistance

Thumbnail image of Spy in Black, The (1939)Spy in Black, The (1939)

The first Powell and Pressburger film: a striking WWI story

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Related People and Organisations

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

Director, Writer, Producer