Film 2020: One of our Aircraft is Missing


Even an eleven-disc DVD boxset of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films can’t encompass all the good ones (though it could if they dropped They’re a Weird Mob for this). One of our Aircraft is Missing was an official Propaganda film, created on behalf of the Ministry of Information, made and released in 1942. Because it was made by The Archers (naming themselves as such for their fourth film as a team) it stands out as a masterful piece of realistic film-making, a determinedly naturalistic piece that represents to perfection the attitude to the War.

One of our Aircraft is Missing took its title from a phrase that regularly appeared on BBC radio news broadcasts (where it was more usually “…has failed to return”, which was thought to be too downbeat). It appeared between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and can be seen a part of a spectrum running between the three films.

The film reverses the scenario of 49th Parallel, which depicted the German survivors of a submarine trying to get across and out of Canada, arguing among themselves and gradually losing crew members at each stage. Powell and Pressburger apply the same structure to the six-man crew of a British bomber, shot down over Holland whilst returning from a successful bombing raid on Stuttgart: the Brits stick together as a team and are aided by the Dutch to evade the Germans and return to England.

The film was made in black and white, and whilst its production standards are generally high, those scenes shot in darkness have a grainy, rough look to them that helps blur the aerial shots, and especially those of the raid which are of table-top models, and integrate these into the story. It’s an entirely low-key affair, without a music score, which takes its own good time in developing its story and eschews melodrama and violence until the very end, where there is first a fist-fight in a cellar, and then – the only direct gunfire – a sentry on a swing-bridge firing a fusillade of shots at the sextet paddling a rowing boat furiously out to sea.

Needless to say, the six airmen are a mixture of types. Pilot John Glyn Haggard (Hugh Burden) is an ex-diplomat and the only Dutch-speaker in the crew, second pilot Tom Earnshaw (Eric Portman) is a sheep farmer from Halifax, navigator Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) is an actor, wireless operator Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones) is a professional footballer, forward gunner Geoff Hickman (Bernard Miles) never explains his civvy street profession and rear gunner George Corbett (Godfrey Tearle), the oldest of the crew by some ditance, is a baronet and is actually Sir George, though the crew usually only refer to him as George and whereas, in the plane on the mission, the hierarchy is by military rank and role, on the ground the six men are equals, with Sir George’s seniority, and his army experience in the First War placing him in a leading role.

A film like this is necessarily very masculine, but Powell and Pressburger were encouraged to write strong female roles among the Dutch resistance. Pamela Brown plays Else Meertens, an English-speaking schoolteacher who is the crew’s first point of contact, and a sternly suspicious one at that, deterined not to be taken in by German spies seeking to infiltrate the Underground: there has been no report of a crashed plane in the Netherlands that night.

This much is true. In a slightly contrived manner the film introduces itself by B for Bertie, due home at 04.26, flying along empty and crashing to its destruction in collision with an electric pylon at 04.31. The film then rolls back to cover the mission from the start. B for Bertie delivers its bombs on target but is hit by an anti-aircraft shell, knocking out its port engine – not on the model, mind you. When the starboard engine packs up, everyone bails out, only for it to pick up again and get the plane, without its crew, back to England. all to set-up this nevertheless invaluable scene.

Else sets the wheels in motion to get the five airmen (Bob Ashley is missing but is found playing football) across country to the coast, via a series of passes for travel, each for different circumstances, getting the airmen closer to a route of escape. First to attend church – Catholic, much to the bruised feelings of Earnshaw and Hickman, who are both Chapel – then to a bethrothal party, to the football match where Bob is reunited (including a neat little passive Resistance stunt of which Gandhi would have been proud) and lastly hiding in a provisions truck taking them to Jo de Vries (Googie Withers in an untypical role).

Mrs de Vries is another Resistance leader, hiding in plain sight as a Nazi supporter, bitterly hating the British for killing her husband in an air-raid – he is alive and broadcasting from London as an announcer on Radio Oranj. Jo (pronounced Yo) is a determined, capable, highly-organised figure in the underground network that gets stranded British airmen back to Blighty, and both she and Else are figureheads for Holland, under duress but never conceding. Both get mini-speeches of defiant determination that their country will not suffer rule indefinitely. We threw the sea out of Holland, Else angrily proclaims. Do you think we will suffer the Germans?

It’s only now, so close to the end, that the Archers allow physical danger to intrude. Before this, the Germans are a tense background presence, an ever-present but only potential danger: an officer stalks into a silent church during Sunday Mass, says nothing, looks round, retreats. Now the escape is threatened by three Germans who have discovered Jo’s wine cellar, and its wine, and who have to be overcome in a brief fist-fight if the rowing boat is to be allowed to leave. The final punch is a glorious left cross, swung by, of all people, Sir George. And where everbody gets a handshake from Jo, he gets a hug, about which he grumbles that that’s one of the disadvantages of age, as that’s the only reason he was so favoured!

Ah yes. I spoke before of Aircraft being on a spectrum between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Whilst the parallels with its predecessor are obvious, the connection to Blimp lies in a line of dialogue cut from the film, a brief conversation between George, the eldest, and Bob, the youngest, in which George tells Bob that he is what the Baronet was when he was younger, whilst he is what Bob will be when he is older. There’s an entire film in that line, commented the editor who cut it out, David Lean. That film was Blimp.

The rowing boat escapes the river, though not without shots being fired, during which George, at the tiller, is shot. It’s done with magnificent underplaying, a stiffening, a stifled grunt and a determination to stick to his task. Nevertheless George is seriously wounded, enough so that he can’t be moved from the German rescue buoy in the North Sea where the crew take shelter (a war innovation only dislosed during film causing a re-write for which Ministry permission was necessary). So the Navy tow the whole shooting match back home!

At this point a caption announces that this was the end of the story but the Actors – a quick credit list – and the Technicians – another list – wanted to know what happened afterwards. So we jump three months. Recovered Corbett reports for duty and joins his crew, who are glad to have him back. The six are reunited, to fly another, more modern, roomier bomber, this time on a raid on Berlin.

There are other Archers films out there but, with one possible exception, the ones I’ve seen don’t match up to the body of work in the boxset, plus Aircraft, and the ones I haven’t seen don’t look to be appetising. This, however, deserves to be ranked among the second level of Powell and Pressburger’s ouevre. It’s a propaganda film but, so far as such  thing may be possible, it’s an honest one. It even allows Jo de Vries to cast the Germans in a more human light, as an unhappy people who want others to like them, unable to understand why, in the midst of all their parading as the masters of the world, they cannot find friends.

And incidentally, in a small role as the Priest, it gives a film debut to Peter Ustinov.

An excellent experience, and a slice of history. It may not be a masterpiece, but in that excised line it became responsible for one.

Film 2019: The Tales of Hoffman


As December shows itself in via the side door, we come to the final two films from the boxsets I’ve been watching and reviewing these many months since Spring. For the penultimate of these, I’ve chosen the last film from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger box, their 1951 filmic adaptation of the French composer Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffman. The film is an expansion of the Red Shoes ballet in the film of the same name, to fit a near two hours length. With one exception, its cast are all dancers and opera singers, and there is not a spoken word in the entire film, save only at the very end.

I admit to being daunted about writing about a ballet film and an opera film when I have no qualifications to talk about, or even understand either form. I can recognise the quality, the beauty of what I see, but it is a beauty beyond my understanding, that I have no context for understanding. Nor have I any technical analysis I can make, save in the person of the one actress in the entire film, Pamela Brown, an archers favourite whose career was crippled by early onset arthritic pain, and who lived with Michael Powell for twenty years until her death in 1975.

I can at least outline the story. Robert Hoffman, a poet (Robert Rounseville) attends a ballet danced by Stella (Moira Shearer) who sends him a key and a note saying she loves him. The key is intercepted by Hoffman’s Salieri-esque rival, Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpman). Unaware, Hoffman heads for the Tavern during the interval, meeting his good friend and travelling companion Nicklaus (Brown) and his drinking chums. Rather than return to the ballet, the drink already going to his head, Hoffman stays and regales his friends with Tales.

These form the ballets of the film, along with Shearer’s stunning performance at te outset in the Dragonfly Ballet, dressed in a form-fitting dragonfly costume from neck to toe: my, the lady was lovely.

Shearer leads the first tale, that of Olympia, a clockwork doll with whom Hoffman falls in love without realising she is not alive. Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, a courtesan, who steals the reflection of Hoffman, and thus his soul, for her master, Dapertutto (Helpmann): dressed in a black sheath from bustline to toe, she incarnates sexuality. And singer Ann Ayars, like Rounseville one of only two performers who sing their own lines, plays the consumptive Ophelia, in love with Hoffman, whose urge to sing kills her by burning out her body.

After the final tale, the film cuts back to the Tavern, where Lindorf has brought Stella. Hoffman is drunk, and falls on his face on the table, and muttering the only three spoken words in the film: Olympia, Giulietta, Ophelia. Heartbroken, Stella leaves with Lindorf, as the closing music swells, and we see about thirty seconds of it being conducted by the actual Conductor, the reknowned Sir Thomas Beecham.

What to make of the film? It is what ballet and opera are perhaps best at being, a fantasy of heightened emotion and a complicit unrealism. In all three Tales, Hoffman falls in love, foolishly, romantically, ignoring the artificiality of the emotions to which he is prey. With both Olympia and Giuliettta, he is being openly conned, yet he is incapable of seeing that. He’s at least more mature with Ophelia, who is only twenty (being a singer not a dancer, Ayars is more substantial of figure and definitely doesn’t look twenty). There, he is trying to preserve, or rather extend her life, by getting her to agree not to sing anymore whilst ignoring the fact that singing is all Ophelia lives for.

And in all three Tales Helpmann plays the demonic figure, the villain, the sinister character. He is Coppelius, who first makes then destroys Olympia when he discovers he has been cheated out of his fee. He is Dappertutto, who seeks Hoffman’s soul. He is Dr Miracle, the ‘healer’ who seduces Opheklia into singing the death-aria. And of course he is Lindorf, who estroys the love Stella has for Hoffman, ending the film on a dark note that nevertheless feels approriate.

Let me not turn to Pamela Brown as Nicklaus, Hoffman’s staunch friend. She is, as I’ve already said, the only non-singer or -dancer in the film, and what’s more she’s playing a male part, for which she has her red hair cut short, emphasising her face with its prominent cheekbones, and wears mannish dress – a jacket that doesn’t make too much of an effort to conceal her figure, and rather baggyish pants.

Nicklaus is a very important part of the film. He plays very little active part, but he accompanies Hoffman, and is to be found in the background, invariably leading the eye away from the overt performances in front of us. Brown makes an art of standing around, usually with one hand on her waist, performing with her face. Nicklaus is the sceptic, a silent chorus commentating upon the tomfoolery that is going on, mixing amusement with exasperation. She/he’s the antipole of the film, reminding us at all stages of reality without interfering with the fantastic trust of everyone else.

So I like the film, even though it’s maybe ten minutes too long for my absolute enjoyment. Still, after eleven films from this boxset, I think it’s safe to say that the Archers’ heyday was the Forties. They were already in decline after The Red Shoes, with three increasingly unsuccessful films (one of which I’ve never seen) and whilst The Tales of Hoffman was creatively a success, despite its mixed reception, it did nothing to arrest their commercial decline. One more musical film followed, then the two war films we’ve already seen before separation.

And after this, there is one more boxset film.

Film 2019: Black Narcissus


As brilliant as last week’s They’re a Weird Mob was awful, Black Narcissus, adapted pretty faithfully from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, was inexplicaably omitted from the original Powell and Pressburger box-set when this was first released as a nine-disc set. I bought that first, and willingly bought up when this was re-issued as an eleven-disc set, just to have this film.

Black Narcissus is a landmark film, justly celebrated for its amazing cinematography, which won Jack Cardiff an Oscar. It’s also a marvel of filming and use of effects, given that the film is set in India, high in the mountains, with multiple outside scenes, yet not a minute of footage was shot outside England. Split screen shots of a technical standard astonishing for the present day, let alone 1948, and matte shots using highly detailed, massively convincing paintings on glass complete the illusion that the film has been shot on location.

But the film is more than just a miracle of technique. Right from the beginning, the story establishes a knot of tension that only grows tauter as the film progresses. It’s a shifting psychological drama composed of many elements within its simple plot – a small group of nuns are sent to establish a convent at Mopu: as predicted, they fail – as each of the central characters find themselves undergoing unexpected tests.

The film stars Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, a firm, somewhat authoritarian Nun who, despite her young age, is sent to take charge at the Convent of Sister Faith. Four others go with her: Sister Phillippa (Flora Robson) to take charge of the gardens, Sister Briony (Judith Furse) the dispensary, Sister Blanche, known as Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), the school, and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) as…well, it’s not entirely clear what part Sister Ruth is going to play, except as the most highly-strung and unstable amongst the Nuns: she is included by Mother Dorothea for, outwardly, her own good, although one cannot but suspect a certain buck-passing in the decision, as well as a test for Sister Clodagh’s leadership abilities.

These are the Nuns, but they are not the only characters in the story. Esmond Knight, an Archers stock-player, browns up to play the Old General, the ruler of the province, gifter of the Convent, a former seraglio. David Farrar, tall, lean, mostly seen in shorts that emphasise his hairy legs, rude, practical, unbelieving, plays the General’s Agent, Mr Dean, responsible for everything the Nun’s need, and deeply offensive to Sister Clodagh just by showing the merest scepticism. Jean Simmons plays the 17 year old Kanchi, a native girl taken in by the Nuns: Simmons, also browned up, has no words to speak, she just exudes sexuality in every smouldering fibre of her body without once being explicit, a sexuality that is at once knowing and naive. And Sabu, the only native actor in the film, plays the Young General, heir to the Province, young, noble, proud and thunderously naive about everything around him: Kanchi sets her cap and everything else at him and you just know he’s not going to be able to resist.

And there’s May Hallatt as Angu Ayah, former housemaid to the seraglio, a chattering, skipping bundle of shrieking contempt for the Nuns, playing wonderfully OTT.

Throw these characters in and a story will come out of it, but both  Godden and the Archers are set upon a developing inevitability. From the first, the Nuns find things hard, the isolation, the thin air, the clear and distant views that exaggerate the world in which they are alone with only their own resources – and God – to rely upon. Dean gives them until the rains break.

Each loses their way. We see it quickly when Sister Clodagh starts to call Sister Blanche by her nick-name. Clodagh has joined the Order, in which vows have to be renewed annually, to escape a failed love-affair in a small Irish community. She has gone through bitterness and pain from her abandonment: for the first time in years she remembers the handsome, but ultimately faithless, Con.

Sister Phillipa remembers things she thought she had forgotten, things unnamed: she has planted an English garden of flowers rather than the vegetables that were to sustain the community. Sister Honey becomes so overwhelmed by the children. Only Sister Briony remains stable.

As for Sister Ruth, who was made intense and unstable by the mere casting of Kathleen Byron, it is quickly easy to see that here is a woman eaten up by sexual frustration. The lean Mr Dean sets her hormones buzzing from the moment he is gentle to her, recognising her desire to do well, immmediately after Sister Clodagh has reprimanded her for trying herself to save a woman bleeding to death instead of fetching Sister Briony.

Like Kanchi, Sister Ruth exudes sexuality, but Kanchi even as a ten year old could never be as naive as Ruth, who’s got it but doesn’t know what to do with it.

As the crisis develops, Ruth chooses not to renew her vows. She orders a smouldering maroon dress from Darjeeling, changes, makes up. She goes to Dean, throws herself at him, is repelled. She accuses Dean of being in love with Sister Clodagh. Angrily, he denies being in love with anyone. In saying this, he’s probably being truthful to his own understanding, but at the ennd we will see that something is within him: he has not escaped being changed.

Dean’s refusal sends Ruth over the edge. Denied expression in love, her emotions find their only other outlet, in jealousy, a pathological jealousy of Sister Clodagh. When the latter goes to ring the Morning Bell, situated on the edge of a precipice, a wild-eyed, pale-faced Ruth tries to push her off but falls herself into the Abyss.

This, then, is the end. The Nuns arrange to depart. At the last, Dean approaches Sister Clodagh. Despite his denial, he is going to very much miss her. But though their relationship has become decidedly more amicable, Sister Clodagh – who will go to another Convent where she will not be in charge, is nowhere near ro any thought of giving up her vows. She asks him to tend to the grave, and teases him that the rains have not yet come.

But as both ride away, in opposite directions, the rains begin, soft and then fierce. Dean mops his slightly-too-long hair and looks back, until the increasng rain dissolves any last sight of the Nuns.

Originally, the Archers had planned to end tthe movie with a scene back in Calcutta, Sister Clodagh confessing her failure to Mother Dorothea and bursting into tears. The scene was filmed, though it sems it was never printed, as Powell, seeing the rain scene, chose that as a better ending. Rightly so.

This is a magnificent film, full of subtleties that, if I were to describe them all, would take all day to discuss. Remember that Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron spend most of the film in their habits, full habits, head-dresses, ankle length white robes. Only their faces are visible, made pale by the lack of (visible) make-up and the billowing white habits. Deprived even of body-language, they perform with only their faces. And there are subtleties of word and thought in nearly every line.

In the end, the film may be seen as one about defeat. Indeed, filmed only a few months before India’s Independence, it has been compared symbollically to the end of the Raj. Whether this was intentional, or merely a subconscious reflection of the Zeitgeist, I can’t say, but in a film with these layers, I wouldn’t dount anything.

And then there was three:  three box-sets, one outstanding film in each.

Film 2019: They’re a Weird Mob


As the year and the run are fading out, this is the first half of the last double-header from my Powell/Pressburger box-set, and there couldn’t be a much greater contrast between this and next Sunday’s offering. For those who have been enjoying this weekend feature, acquisition of further DVDs has been going on all year, so there will be a Film 2020 for  couple of months.

They’re A Weird Mob is an Australian film, directed by Michael Powell, for which the screenplay was written by Emeric Pressburger, using the pseudonym Richard Imrie. The film came almost a decade after the formal split of the Archers, during which time Powell’s career in Britain had undergone a terminal decline  in the response to his controversial 1960 film, Peeping Tom. To contine his career, Powell had to leave the country, which saw him working Down Under.

The film is based fairly closely on the novel of the same name written by John O’Grady under the pseudonym Nino Culotta, the leading character. Both film and novel are classics in Australia, and the film is credited with revitalising the Australian Film Industry, paving the way for the Australian ‘New Wave’. Rights had been optioned by Gregory Peck as far back as 1959 but no workable screenplay could be produced.

This is the only film in this box-set that I had not previously watched, and I’m sorry to say that my instincts on this were right. If it weren’t for the fact that this is an Australian book/film/production/classic, I’d call it a nasty, cliched, condescending and cheap piece of crapthat makes me feel like apologising to Superman IV for thinking it the worst film in this entire run.

Italian actor Walter Chiari stars as the ‘eponymous’ Nino Culotta, an Italian sports writer who arrives in Sydney to work on La Segunda Madre, an Italian language magazine owned by his cousin Leonardo, only to discover that the magazine has folded and Leonardo has fled the country, owing nearly £1,000 to Kay Kelly (Clare Dunne), businesswoman daughter of bricklayer-turned-builder Harry Kelly. In order to pay Kay back, Nino becomes a bricklayer himself, leading eventually to their engagement.

That is, pretty well, all of the plot, though the film is fleshed out by Nino’s fish-out-of-water bafflement at Australian ways and, most heavily laden on, their slang. That was very much the point of O’Grady’s novel, but to say that it’s laid on with a trowel in the first half of the film is to understate it. It’s relentless, and to the audience outside Australia (which didn’t give a damn for the film) it’s as incomprehensible as it’s meant to be for Nino.

I found it more or less easy to follow, but then this wasn’t my first introduction to ‘Strine’. On the other hand, I’d already found myself prejudiced against the film, from its introduction, a tiresome piece of overripe cheese, that first pushed the Down Under idea literally, with footage shot upside down, and then started singing songs about Australia being a man’s country. And if you think that means the songs were putting over the notion that it was not a woman’s country, them my bloody oath, that’s dinkum, blue.

The longer the film goes on, the more it runs out of steam. It is very much a male movie, in which Kay is the only substantial female role, and she has to play against any feminine aspects for most of the picture. Judith Arthy (in her screen debutahead of a decade’s career in British TV) plays Dixie, Kay’s flirtatious friend, and Chiari’s wife Alida Chelli just scraped into the film as the glamorous Giuliana after it was decided she wouldn’t overshadow Claire Dunne (and to make sure of that she’s kept in a minor role and only given Italin to speak). As the female’s start to come more into the picture, the energy starts to drain out, and the film runs dry for the last three-quarters of an hour.

This bit is devoted mainly to the unconvincing romance between Nino and Kay. She starts off angry with him, over how she’s been conned, in a way that had me predicting they would end up in love, and indeed they do, but all that is is fulfillment of the cliche. The film cannot establish any grounds on which you start to believe that Kay has changed her mind or begun to care about Nino. He’s willing, polite, dedicated and determined to pay her back what is after all not his debt, but he doesn’t even start looking at her romantically until after she’s supposed to have started to take a fancy to him, and it never remotely feels real.

Even their own kiss is shot through the back of Chiari’s head, which draws attention to itself as indicating that the actor and actress don’t actually kiss. How can you believe in at after that?

So They’re a Weird Mob – the title is meant to refer to Australians in general – goes back into the box-set, never to be watched again. Frankly, I will watch Superman IV in preference to this. Next Sunday’s Film is a corrective I much need now.

Film 2019: Ill-Met by Moonlight


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 thoseSunday 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 majorfilms 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 presentfor 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 summrised 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 officer’s self-image as Amateurs, evoking the atmosphere of Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and their crowd, or Dornford Yates’ Richrd 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 filmdoes 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 gorges, represented only by the echoing of rifle and machine gun fire.

Not, for me, a fitting send-off for The Archers, lcking even the veraching 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.

 

 

Film 2019: The Battle of the River Plate


It’s back to the Powell/Pressburger box-set for this and the next Sunday, with the 1956 film The Battle of the River Plate. The film is about a notable naval engagement in the early months of World War 2. It is unusual in the Archers’ collection in being an entirely straight film, lacking any of the flair or fantasy that the pair usually brought to their roles, and it is also the earliest of their films that I saw, less than ten years after its making, in our first house at Brigham Street, in black and white on our old 405-line telly, on what must have been a Sunday afternoon.

The film breaks down into three phases. A voiceover explains the set-up: that in order to disrupt the British War Effort, the German Navy targeted merchant ships to deprive Britain of supplies and starve it out. The film begins with the sinking of the MS Africa Shell by the fast-moving, heavily armoured Admiral Graf Spee, underhe command of Captain Hans Langsdorf (Peter Finch). Africa Shell‘s Captain, Dove (Bernard Lee) is taken aboard the Graf Spee and treated decently and honorably by Langsdorf.

During the War, the Archers faced a lot of difficulty over their depiction of sympathetic Germans, and with Langsdorf we’re here again. But this is apparently an honest depiction: indeed, the film sets out to be as truthful to the actual facts as it can, basing itself on the book written by the real Captain Dove (who was a technial advisor and also played a minor role as a fellow prisoner of Captain Dove!)

The first part of the film takes place on the Graf Spee. Langsdorf gives Dove (and the audience) an exposition of their tactics and actual superiority, Dove is allowed to see a lot of the ship, before the rest of the prisoners are transferred abroad, after which we only see them in their cramped quarters, and hear the sinking of the MS Doric Star.

The scene switches to the South Alantic, off the coast of South Africa. A British hunting pack, consisting of Ajax (the flagship), Achilles and Exeter is under tthe command of Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle). Harwood has been studying the Graf Spee‘s movements and is convinced it will be heading for their waters. He draws up plans to attack, to split theGerman fire by having Ajax and Achilles attack one flank and Exeter the other.

There is a long, tense sequence as everyone stands ready and lookouts are constantly searching the horizon, until at last one sees smoke. This leads into the battle sequence, which takes up twenty minutes of the film, and is a pretty comprehensive depiction of every stage of the action, even though it’s telescoped from the hour the battle took in real life, with the first six minutes in real time.

The authenticity of the battle, and indeed of all the scenes at sea, in enhanced by the generous co-operation of the Royal Navy in lending actual ships, and even more so that Achilles was ‘played’ by the original ship, still functioning over fifteen years later (the same thing went for the Cumberland, which arrives late in the film).

Though Exeter is so badly damaged it has to withdraw, the attack forces the Graf Spee to flee, ending up in Montevideo, Uruguay, a neutral country. This signals the film’s third and most impressive phase, as the tension slowy rises over the outcome. The original audience, only a decade after the War’s end, would have knwn what was coming, but not perhaps the step by step details.

Because Uruguay is a neutral country, the International Conventions require that the Graf Spee is entitled to remain for such time as is needed to restore it to seaworthiness, but it may not receive any assistance towards making it fit for battle. The Germans want two to three weeks, the British and the French 24 hours. The Uruguayans, a small nation but a proud one, determinedly reject German protest and the implicit threat of international blackmail and the consequences of  German victory in the War.

What might happen is the subject of much debate and preparation. Harwood, newly promoted to Rear Admiral and knighted, analyses Langsdorf’s options and determines he will attempt to break out, under cover of night, and try to lose the British. Harwood’s squadron is enhanced by the arrival of Cumberland, but the clever spread of misinformation gives everyone in Montevideo the impression of a large British fleet lying in wait.

The climax comes on a bright Montevideo evening (the scenes of Montevideo harbour are filmed on location with thousands of local extras). American reporter Mike Fowler (Lionel Murton) provides a live commentary that is radioed to Ajax. Harwood decides to move in, despite the risk of infringing neutrality. Interned or sunk, either would be a massive blow to German propaganda.

Graf Spee sets out with a skeleton crew, followed by a German merchant vessel. It travells three miles, at sunset, and stops. A party of men are taken off. At 8.00pm exactly, the end of the Uruguayan ultimatum to depart, the ship is wracked with explosions from stem to stern. It has been scuttled. The Battle is over.

One historical fact is omitted from the film, though a final scene in which Dove, a fellow Captain, commiserates with the shaken and morose Langsdorf hints at it. In true Captain’s tradition, Langsdorf wanted to go down with his ship but was persuaded to return to shore to ensure his crew receied the amnesty due to them, and which is promised unasked in the film. Having secured this, Langsdorf committed suicide.

Though it lacks the characteristics we expect from a Powell/Pressburger film, and whilst it is a low-key film emotionally, led by the stiff upper lip, and an almost entirely masculine one, The Battle of the River Plate was all the better for being treated in this semi-documentary fashion. You can’t imagine any War film being made like this film now, for there are no personal stories, no heroic actions nor tragic deaths, the story is not milked for screen drama, and because it is true to what happened. This approach was needed, in respect for the men who fought the battle, and in respect for the audience of men who had lived what happened, if not in Ajax, Achilles or Exeter, then in other heavy and light cruisers, in battleships and destroyers, and merchant ships, only a little more than a decade, and knew the score. My Uncle was one.

In a way, it would have been better to have bypassed this film today, saved it for a month, for the Sunday of the week I am going to Portsmouth, to the Naval Dockyard, to see what I can of my father’s National Service in the Royal Navy. It would have set the scene remarkably well.

As for my memory of this being the first Archers film I saw, let me return at the last to Lionel Murton, as the American reporter, Mike Fowler, who gets the film’s last line. Murton was English/Canadian but, because of his accent, generally played Americans. This war film didn’t attract me much, but I recognised Murton with whom I was familiar for his role as sidekick to Dickie Henderson, a popular English comedian (popular with my parents, certainly, not least because he was clean), whose successful sitcom was one of those converted to comic strip form in, I think, TV Comic, which I read avidly back then.

Murton stayed in my mind because I knew him, and he iss an integral part of that final phase of the film, where one does not have to know how things end in order to feel the rising tension, as the diplomats plot and deflect, and the crowds wait to see what will happen.

The Battle of theRiver Plate was made because Powell and Pressburger couldn’t justify a trip to a South American film festival without it being a working holiday. Their partnership was coming towards an amicable end. They had suffered four successive commercial flops, but this would be a final success. The film was ready for release in 1955 but Rank held it back a year to have it selected as the Royal Film Command Performance. It was Britain’s fourth most popular film of the year.

And in its strange, deliberately stilted fashion, it is a minor masterpiece. There are better films (and worse) in this eleven-disc boxset, but I wouldn’t swap this for any of the omissions.

 

Film 2019: 49th Parallel


49th Parallel is the first Powell & Pressburger film from the big boxset that I’ve not previously discussed. It’s a 1941 release, in B&W, a propaganda film requested of Michael Powell by the British Ministry of Information, yet which was not without opposition from the Government in wartime, and only the third time he and Emeric Pressburger had worked together, and the last before formally partnering as The Archers.

49th Parallel, as most people should realise, takes its name from the longest unguarded border in the world, between the United States and Canada. The film, which takes place almost entirely within Canada, but which was aimed at America, where it was titled The Invaders, pays tribute to what the boundary says aabout American-Canadian relationships, but has a wonderfully ironic aspect to it, as a brief explanation of the story will define.

The film begins with a lone German sumarine, U37, attacking Canadian shipping in the Gulf of St Lawrence before heading north for Hudson Bay to avoid detection by armed forces. A party of six under Leutnant’s Hirth and Kuhnecke are put ashore to raid a nearby trading post for supplies, just before the Canadian RAF locate and destroy U37 with bombers.

The film becomes the story of the six Nazis’ attemptto escape from Canada and return to the Third Reich. In spite of that long, unguarded border, it is the story of their failure.

The Ministry of information had envisaged a film about mine-sweeping, which would have hardly risen abovethe documentary. Instead, Powell wanted to wake up America, show them the face of the Nazis by contrasting them with the Canadian people. The film is episodic: of its four credited stars, only Eric Portman, as the fanatical Hirth appears throughout the whole film, with Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey playing their parts in various successive scenes (Anton Walbrook is omitted from the four star line-up but plays the other opposing figure).

Since filming would involve taking a large cast and crew out of Britain, in a State of War, the film was originally opposed on the basis that it was nothing more than a scheme to allow a bunch of cowardly artistic johnnies to rat out of the privations everyone else at home was facing. Powell was able to persuade the Ministry that he was serious in his aims, and that everybody would return. His case was undermined by actress Elizabeth Bergner, playing the only female role in the picture, doing just that, and refusing to return to Britain.

Powell has written of this incident as if Bergner unashamedly walked out as soon as she reached America, but Wikipedia claims that some long shots of Anna, the young Hutterite girl, are Bergner and that she left after a Hutterite woman became incensed at catching Berger, in costume, painting her nails and smoking, knocked the cigarette from her hands and slapped her. Berner was replaced by Glynis Johns.

The film consists of four major phases. Hirth and his command capture the trading post, run by Mac (Finlay Currie), at which the exciteable French-Canadian, Trapper Johnny has just arrived after eleven months in the wild. Johnny doesn’t know of the war and can’t take it seriously, nor the mentality of the Nazis. He niggles and provoked Hirth and his men, but when he makes a move to attack them, he is shot, and left to die, slowly, over several hours. But he is still defiant.

Several Inuits and twopilots are killed when the Germans escape in the rescue plane, though one German is killed by an Inuit rifle. Kuhnecke, the most practical and realistic of the party (Raymond Lovell), is killed on the plane crash-landing (Lovell, who couldn’t swim, nearly drowned in that scene).

The four survivors arrive at the Hutterite colony, whose inhabitants are primarily German in origin. Hirth cannot understand their religiously inspired community of peace, faith and trust, and makes the mistake of assuming their ethnicity will make them respond to his Nazi rhetoric. Instead, they are put to shame by Peter, the community’s leader who does not give orders, played by Anton Walbrook, giving a monologue almost on a par with the one he delivers in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Engineer Vogel (Niall McGuiness), a Baker before Hitler took over, recognises a real life, a home where his skills are of value and his life has meaning. He plans to stay, to hand himself in to internment: Peter welcomes him to return, and it seems that Anna will too. But Hirth accuses him of desertion: he is executed on the ‘battlefield’.

Three men go on, now heading for Vancouver and return view then-neutral Japan. In Banff, one cracks up under scrutiny and is arrested. Hirth and the other fanatic, Lohrman (John Chandos) attempt to cross the Rockies on foot but get lost. Englishman Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) gives them shelter at his camp. Scott is a writer, studying tribal customs among the Indians, and the very image of the decadent democratic in the eyes of both Nazis. Scott is effete, art-loving, casually comic about Hitler, uncommitted on every level, until he is attacked and, worse, the art he loves, his German language Thomas Mann Magic Mountain and his own book are smashed and burned.

Howard, who once starred as The Scarlet Pimpernel, then reveals the other side of his character, the character many Britains imagined of themselves, the fearless, implacable, avenging angel, facing down evil (the film does dice with cliche here, but I’m not only old enough to recognise te self-image but to still be moved bywhat once was the reality of it). Scott dices with death over the calculation of exactly how many bullets Lohrman has, and does take a shot to the thigh, but he confronts the Nazi fistto fist, and righteously beats the living crap out of him.

Which leaves Hirth, heading back east. Hirth’s the last Nazi, but more importantly, he’s become a symbol. German propaganda boasts of Hirth, one man against eleven million. His escape will be a massive victory. Hirth’s journey has seen him come up against the French, the German and the English. Now he has stolen aboard the freight car of a trai crossing into the USA at Niagara Falls. Also abroad is Andy Brock (Raymond Massey, a Canadian actor playing the only Canadian role of his life).

Brock’s a soldier, and a grousing one. He’s eight days AWOL. He grumbles about being in the Army for 384 days and not having one chance to punch a Nazi in the nose. Hirth mistakes Brock’s grumbling for genuine disgruntement with his Government, which will be relieved when the Nazis take the world over. Oh, and he’s stolen Brock’s uniform to get into America, making Brock into a deserter along the way.

But, in the mostly directly apposite bit of political propoagandizing in the entire fim, Brock tells Hirth that it is his God-given right to grumble about anything he damned well likes, and it is because he is the citizen of a democratic country that he can do so without ending up in a camp. Hallelujah, brother, and we need more of that thinking right now

However, Hirth’s done it. He’s got to America, he’s won. Until, in a wonderful moment of democratic response to a sitution, Brock persuades the US Customs to treat him and Hirth as freight: they’re in the freight car, right? They’re not on the manifest. The train’s got to be sent back to Canada, for the unlisted freight to be put on the manifest… not taken off.

Hirth, who’s been responsible for eleven deaths during the film, who represents a fascistic, invasing force, is outraged by the otherside not playing by their rules. He’s also travelling back to Canada with Andy Brock, who wants his pants back, and isn’t asking for them, he’s taking them…

On that joyful note, the film ends. Yes, it’s a propaganda film, and in that it is irretrievably dated, or it ought to be except that we are unbelievably once again in an era when warnings against what fascism is and what it does are absolutely necessary. 49th Parallel survives as a film because it is also a film. It brilliantly uses the ‘Ten Little Indians’ structure, it contrasts the multi-ethnicity of the Canadiand, including a strong German element, against the racial purity of the nazis, and even where it directly makes statements, it is not so heavy-handed as to move beyond what human beings say in response to what they discover.

Like many artists, Powell and Pressburger’s next move was to seek inspiration from a reversal of this story. That film’s not in this box set, but it will be part of a final wind-down of the Film series, at the end of the year.

Film 2019: I Know Where I’m Going


Though you can’t class it amongst the Archers’ major films, I Know Where I’m Going occcupies the highest rung of the second tier. It’s a sweet, fresh, natural romantic comedy that is blessed with wonderful scenery, wonderful cinematography and an underlying seriousness that makes the film a success on every level it attempts.

I Know Where I’m Going takes its name and theme from the renowned Scottish folksong, which is sung over the opening and closing credits. It stars Wendy Hiller and the massively underrated Roger Livesey, though the original casting was to be Deborah Kerr and James Mason. Kerr couldn’t get out of her contract with MGM, opening things up for Hiller (who’d been the original choice for Kerr’s multiple roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp until she became pregnant). Mason dropped out six weeks before filming was due to start, not wishing to travel to the Hebrides for location shooting. Livesey asked to read the part, despite being older than the role and somewhat out of shape: he lost twenty pounds and took the role, despite being committed to a London play which meant that all his scenes had to be filmed at Denham Studios. The use of a double on location is so brilliantly concealed that unless you know in advance, it’s undetectable.

The film was made in 1945, though the War is still active in the story. It further exemplified the Archers’ crusade against materialism begun in A Canterbury Tale and took the place of the intended A Matter of Life and Death, for which there was not sufficient colour film available yet.

The storyline is simple. A series of voice overs introduces to Joan Webster, a forthright and determined young lady with ambitions towards a better life, i.e., one of money and luxury. At the age of 25 she is engaged to marry the substantially older Sir Robert Bellenger, Chairman of Consolidated Chemical Industries, where Joan works. Bellenger is almost as old as Joan’s Bank Manager father, who is less than impressed at her news, not that Joan cares. After all, she knows where she is going.

And that’s the Isle of Kiloran, in the Western Isles, where Bellenger is tenant of the island for the duration. Bellenger is the rich man: he has had a swimming pool built rather than swim in the ocean, buys in salmon from Glasgow rather than take the abundant local stock, and thinks the only people worth knowing in this part of the world are an Englishman and his silly-ass, bridge-obsessed wife. Ths is the life Joan dreams of, and has headed towards all her life.

Joan has an itinerary, taking her from Manchester to the Isle of Mull, where a boat will collect her to take her to Kiloran. But it is here that fate, or nature, intervenes, first in the form of sea-fog, and then a gale lasting seven days, making the last leg of the journey impossible. There’s some blatant symbolism in the wind blowing Joan’s itinerary into the sea at this point, though the moment was far too obvious even in 1945.

Also stranded in another Kiloran-bound traveller, a Naval Lieutenant who we initially know only as Torquil, who arranged for himself and Joan to stay overnight at the House, owned by his childhood friend, Catriona Potts (nee McLaine), played by the lovely Pamela Brown, along with her eccentric tenant, falconer Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight). Not until the next day, en route to Tobermory to take up hotel accomodation there (and relieve the strain on Catriona’s underfunded household), do she and we learn that Torquil is MacNeal of Kiloran, the true Laird, as opposed to Bellenger who is only an interloper.

It’s plain that Torquil finds Joan attractive. It’s less plain that Joan finds Torquil attractive, enough so to make her doubly determined to get to Kiloran and remove herself from temptation’s way. Even when she goes to stay with the Robinsons, ‘the only people worth knowing around here’ according to the fruity-voiced Bellenger, who is never seen and only heard this once, they are on their way to play bridge with the elderly Rebecca Crozier, whose houseguest is Torquil.

The underlying theme of the entire film, which is seen at its cleaest in the ensuing ceilidh scene, celebrating the Diamond Wedding anniversary of Mrs Crozier’s head gardener (Mr Campbell’s son, John, is played by a young John Laurie, who also choreographs the ceilidh). It’s a beautiful scene, natural and simple, and Joan is plainly drawn to it, and to the eevident enjoyment of all the participants. But it is Torquil who is at home, and who is accepted amongst the people, notwithstanding his lairdship.

Because Joan’s problem, like that of Bellenger and the foolish Robinsons, is that they don’t belong, and it’s not just being English in the West of Scotland. Colonel Barnstaple belongs, and he’s as English as they come. Bellenger lives with, but above and separate from the people of the area. Joan is seeking a lifestyle that Bellenger’s money can give her, but in knowing where she’s going, she belongs to no place. She is in motion. Torquil, Catriona, Rebecca, the Campbells, Ruairidh Mhor, the boatman, Kenny, his assistant, and Bridie, his daughter who Kenny hopes to marry, they are all in the place that they know and understand. They are part of the land. Catriona puts it best, to Joan at the end, sobered by her ordeal: Joan still sees only money as the measure of life: instead of struggling to maintain their homes, Catriona, Rebecca, Torquil, they could all sell. Catriona is mystified by the thought, cannot understand it. The land is as much a part of them as they are of the land, and they cannot be if this is severed.

Joan has to learn this. She bribes Kenny to take Ruairidh’s boat out, behind his back, when it’s manifestly insane to do so. Torquil, unable to talk her out of her stupidity, her rootless arrogance to think that she knows better, washes his hands of her, until Catriona points outwhat he’s not yet seen for himself, that Joan is running away, not towards, and she isrunning from Torquil.

So MacNeal of Kiloran goes on the boat, and well that he didd. High winds, high seas, storms, a soaked engine, Joan’s wedding dress going into the sea and the risk of drowning in the whirlpool Corryvrecken. But Torquil gets the engine working again in time, and all are saved.

A beautiful day dawns, but too late for Torquil. His leave is over, without reaching the island, and the boat is coming for Joan. He asks her to have her pipers play a particular song. She asks him to kiss her, which he does, with great enthusiasm. Then they part.

Torquil’s path takes him past Moy Castle. Like at least three generations before him, Torquil has not set foot in Moy Castle, ever. A curse was laid, by a long-ago Catriona MacLean, forced into marriage to MacNeal of Kiloran, felling to her lover of Moy Castle. Kiloran beseiged and took the cattle, and bound the lovers in chains, to stand upon a rock in the deep pool below the banqueting hall, until their fatigue pulled them both down to drown. Torquil knows of the curse, and now he enters Moy, climbing to its battlements. He will never leave a free man. But Torquil is not free, not now or ever again..

And we hear pipes, playing a particular song, pipers advancing on Moy Castle, with Joan marching behind, all set to abandon where she has been going because she has arrived where she wants to be, with Torquil, in this life she has begun to understand. The curse has struck: MacNeal of Kiloran shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.

It’s a beautiful story, and a dream of a script, written by Emeric Pressburger in only four days. No, it’s not a major film, not like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus, but the view from here to there is not so great or so high, and the film’s setting in Scotland, and its sense of place and eternity gives the story a sense of shape that a mere romantic comedy could not have on its own. Sunday morinings are made for magic like this.

Film 2019: A Canterbury Tale


Amongst Powell and Pressburger films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death will always be my two favourites, but each time I watch A Canterbury Tale, it sets me to rethinking that preference. Opinions may always change, and I can foresee a day when this minor-key film, made in black and whie in 1944, between those two films, may slip between them in my preference and estimation.

Despite coming after the controversial Colonel Blimp film, A Canterbury Tale aroused no ill-feelings and enjoyed the full co-operation of all those required to make it, including the British Army. It’s a long, and in some ways sprawling experience, deliberately taken at a gentle pace in keeping with the Kent countryside in which 90% of the film is set. After the War, like Colonel Blimp, the film was cut savagely, and for America The Archers were forced to replace narrator Esmond Knight with Raymond Massey, and add bookends featuring Kim Hunter (both were then filming A Matter of Life and Death) that, ironically given the subsequent treatment of Colonel Blimp, turned the film into one massive flashback.

The film can be described in deceptively simple terms as a detective story, though the mystery is given away at the beginning. The detective story – who is the Glueman and why is he pouring glue on the hair of young women? – is non-existent as a whodunnit, and almost mystical as a whydunnit, and is used solely to provide a narrative spine for the film’s other and primary concerns. The film is in truth a love story, not a human love story, although three such relationships underlie it, but a love story to the Kent countryside of Michael Powell’s childhood, married to a mystical sense of the unity of time and place that derives from the Canterbury pilgrims of time past, bound on the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury Cathedral.

Three of the film’s stars were unknowns at the time of filming, each in their first role. Two, Dennis Price and Sylvia Sims, went on to substantial careers but the third, US Army Sgt. John Sweet, was the true amateur and in many ways the most important figure in the film. The part was originally conceived for Burgess Meredith but the producers opted for a complete unknown, to glorious effect.

Three strangers get off a train on a dark Friday night at Chillingbourne Station, ten minutes from Canterbury. Two ave been posted there, the third leaves the train in error. British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, a cinema organist in civvy street, is posted to the Army camp, Alison Smith, a former shopgirl, is posted as a Land Girl to a Mr Thomas Culpepper, and US Army Sgt. Bob Johnson is on the 72 hour furlough, first in Canterbury, then London, and misunderstands the call for ‘Canterbury next station’ (the station master is a minor role for Charles Hawtrey).

Walking up to the Town Hall to register their presence, Alison is attacked by the Glueman. The trio chase her assailnt into the Town Hall, wherein he ‘disappears’. No effort is made to doubt the instant suspicion that he is the local Magistrate, Mr Culpepper (Eric Portman): magistrate, gentleman farmer, enthusiast for local history, and a kind of quasi-squire to the village. He’s also a classic women-hater, though hate is too strong for his actions. He dismisses the idea of Alison working for him on his farm (she is taken on by a woman farmer with far less prejudice), as he dismisses the idea of women – his mother excepted – as being worth botthering with.

Culpepper’s motives can be discerned by his concern, indeed overwhelming enthusiasm, for sharing his local knowledge and love of his place on Earth by lectures to the soldiers: he is pouring knowledge into their heads. There’s an interlocking off-key logic to his antics as the Glueman. He is warning off the local girls from going on dates with soldiers when ‘their’ men are in the Services, overseas, and he is diverting the soldiers to his lectures by cutting off their ability to get dates. When confronted, as the film enters its final and extraordinary sequence, Culpepper acknowledges his guilt on Earth but is unrepentent of his actions by reference the the greater good that he sees.

He’s got away with it so far mainly because he is Mr Culpepper. He is a part of the Village, almost of the land itself and as such cannot be suspected. It takes three strangers to suspect and, with simplicity, obtain the evidence no-one else would look for.

What Culpepper doesn’t suspect, despite his rootedness in the Pilgrim’s own land, is thatPeter, Alison and Bob are themselves pilgrims, bound for Canterbury to receive blessings that all need in this ongoing War. Alison, despite her self-confident forthrightness, is a lost soul. Once she spent thirteen days in a caravan outside Chillingbourne with her geologist fiancee. They couldn’t marry because his father opposed it, thinking a shopgirl beneath his son. Alison has the caravan, in storage in Canterbury, but Jeffrey was a pilot who was  shot down.

Bob too is a lost soul. He’s a conscript to a War in a country far away, a chance visitor to aland far different from his own in Oregon, but in which he, the outsider, the observer, sees far more correspondences than he could ever imagine. He and the wheelwright are both men of wood, talking the same language, both gently surprised that their practices 5,000 miles apart, are identical. He receives an invitation to lunch as if he was an old friend. But Bob, like Alison, has no future. He has a girl, back home, a blonde about whom he says little because Bob Johnson doesn’t talk that way, but what he says reveals the depth of his feelings: a walk in the woods, silent for two hours and hen both saying the same thing at the same time. The one you can be silent with in comfort is the one, but she no longer writes to him. The War has taken his future away too.

Peter, the cyncical, over-bright, slightly sneering one, is different. Alison and Bob are lost but they have kept their souls: Peter has lost his. A classically trained organist with dreams of becoming a church organist, he has settled for playing in a cinema. An easy life, on good money, nothing to do, nothing to be for, he regards action and achievement as ridiculous. Peter is the empty man and its no coincidence that, despite his growing liking for Culpepper – all three grow to like him as they investigate him further – he is the most determined to see him face justice. Peter has lost touch with that part of him that could create and has become creation’s other face, destruction.

What of Culpepper himself? Throughout the film, until that final sequence, he isimpervious, giving up nothing of himself, only showing his humanity in his  thirst to preach his land. He is a misogynist, and it’s not hard to see him as a repressed homosexual (Portman himself was gay). His automatic response to Alison is dismisssal, coupled with disdain for her being female. Yet as the film progresses, he has to make adjustments, and you can see each stage in his face.

First, she attends his lecture (later, when he is explaining his motives as the Glueman, she simply siggests he might have invited the girls to his lectures too). He’s supercilious with her until she identifies herself as the fiancee of the geologist who discovered Belgian coins on the Pilgrim’s Way, coins that found there way into no Museum: Alison admits she has them.

Then when she disturbs him on Sunday afternoon, on the Way, lying in the long grass, looking at the clouds, the fact Alison shares the same imaginative sympathy he possesses, that she can hear the horse, the harness, the conversation of the pilgrims of the past, sees him open up in genuine interest in her. It’s a brief moment of harmony, shattered by the passing of Bob and Peter, unaware anyone is present, confirming that the three have identified Culpepper as the Glueman.

Pilgrims made their way to Canterbury to receive blessings or to do penance. To reach whatever end there is, they must arrive in Canterbury. All three Pilgrims, and Culpepper, share a carriage on the same train on Monday morning, he to the Bench, they to the aims that will separate their brief alliance forever. Despite Culpepper’s admission of his motives, Peter is determined to bring Justice and punishment down on his head. Alison is on her way to the Agricultural Commission, Bob to meet his buddy Micky Roczinski.

What follows is a glorious and shamelessly emotional ending. Bob meets Micky outside the Cathedral that has awed him, awed him enough that he has needed to keep his feet on the floor by remembering that his grandfather, his line, built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, in wood, ‘and that was a good job too’. Micky’s a cliche American, big, boisterous, loud-mouthed, but he is an instrument of Heaven in his way. He is carrying letters, from Sidney, Australia, from Bob’s girl: she has joined the WACs. Micky Roczinski gives Bob Johnson his future back.

Alison finds her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It’s immobilised, its tyres requisitioned, but worse still it is lifeless, dark, dusty, full of moths eating its curtains, Jeffrey’s greatcoat. Almost bizarrely, Culpepper has followed her.  He is  clumsy and awkward, beginning by gently castigating any importance a caravan has, a transient thing that one time or another, has to move, a thing that never becomes part of anything. He’s clearly abut to offer Alison somehing more permanent, established, in a place he knows she loves. What Culpepper cannot see is that whilst Alison loves Chilingbourne and the Pilgrim’s Way, she loves it throughh Jeffrey, and whilst he may not be here to share it with her again, she loves it through, of and because of him.

But pilgrim’s come to Canterbury to receive blessings. The yard owner steps up, with news he has had to hold, not knowing where Miss Alison is, only that she’s coming to Canterbury. Mr Jeffrey’s father is here, wanting to see her. He’s waited two weeks. His business with her is important. He has news: Mr Jeffrey is in Gibraltar. Alison sways a moment as her future is given back to her then, a typical English girl, she rushes into re-airing the caravan. It will be needed again, it will be shared. Culpepper has gone, unable to share her good fortune. His penance has begun. It is  Jeffrey’s father who escorts Alison into the Cathedral, who touches her shoulder, who smiles on her, reconciled and caring only that they two have a blessing to be shared.

And Peter? Before he parts from Bob and Alison he lets slip that this is the day, his lot are off. Canterbury is seeing them off, with a march through the town and a special serviceat the Cathedral. Peter still has no thought but pursuit and vengeance. But Superintendent Hall is that the Cathedral, more concerned with the day than any petty reports. Peter pursues him. But inside the Cathedral, gazing up at its vast, stern, majestic interior, his soul is restored to him. The elderly church organist climbs to the organ loft. Peter follows him, restoring a lost page of music. He gazes at the organ in awe. The cynical, crusty old man recognises a fellow musician. He played the organ in a circus. He does not disapprove of Peter’s choice of career, but he completes the blessing by inviting Peter to play the organ: first, for his own pleasure and redemption Bach’s Toccatta  and Fugue, then, for the men he will serve beside, and to Bob and Alison who do not know it is their partner, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Last time I wrote about this film, I speculated about what happened afterwards to Bob and Alison and Peter. For Bob and Alison I foresaw, I still foresee, marriages, peace-time contentment, long lives. But for Peter I still see nothing but a death in battle. Bob and Alison were given back their futures, but Peter was given back his past, his soul. There is a darkness about him that I cannot see alleviated. His blessing is to reach his future in a state of grace.

There is so much else that I love about A Canterbury Tale, so many simple lines, momentary descriptions, the unhurried depiction of life in wartime that nevertheless has not broken the bond between people and place. Culpepper is an extreme example of this and, in comparison, a strident version. Everyone else is simply living what he longs to express. Not for nothing is the final shot the boy’s armies, local kids all, great-grandfathers now if they have lived this long, playing with the football Bob buys them, as reward for their alliance.

And US Army Sgt. John Sweet, in later life a teacher. That he is an amateur is self-evident, alongside the rest of the cast. But it is that stiltedness, that awkwardness that brings a truth and an honesty to his remarks. Bob is the stranger, the alien, but the one most ready to absorb, and be absorbed into his surroundings, to see what is diferent and what is nevertheless the same about this oddball place. You can tell he loves Three Sisters Falls, that he will never leave there once duty returns him, but he will never forget.

A minor film? No, not at all.

 

Film 2019: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favourite films, a strong contender for the favourite, but at the very least an immovable choice for the ten I would take to that mythical desert island with the improbable electricity supply. It’s a film that was born out of a cut line in another film, that was made in the face of War Office objections and the personal enmity of Winston Churchill, that spent most of its first forty years in a cut-to-ribbons version that destroyed almost all of the film’s subtlety and glory, but which, since 1983, has been restored to its original length and re-mastered.

I saw it for the first time in 1983, when the restored version was on release, playing mainly in art cinemas around the country. In Manchester, that meant the Cornerhouse, just behind Oxford Road Station. I knew The Archers (the writer-director-production team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) well from A Matter of Life and Death, and Roger Livesey from the same film: here was an actorwho never received the fame and the starring opportunities he should have. In fact, he gothis starring role in Blimp because Churchill intervened to prevent Laurence Olivier being released from the Fleet Air Arm, but Olivier could not have been as good in the role.

The film was originally going to be titled ‘The Life and Death of ‘Sugar’ Candy’, and Livesey’s part is of career Army officer Clive ‘Sugar’ Candy, but a meeting with the legendary New Zealand cartoonist David Low led to permission for The Archers to use the name of Low’s great creation, Colonel Blimp, in the title, and to depict Candy, at the beginning, as the visual Colonel: bald head, walrus moustache, big belly, clad only in a towel in a Turkish Bath, unfailingly polite and unfailingly wrong-headed. It was fitting in that the film was, in part, a satire on the British Army and its hidebound attitudes, its habit of always fighting the current war with the weapons and tactics of the last one, though Low was afterwards gently critical of the way ‘Blimp’ was sentimentalised and made sympathetic when it Low’s creation he was everything but.

The film actually came into being thanks to a line cut out of Powell and Pressburger’s preceding film, One of our Aircraft is Missing. This was an official propaganda film, about an RAF Bomber Crew shot down over Holland and being assisted by the Dutch Resistance to return to England (it’s not in the boxset but I am acquring a copy for later this year).

The crew are a mixture of types and ages and the line that was cut-out was spoken by the crew’s oldest member, a baronet, to the youngest, a working class lad. I’ve seen several different versions of what the line was, but this is taken from a Michael Powell interview in 1981: “”You know, you’re very like I was when I was young and you’ll be just like I am when you’re old.” The editor who cut that commented that there was an entire film in that line, and as this was David Lean, he should know.

The film’s storyline is neatly inverted. It begins at the end, in 1943, with an Army exercise intended to test the London Home Guard’s ability to defend the city. War starts at midnight, which infuriates one Lieutenant, ‘Spud’ Wilson, since German attacks don’t start by prior agreement. Since his girlfriend, Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon is drive to the London Home Guard commander and has let slip things she shouldn’t have, Wilson launches a sneak attack at 6.00pm, capturing the General and all his staff in their Turkish Baths. The General is Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy.

Wilson can hardly keep his contempt for this fat, moustached old buffer out of his manner. Enraged at being held to judgemet by a young man who doesn’t know how Candy got his big belly, why he grew his moustache, the General grapples with Wilson, sending both into the bath. The camera pans along the bath to the young Lieutenant Clive Candy, emerging from the far end, home on leave from the Boer War in which he has just won a good Victoria Cross.

The film moves forward in great sweeps. In 1902, Candy responds to a letter from a Governess in Berlin, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), about countering anti-English propaganda. He ends up having to fight a sabre-duel with Oberlautnant Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorf (Anton Walbrook) in which both duellists receive cuts requiring them to stay in a nursing home for a long time. There, they become friends, and Theo more than that with Edith: they become engaged. Only then does Clive realise he has fallen in love with Edith too, that she is his ideal woman.

By means of a procession of shots (literally) of stuffed animal heads on the walls of Clive’s den, we move forward to November 1918, and the last night of the Great War. Crusty Brigadier-General Candy is tryin to get a train for his leave, and some food, and winds up at a convent housing seventy nurses from the West Riding of Yorkshire, one of whom, Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr) is the spitting image of Edith. After the War, Clive manages to trace Barbara and, despite the twenty year discrepancy in their ages, persuades her to fall in love with him and marry him. He has less luck with an embittered Theo, Prisoner of War of a defeated Army, who then looks with contempt on a soft people who want to become friends again, to build Germany up again as they knocked it down.

That Barbara is clearly good for Clive is plain to see. She travels with him on all their postings, time passing in the turning of the pages of a photo album, tricked out with invitations cards from all over the world, until the pages fall blank, aand we see only a Times personal column add from Candy, thanking all his friends for their support over his irreperable loss. The rows of heads resume.

We reach October 1939. Military chemist Theo Kretscmar-Schuldorf, resident in England since 1935, a widower who has lost his sons to the Nazi Party is being interviewed in front of the Enemy Aliens Tribunal to determine if he is to be interned. Theo speaks, eloquently, in the film’s most spellbinding scene (a tour de force of underplaying by Wallbrook) of why he came to England after Edith died, but only Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy’s intervention, sponsoring, rescues him. The friendship resumes.

After retiring in 1935, Clive’s back on active duty, but not for long. His attitudes are  too old-fashioned, too ‘sporting’ and ‘fair’. He just does not understand the Nazis, and that if they win there will be no further fighting against them, not as Theo understands and desperately tries to impress on him. But his driver, Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon, also challenges him, suggesting his leadership and, more practiclly, his contacts, would be essential to setting up the Home Guard as it needs to be.

One final, shorter transition, this time by Picture Post covers and features, takes us to 1943 and the start of an Army exercise. We see scenes deliberately left out at the start, completing a composite picture. We’ve seen Clive Candy’s life, and his seemingly final defeat. But the film closes on a sympathetic moment: Clive’s home has been bombed, its basement become an emergency water tank. Clivestares into the water, rememberinghis promiseto Barbara not to change until the floods come. But the floods have come and he has still not changed… Reminded of himself, the old man salutes the Army, with great warmth.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is nowadays accorded all the respect Churchill and Co. tried to deny it. It is a classic, a British epic, a magnificent structure. I’ve given but a fragment of it above, a straight-line summary of its plot, but none of its life. From start to finish, the film is distinguished by a high class of acting even down to the smallest of parts. It is greatly comic, in innumerable moments of naturalistic asides, and beautifully observed and timed vignettes, not one of which overstays its welcome by even a second.

It is also unashamedly romantic, though its leadingromantic tries at all times to conceal his feelings, just as a military officer of its extended periods would. There is love, most beautifully expressed in Barbara’s shy devotion to her older husband, and devastation at the loss of such a lively young woman so young.

Despite the War Office’s misgivings, the film is resolutely anti-Nazi, and Wallbrook’s soliloquy at theTribunal, with the ambient sound dying away as everybody abandons their duties to listen in respectful silence, is the centrepiece, his quiet bitterness at what he has lost, in particular regard to his sons, expressed by his own, ironic use of the words ‘Heil Hitler’, a reading I doubt more than the tiniest handful of actors could have equalled, and none bettered.

Yet the point they took is easy to see. Though he wasn’t concieved as such, Candy is Blimp: bluff, hearty, bound by the limits of his own experience and the tenets of a public school, and shockingly wrong. Clive receives his final dismissal from the regular Army for his intended words in a cancelled radio broadcast that he would rather be defeated than stoop to the enemy’s methods, and it is Theo, presented throughout as the more cynical yet more practical, and more aware, man, who is the more intelligent and perceptive of the two: the Good German, the man who gets it.

In the end, though, the film is a magnificent achievement, its three principals performing superbly. Special mention must go to Deborah Kerr, playing her first major role aged 22, and mastering three different roles superbly. Watching the film is always spellbinding: I am absorbed in it, watching as all the little tangentsand diagressions dissolve into an inevitable whole, admiring anew all the little set pieces – despatch riders delivering orders, a room of highly decorated men greeting a defeated enemy, Theo’s speech – for their individual grace, and for their mosaic-like quality in a film of genuine brilliance.

In 1995, New York film critic Anthony Lane commented that (Blimp) “may be the greatest English film ever made, not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English”. That’s very true, but Michael Powell previously pointed out that it was “… a 100% British film but it’s photographed by a Frenchman, it’s written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech; in other words, it was the kind of film that I’ve always worked on with a mixed crew of every nationality, no frontiers of any kind.”

In these times, it does us well to think on that.