The Archers – A Matter of Film and Glory: no 4 – Black Narcissus

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.

Black Narcissus is the latest of the films in this short list, filmed and released in 1947, although based – very faithfully in storyline and dialogue – upon a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden. It stars Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byrom and Sabu. The film is a psychological and erotic thriller about a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and hospital in a remote village, high in the Himalayas.
Before I go any further, I should clear up any misapprehensions about the use of the terms ‘nuns’ and ‘erotic’. There is no sex in this film (well, there is, but it’s a long way off-screen and it only involves ‘native’ characters). The nuns do not bare anything. Indeed, save for poor, mad Sister Ruth, who leaves the Order late in the film, they are at all times dressed in the most comprehensive and swaddling of white habits, only their faces, pale and colourless, exposed.
Yet the film’s intensity, without even the slightest of touches, is subtle but deep, and the story is lit by it from start to finish.
The film begins with approval for the nuns’ project to bring Christianity to the peasants high in the valley. The Old General has offered the use of a Palace (it is the Palace of Women, which formerly housed his harem) to the nuns and this has been accepted. Against the wishes of the Mother Superior in Darjeeling, Sister Clodagh (Kerr) has been appointed Sister Superior: Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the Order, and the Mother Superior thinks her to be too young.
Four nuns are appointed to go with her: Sister Briony (a medical specialist), Sister Phillipa (a gardener), Sister Blanche, usually known as Sister Honey (a sweet-natured woman who will teach) and Sister Ruth (Byrom). We don’t see Sister Ruth on this occasion, but we are told that she is difficult, self-important, often ill. Sister Ruth is rather being wished upon Sister Clodagh, a somewhat unChristian case of passing the buck.
Once ensconced in their new quarters, the nuns – or rather Sister Clodagh, who is in charge, and very much in charge is she – have to deal not with the Old General but rather his Agent, an Englishman, Mr Dean (Farrar). Dean is a practical but cynical man, and no respecter of the nuns’ sensibilities. They have been preceded by an Order of Monks, who lasted five months: Dean openly gives the nuns until the Rains break.
Dean is also a disruption of another kind: tall, dark, lean, very masculine, he is handsome in a unconscious, louche manner, and usually rides around (on a tiny pony) bare-legged in shorts that are very brief for the period. In short, he’s sex on legs, and this is a very bad thing for Sister Ruth.
Once she is onscreen, we immediately see her for a good old-fashioned hysteric, anxious, paranoid abut her standing among the nuns, ill-suited for the life – indeed the temperament – of a nun. We also immediately recognise her as being awash with sexual tension. There is a moment, a seemingly insignificant but ultimately fatal moment, when Sister Ruth, her white robes spattered with blood spots, invades Sister Clodagh’s office whilst Dean is present. She is half-panicky, half-proud and wholly desperate for praise for having applied a tourniquet to a mother who was bleeding.
Instead of the congratulations she seeks, Sister Clodagh delivers a cold lecture in how Ruth has endangered the woman’s life by not being sensible and getting Sister Briony, the expert to do it. As Sister Ruth prepares to flee in shame, Dean deliberately intercepts her at the door, opening it for her out of courtesy, and thanking her for saving the life of one of his workers.
It’s as much made of anger at the callousness of Sister Clodagh as sympathy for the deflated Sister Ruth, and it’s a far better moment of man-management than Clodagh will achieve in the whole film, and essentially it’s meaningless to Dean, but it will have tragic consequences.
The problem, as Dean has already identified it, even before the nuns arrive, is that this is no place for them. The Palace is 9,000′ up, on a shelf on the mountainside, serving a valley of peasants who Dean describes, patronisingly but accurately, as children. It comes with Angu Ayah, an ageing and disparagingly contemptuous serving woman (played to the glorious hilt by May Hallatt) and a Holy Man, a silent, contemplative yogi who is of far greater importance to the villagers than Jesus Christ will ever be. The wind blows incessantly, the air is clear as crystal, the vast mountains surround. The school and the hospital are instantly popular, but only because they are being paid to do so by the Old General.
And that’s before the near-simultaneous arrivals of Kanchi and the Young General.
Kanchi (Simmons)is a teenage native girl, an orphan. She doesn’t have any lines and she doesn’t need any. She is driven solely by sexual urges – Dean dumps her on the nuns somewhat callously because he’s fed up with finding her outside his quarters every night, trying to get him to bed her – and she takes an immediate liking for the Young General, who is the Old General’s son: a handsome, upright, naïve, good-hearted teenager, eager for learning, expecting far more nuns with educational specialities than are humanly possible.
Against their purpose, and their instincts, the nuns agree to add him to their classes, feeling beholden to the Old General.
Kanchi and the Young General are merely outward symbols of how the nuns are gradually sliding away from their vocations. More and more, though, this becomes apparent. Sister Philippa has planted flowers, beautiful flowers, rather than the planned, and needed, vegetables. Sister Honey gets altogether too caught up in the little children and will precipitate a crisis that undermines everything they have done. Sister Briony, chosen for her strength, maintains her purpose. And Sister Clodagh?
Sister Clodagh has begun to remember, to remember her life in Ireland, before she joined the Order. She’s repressed the memories but now the atmosphere surrounding the Palace of Women is bringing them back, even when she is in Chapel, praying, leading Services.
She’s the only one of the nuns who’s background we learn, and it is a conventional one: a happy, carefree life in a beautiful part of rural Ireland (though Kerr’s accent is cut-glass English throughout), of fishing, carol-singing and hunting, all in the company of Con, a local land-owner. All through her life, Clodagh has assumed she will marry Con, live here, raise children, but Con feels the constraints of rural Ireland too fiercely, and he emigrates to America, without her.
Though she remains externally cold, indeed angry at the disrespectful Mr Dean, there’s a clear sense that she too is not unaware of his sexual magnetism, and it’s clear to see that if her stay should extend long enough, there will be a conflict between her vows and her long-suppressed, and still inactive desires.
But it doesn’t come to that. The Sisters are unusual in that their Order requires yearly renewals of Vows: they are volunteers in the truest sense. Sister Philippa has asked to be transferred. Sister Ruth does not renew her Vows and sends away for a shockingly red, sensual dress. Sister Briony refuses to treat a dying baby that she cannot save, but Sister Honey, soft-heartedly, gives the mother castor oil. The baby dies, and the peasants blame the nuns. Dean – banned from the Palace after disrupting the Xmas Service by turning up drink and singing carols in a loud, but pleasant tenor voice – is summoned for advice. Ultimately the nuns – the women – cannot help themselves.
Dean advises the nuns to stay inside the Palace. Sister Ruth, surreptitiously, watches him talk with Sister Clodagh, sees him grab her by the arms. He’s only angry at her, and her stiff-necked obsession with her responsibility for things going disastrously, though she appears to be ready to accept his advice to return to Darjeeling.
But poor obsessed Ruth sees it differently. She changes into her dress, her sexy dress. She is no longer under Sister Clodagh’s authority, although the Sister Superior sees the danger ahead and tries to save Ruth. Sister Clodagh might, unwillingly, recognise Ruth’s sexual tension, but she is massively under-equipped to confront it.
Ruth, having slowly applied rich, blood-red lipstick, slips away, forces herself into Dean’s quarters. He tells her she has to return to the Palace: when she gasps out that she loves him, he refuses her feelings, treats them as hysteria. He’s even louder in protestations when she accuses him of loving Sister Clodagh. Ruth (literally) sees red and faints. When she comes to, Dean is solicitous but mildly condescending, treating her feelings like a schoolgirl crush, something to be forgotten immediately, an embarrassment.
This is exactly the wrong approach. Ruth runs away, back to the Palace where all is still and tense. She is pale of face, her hair bedraggled, her eyes burning. It is almost six o’clock, when the Palace bell is rung, which has been Ruth’s duty. In the midst of all her tensions and fears, Sister Clodagh does this. The bell is situated on the edge of a vertiginous drop. Approaching from behind, Ruth tries to push Sister Clodagh over. She clings to the bell-rope as Ruth tries to pry her fingers off it and Clodagh struggles to get  foot back onto the ledge. As she does, Ruth turns for better leverage  to kick her away, but loses her balance, and falls with a scream.
It’s the end. The nuns pack to leave. Dean rides out to see them go, talks with Sister Clodagh about her future. The tension between them is gone. The Sister Superior has failed and for now at least she is putting a brave face on it, knowing that she will not be accorded responsibility again, perhaps not ever. She remains convinced that the Order is her life. She asks Dean for a favour, though he won’t like it. No, it’s not the kiss that Wendy Hiller asked of Roger Livesey in I Know Where I’m Going, it’s much more poignant: she asks him to look after the grave.
She also reminds him that he gave them until the Rains broke, and he, in the only outward sign he gives of his feelings, tells her that the Rains haven’t broken yet. But as the ponies leave down the valley, the Rains begin, at first spattering a few plants, but quickly turning into a storm, whose visibility closes off the last sight of the nuns, retreating.
Originally, there was to be one further scene, which was scripted and shot, but no evidence has ever come to light to indicate that it was printed. This was back in Darjeeling, in the Mother Superior’s office, the rain smearing the light, where Sister Clodagh came to report her failure, before bursting into tears. The last word went to the Mother Superior: “It is the first time I’m pleased with you my child. I seem to find a new Clodagh, one whom I had long prayed to meet.” But instead, recognising the beauty of the Rains, Powell and Pressburger chose to end the film there.
In its story, and in the collective playing of a superbly chosen cast, Black Narcissus is a great film, though modern audiences may no longer respond to its cool approach to its subject. Nothing is done in haste, tempers are mainly kept, meaning that the film’s tragic ending is all the more shocking for being the violent release of a bubble of tension that has so carefully been held in place for so long.
But the film’s prowess and reputation were recognised for its filming, with an Oscar going to cinematographer Jack Cardiff for a stunning approach to the colour of the film. It’s not merely the colour coding of the cast – the nuns in overwhelming, almost alien white, spotless, the important Indians in ornate, rich, colourful costumes,the peasants in drab browns and olive – but in the very filming. Cardiff’s use of Technicolour turns the film into a riot of vibrant colour, giving a richness to everything that it  almost beyond real.
And herein lies one of the film’s greatest aspects. The film is set in the Himalayas. The mountain perspectives are brilliant, there’s a freshness and clarity of vision, the film is a dream to watch. Everything convinces that you are there. Yet, with the exception of a handful of scenes shot in Surrey, in the grounds of a home surrounded by Indian plants, the whole thing was filmed at Pinewood, which has a shortage of 25,000’+ mountains on the lot.
True, our ever-increasing exposure to High Definition digital film and CGI makes it easier for us to recognise that the mountain scenes are (superbly) painted on glass, though it is still difficult to spot the diagonal line between set and painting when the camera films the drop next to the bell. But considering the era in which Black Narcissus was made, the effectiveness of the shooting remains astonishing even now.
However, reference to ‘the era’ leads us to a subject that cannot be ignored. This is a film ostensibly set in India, dominated by a white, English cast. To an extent, that is appropriate: the film does, after all, examine the ability of the nuns to survive in an alien environment. The peasants are dismissed as ‘peasants’ and ‘children’: not unsympathetically but certainly patronisingly. But there are five named Indian roles in the film, three of whom are played by English actors ‘blacked up’.
This cultural appropriation was inevitable, given the times, but seventy years on, we do rather wince in embarrassment at actors with distinctly European faces in major roles, covered in dark make-up.
The main exception is, of course, Sabu, a young Indian actor who had enjoyed a substantial career in British films pre-World War 2, most notably as the lead in The Thief of Baghdad. Sabu had become an American citizen and served during the war, but found it hard to get parts of substance in Hollywood. Black Narcissus was his last part of any note, by which time he was 23, and despite being in tremendous health, he would die of a massive heart-attack, aged 39. In the film, he plays an upright, very Anglicised Indian Prince, naïve and good, despite his having an off-screen encounter with the sex-rife Kanchi. It was a minor role, but an effective one.
Despite such post-Colonial considerations – the film was released only a few months before the British withdrew from India, and at least one critic has discussed the nuns’ retreat from the valley as a metaphor for the withdrawal of Britain from a place it did not understand and should never have been – this is a magnificent film, a treat for the eyes, a brilliantly subdued erotic story, and perhaps one of the best films ever made about failure.

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