This short series is a consideration of my personal Top 5 films by The Archers, being the film production company composed of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, active from 1939 to 1957. It has nothing to do with the BBC’s long-running radio serial about simple farming folk.
But for one thing, The Red Shoes would definitely be in my top 5 of Powell and Pressburger films, and that single factor is ignorance: my ignorance of the central subject of this superb film: ballet.
The Red Shoes appeared in 1948, although it was a re-write of a script Pressburger had produced several years earlier, for film Director Alexander Korda, as a vehicle for his wife, Merle Oberon. When the Archers decided to produce the film themselves, it was re-worked and re-oriented more strongly as a ballet film, and in order to fulfil the purpose of the story, Powell and Pressburger cast their production using dancers who could act but who, more importantly, could dance the many scenes of performance, and especially the ‘Red Shoes Ballet’ that is at the heart of the film.
The film itself stars Archers’ regular Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and, taking a leading role in her first film, ballerina Moira Shearer.
As most of the Archers’ films will be unfamiliar to a modern audience, I will be including more extensive synopses than usual.
The film opens at Covent Garden on the opening night of a new ballet produced by the Ballet Lermontov, ‘Heart of Fire’, music written by Professor Palmer. Among the crowd of students eager to get good seats is Palmer’s student, Julian Craster (Goring), but he is rapidly disappointed, and infuriated, to realise that much of the music has been stolen from his own compositions. He writes an angry letter to the Director, Boris Lermontov, complaining.
Lermontov (Walbrook) has already been importuned to attend a party by the influential arts patron Lady Neston. He is offended to learn that it is intended as a secret audition for his hostess’s niece, Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page. The dance is cancelled, but Lermontov accidentally encounters Vicky (Shearer) and is sufficiently impressed by her determined attitude to dance, striking a chord with his own, that he offers her a place in his company.
The following morning, he is approached at breakfast by Julian, embarrassedly trying to retrieve his letter. Lermontov returns it for burning, but has already read it. He offers Julian a post as orchestral coach.
The first part of the film is about the work of the ballet company, about the fabulous Lermontov (said to be based on Diaghilev, with aspects of J. Arthur Rank and of Michael Powell too). Vicky and Julian are clearly talented, but they are well down the pecking order, despite their ambitions, and both have to be stepped on at first.
Nevertheless, hard work, dedication and ability sees them gain respect. Julian’s chance comes first, when he is asked to write a score for the Red Shoes Ballet, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale. When Lermontov’s prima ballerina, Irina, announces she is to marry, Lermontov scorns her for preferring human emotion to the purity of her art, and sacrificing her future. Vicky is chosen as the lead for the Red Shoes Ballet.
She and Julian clash several times over the music, but the Ballet is a massive success and, almost inevitably the pair end up falling in love.
This disturbs Lermontov. Several interpretations of the film suggest that he has begun to fall in love with Vicky himself, but I don’t see that in the performance. To me, he is angered by what he sees as the inevitable loss of Vicky’s future as a Great ballerina, being thrown away on an emotion he despises.
Either way, Lermontov suddenly criticises Julian’s latest work, in clearly untrue terms. Julian leaves and, after an unsuccessful ultimatum over his reinstatement, Vicky follows him. The pair marry in London. At first, Lermontov seeks to callously crush her career, but cannot bring himself to harm a dancer of such promise.
However, he looks for the chance to win her back for the company and, when Vicky comes to the South of France on holiday with her aunt, allowing Julian to complete his first Opera, Lermontov tempts her back to dance in a revival of The Red Shoes Ballet.
On opening night, Julian deserts the opening night of his Opera, which he was due to conduct, to come to France to ask Vicky to return with him. Lermontov openly wars with him over Vicky’s future whilst she, torn both ways, cannot decide. Julian takes her inability to choose him as defeat and leaves. Lermontov openly crows. It’s time for Vicky to start her performance but, almost beyond her will, the red ballet shoes draw her back.
She runs out of the Theatre, across the road, and throws herself from a balcony, just as a train pulls into the station. Julian, racing hopelessly to save her, cradles her battered and bloody body and, at her final request, unlaces and removes the Red Shoes.
On the stage, a broken Lermontov announces that Vicky cannot dance tonight, or any other night. In tribute, the ballet goes ahead without her, the rest of the cast dancing around a spotlight, signifying her absence.
As I said, it’s purely my ignorance of – and for the most part, lack of appreciation for – ballet that leads me to make this only an Honourable Mention. I find the prolonged baller sequence in the centre of the film to be fascinating, but I have nothing on which to judge it, and whilst it retains my interest throughout each time, it would not need to be very much longer before it would start to be too long for me.
Equally, I find the behind the scenes sequences engaging: Lermontov and his team of experts – his principal male dancer, his choreographer/director, his orchestra leader, his costume/set-designer – are all flamboyant, artistic types, but I have nothing against which to judge the theatricality with which they conduct themselves. Ballet, and its world, is presented as larger than life, even in its most hard-working details.
One thing of which I am certain is that such a film could not be made today. There would be too much ballet, too much High Art for any contemporary audience. And the film would be filled with actors who could be trained to demonstrate certain skills in short sequences, that is, if CGI were not employed. The Archers had the courage to go to experts and let them act, and it was a very effective idea.
Of the three principals, Anton Walbrook was already an established star, a wonderfully smooth, authoritative actor with a tremendous range, and he is brilliant. Marius Goring was also an established actor, with nearly a decade of films behind him – including two Archers’ productions – and he is equally excellent. Moira Shearer was, in comparison, a novice, and its to her credit that she puts in as good a performance as she does.
It has to be accepted that her range is relatively limited, and sensibly the film doesn’t ask her to play outside that range. She’s mostly cool, calm, collected, appropriately so for someone with an aristocratic background. Shearer is an oasis compared to her co-stars, and it’s significant that the only time she has to move beyond her quietness is in the concluding scene, when Lermontov and Julian war over her. Shearer is reduced to tears, unable to speak, and instead of her voice, Shearer acts the role bodily, her crumpled face, her helpless, inelegant, indeed cramped pose a complete contrast to her appearance in every other scene.
Elsewhere in the film, what Shearer can’t do with her personality and range, she achieves bodily. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, with long, flaming red hair that attracts the eye in every scene. She’s tall, with a slim body and gorgeous legs, and of course she’s trained in the use of her body, as a dancer, and she brings that physical presence into her character.
It also helps that the film is shot in the highest quality of Technicolour, with brilliant, glowing colours, none more so than Vicky’s hair. Martin Scorsese, a lifelong fan of the Archers, has nominated The Red Shoes as one of the two most superbly coloured films ever made.
There should be mentioned that there is a conscious plot discrepancy in the film’s ending. The climactic scene between Vicky, Julian and Lermontov takes place in Vicky’s dressing room, before she is due on stage. She wears white ballet shoes: not until the Ballet is is progress does she don the Red Shoes, on stage. But as her dresser helps her towards the stage, Vicky now has on the Red Shoes, and it is they who, seemingly, dance her away to her death.
Powell and Pressburger knew of the error and retained it. It has artistic continuity, and it lends an element of mystery to the ending, with the audience unsure as to whether Vicky’s dying fall is of her own, tortured making, or if at the last the Red Shoes have taken control in life, as well as Art.
However you read this ending, The Red Shoes is not a film to miss, even if you have no time for ballet. It is rightly regarded as a classic. And if this only gets an Honourable Mention, just imagine what the other films are likely to be.