Ill-Met by Moonlight was the last film made together by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as The Archers. Like its predecessor, it’s a war story, a true story, treated with faithfulness and respect, emotionally underplayed. It’s about a daring 1944 mission to capture the German Commander-in-Chief on Crete, General Kreipe, and bring him back captive to Cairo. The film was a success, the seventh most popular picture in Britain that year.
Unless it was something I sat and watched one of those Sunday afternoons a very long time ago, this is only the second time I have seen this film. For a long time, I didn’t bother with it: the Powell/Pressburger boxset is a big one, as you will by now realise, and as long as I had the major films I wanted, I didn’t necessarily have to see the minor ones.
I’m afraid that, to me, Ill-Met by Moonlight is a minor film. The Fifties was not a good time for the Archers, the years of their creative flair sadly diminished, and given the riches they showed themselves capable of in the preceding decade, it’s disappointing to see their partnership end on a pair of true-life stories in which they are required to do no more than follow the facts.
The film stars Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, nicknamed Paddy but most often referred to as Philidem, his Cretan name, Marius Goring in his fourth and final Archers film as Kreipe and David Oxley as Captain W Stanley Moss, known as Bill, on whose wartime diaries the book of the same name was based.
Ironically, though much of the film was shot on location, and in glorious mountain countryside of powerful beauty, and in deep, twisty ravines along roads that barely squeeze into the valley bottom, not one moment of the film takes place on Crete. Instead, shooting was in France and Italy. No matter, except for authenticity, for the mountains are magnificent and the urge to ascend them compelling. Of course, I’d have much preferred to see them in colour instead of black and white, though the lushness of colour might have overwhelmed so much, it could have squeezed the story out of consideration.
As it is, the story never rises above the level of a competent war story, made at a time when the War was still the central experience of every audience member’s life. It’s entirely respectful, as it might when using the names of real war heroes, who were still there to see their experiences recorded on screen (Leigh Fermor was present for the mountain location shooting and, according to Wikipedia, “expressed great satisfaction with Bogarde’s representation of him.”)
As well he might. By all accounts, Leigh Fermor was exactly what Bogarde portrays, handsome, intelligent, self-confident, a perfect romantic hero who combined the reticence of the English gentleman with the lust for life of the Hellenic spirit. The type is summarised immaculately in an early exchange in the film: Paddy and his Cretan Intelligence Chief, Micky, are sat in a cafe overlooking the General’s villa and plotting his abduction. Micky points out that the Villa is heavily defended, with ‘barbed wire, many dogs, many sentries’, to which Paddy replies, ‘Cut the wire, dope the dogs, kill the sentries’, calm and casual.
The actual plot involved abducting the General and his car, driving it through all the checkpoints and taking to the mountains to eventually rendezvous with a naval vessel at an undefended south coast beach. The plan works, but between the stiff upper lip conversation between Paddy and Bill, the officer and a gentleman conversation between Paddy and the General, and the two officers’ self-image as Amateurs, evoking the atmosphere of Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and their crowd, or Dornford Yates’ Richard Chandos, Jonah Mansell and Co., clubland heroes, the film forfeits any attempt at emotional depth and instead feeds only an idealisation of Britain’s victory as an expression of a superior national character. Frankly, I’d like more.
So far as the action is concerned, the film does the best with what it has, lacking the money or the facilities or maybe the energy to go for the spectacular. The only really expansive moment of violence comes when a German company, drawn out of the position that could destroy the whole mission, are slaughtered by Cretan Resistance fighters, and this takes place unseen, at the bottom of a deep gorge, represented only by the echoing of rifle and machine gun fire.
Not, for me, a fitting send-off for The Archers, lacking even the overaching sense of impending tragedy that permeates the final third of Battle of the River Plate. Powell and Pressburger, who rattled Churchill’s cage so thoroughly with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp‘s stuffy Englishmen and good Germans, ending their partnership with a straight, rah-rah War film. Life never lacks for ironies.