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: 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.

Film 2019: A Matter of Life and Death

I’m writing this from the midde of the night, because I’ve watched this film, about which I have written before, in the middle of the night, over heated, stuffy, lacking any ability to sleep or to close down my mind.

A Matter of Life and Death comes from the biggest box set I own, an eleven-DVD set of the greatest films of The Archers, the Production name for the much-acclaimed team of Director/Writer Michael Powell and Writer Emeric Pressburger. This is my second version of the set, it first having been released as a nine-DVD set that ommitted the incredible Black Narcissus, a defect repaired in the later version, though I’d still quibble over the inclusion of an obscure Australian film that is Powell’s alone at the expense of the much more important One of Our Aircraft is Missing.

A Matter of Life and Death was the first ever Royal Command Film in 1946, and is the first film in this set. It was commissioned to promote post-War Anglo-American relations, which it does in a very Archersish manner that no-one anticipated. The film is set in May 1945, just weeks before the German surrender, though the War is context rather than root matter. Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), Master Bomber, gets a crippled plane back from a raid in Germany to enable the surviving members of his crew to bail out in home territory. But the plane has no landing gear, nor does  Peter have a parachute: he is going to die, he knows it and, a brave, clear-headed and logical man, also a poet, he has accepted his fate and anticipates heaven.

His last words are to a stranger, American WAAC and radio operator June (Kim Hunter). It’s a massively emotional moment for both, sharing the end of the life of Peter Carter, though have never met nor ever will.

Except that Peter survives. Survives the leap from his dying plane, the immersion in the North Sea, the washing ashore on a deserted beach. How he has survived is given no earthly or practical explanation because it is to be awarded a supernatural explanation, to which we’ll come, but we know that on rare occasions, luck or something that we can only call luck, provides for such survivals. How can a man be prepared to die and be saved and not invest the restoration of his life with some mystifying purpose.

For Peter it is to love June. There’s a coincidence of epic proportions that I ought not to allow, contrivance that it is, that Peter’s vehicle of understanding that he has not died is the chance (though foreshadowed) encounter with June, cycling  over the sands at the end of her duty, to go home and sleep. The realisation that, beyind all possibility or rationality, each is the othr party to that extraordinary radio exchange dawns in each face, and though June has not passed under the Shadow of Death, she has come within Peter’s aura and is transformed likewise. It’s nonsense, but she says so, and happily accepts it as nonsense, preferring the transformed world of chance to anything that came before.

But this love story is under a threat of extinction bwfore it can do no more than start to breathe. Peter has exacerbated a brain injury, a concussion whose effects have now been triggered by the very circumstances that have connected him to June: without expert medical care, and very soon, Peterand his love will die for real, either by the death of the mind or the collapse of it.

Because Peter in his hallucinations has constructed an extraordinary fantasy, a concise and consistent, yet both elaborate and logical explanation for how he has passed through Certain Death: Heaven has erred.

Yes, Heaven, a bureaucratic Paradise, where the dead arrive by escalators to be fitted out with wings, and the Americans find a coke machine, has made a mistake. Collector 71, a delicately arch performance by Marius Goring as a French aristo who lost his head, both during the Revolution and over the Channel in the English fog, failed to reel in Peter. Who, as a consequence, has lived an additional twenty hours after his appointed time. During which, and as a consequence of which, he has met June and taken on duties and responsibilities that must be taken into account: Peter demands to appeal his case (technically, he’s pleading an estoppel).

To save Peter’s life, he must have an expert surgeon operate to repair the lesions putting presure on his brain. To save his sanity, he must win his Appeal.

Perhap it was because of the time and circumstances but on this viewing I was very much absorbed in Peter and June’s love. Neither over-emoted, choosing to use their faces, and especially their eyes. From the moment of  Peter’s first hallucination, June is determined to save him, which she does by bringing in neurologist turned Village Doctor, Frank Reeve (the superb Roger Livesey), who takes over Peter’s case.

There’s some perfectly disguised symbolism in this film, around both Frank and June. He is introduced in a delightful scene using a camera obscura that gives him a god’s eye view of his village and his people, and he immediately takes a god’s control over every aspect of Peter’s life, having already put everyone under his command. And in a pivotal scene following Peter’s second hallucination, when he’s started fretting about who shall represent his case in Court, Frank promises he will be that Defending Counsel. And he is: killed in a motorbike accident en route to the hospital, available to attend the Bar in Heaven.

And in the same scene, June promises that she won’t let them take Peter, which she will do in the film’s extraordinary final scene.

But before this, the fantasy takes complete control, a vast and awesome trial as  Peter’s brain goes under the knife, full of sly humour and the philosophical points the Archers wanted to make about not just England and America but what then seemed capable of binding us into a happy and willing union. The Prosecutor is Abraham Farlon, thefirst man to be killed by a British bullet in the War of Independence, and he is played with great anger and bitterness and a nose for inconvenient truths by Raymond Massey, the film’s third star, held back an incredible 74 minutes before entering.

The Judge in Heaven is the Surgeon under whose hands Peter’s brain rests, but it is June who saves the day. She fulfils her promise literally. Peter will die for her, but she will die for him. She will take his place in Heaven, shyly, but confidently, sacrificing herself and everything that life is meant to be: we already know she will liveto be 97 (meaning that she is still alive now,and until next year). All this for Peter, so that they will not take him.

And in the greatest climax of all time, Love overcomes the law, the Stairway halts and Peter wins his Appeal and a generous term. There’s no ending can follow that,  so Powell and Pressburger keep theirs short, though still weak: “We won.” “I know.”

We’re supposed to see A Matter of Life and Death as half a fantasy, a vivid, organised fantasy, and to ask ourselves how much, if anything, of the ‘other’ world, Heaven’s monochrome versus Earth’s Technicolour, is real, is true. On another watching I’d think about that more, but in the night it was about the central affair, and about their implausible affair, a McGuffin that becomes the film’s point instead of being an excuse.

Once upon a time, a Friday evening, when I had this film on video, not DVD, I played it to my wife. Her daughter was sat up and, though it was not, in any aspect, the kind of film she liked, she sat and watched it in total silence, wrapped up in what ws going on. From time to time I’d glance at her and admire her all the more for her openness of mind. There was a lot about her that was admirable.

She’s part of my history with this film, which begins with Sunday afternoon and, on this occasion, ends on Sunday morning. A different time to watch, a different time to think.

The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 1 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

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.

The last of the series. The pick of the bunch. The top of the list. An enormously complex and controversial film about which there is much to say, which is why it’s taken me so long a time to cut what there is to say about the Archers’ finest production, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
This film takes pride of place in my Powell and Pressburger box-set, but I also own it in a single DVD format. This last is the complete digital remastering of the film carried out over three years by the unlikely figure of Martin Scorsese.
At first sight, it seems impossible to imagine such a Director spending such a long period of time on the restoration of a still-obscure British film whose theme, if it can be boiled down to simply one thing, is the nature of being English. But Scorsese, who for all his New York Italian background, is a student and lover of the possibility of film and, from his teenage years, has been properly besotted with an immense, British epic film, that he first saw in a ramshackle, unsympathetically edited black and white version that reduced the story by a full hour, destroyed its elaborate structure and messed with its chronology.
Blimp was first released in 1943, at a near three hour length, a magnificent technicolour event, beginning with a renegade Army platoon upsetting an exercise into the Home Guard’s ability to defend London by refusing to wait until “War starts at midnight”, and circling round back to its opening via a series of long flashbacks covering 45 years in the life of the ‘Blimp’ of the title, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy.
A War-themed film made during the War it commented upon, and taking upon itself the provocative title of Colonel Blimp – a notoriously satirical cartoon figure created by David Low – aroused the opposition of the War Cabinet from the moment it was proposed, and the personal and virulent opposition of Prime Minster Winston Churchill, who wanted it banned. Though the Government were unable to prevent the film going ahead, Churchill could and did personally veto the release of the film’s intended star, Leading Aircraftsman Olivier, L.
Without Olivier, the Archers turned to their stalwart and favourite, Roger Livesey, to incarnate the title character, and Livesey turned in his customary brilliant performance in the role, the greatest of his life.
Nevertheless, the film was a commercial failure, and for decades was only available in its reduced form, which cut the film badly both in terms of incident, structure and chronological order. It was not until 1983 that a restored print was made available, returning the film to its original glory, and length.
In the years since, its reputation has only grown but, though critics acknowledge Blimp to be a masterpiece, and arguably the best film ever made in Britain, it’s still barely known to the public, and especially to generations who would find its mixture of manners and morals a very strange thing indeed. That doesn’t make the film any less of an achievement, nor necessarily that they wouldn’t find it to be as fascinating as those of us who are closer to those times.
There’ll be the usual synopsis coming along shortly, but something of the background to the film should be told, to set it in context.
The Archers were a relatively short-lived partnership when the Second World war broke out. Immediately, Powell proposed a propaganda film, made in Canada and aimed at the world which did not yet understand the Nazi menace. Forty-Ninth Parallel was shot along the whole length of the world’s longest open border and follows the attempt of a German submarine crew to escape into neutral America after their U-boat is bombed off the Newfoundland coast. The crew, led by a fanatic Nazi, are a mixture of types, as are the Canadians they meet as they travel westward.
It was a controversial use of material resources in the early days of the War, looking like an obvious boondoggle in difficult times (an impression reinforced when the film’s leading actress jumped ship on the project as soon as she reached the neutral soil of America, sitting out the War in comfort and ease), but it was also effective and its script won Emeric Pressburger the Oscar.
The Archers re-used the theme two years later in One of our Aircraft is Missing, reversing it to present a British bomber crew shot down over Occupied Europe and making their way home. The crew were again a mixture of ages, classes and backgrounds. A line was written for an exchange between the oldest, upper class crewman, and the youngest, working class lad, about how the elder was once like the younger, who cannot see that. It was cut from the film, but an assistant editor commented that there was an entire film in that line. He should know: the assistant was David Lean.
Originally, the film was to be The Life and Death of ‘Sugar’ Candy, with Livesey’s character being introduced in 1943 as an incarnation of the great Colonel, who was never seen outside the Turkish Baths, where he was inevitably wrapped in nothing but a towel about his ample waist: bald head, walrus moustache, big belly, puffing out “Gad, Sir!” as the introduction to his newest inane comment upon matters political. The Archers were fortunate to meet David Low, the greatest political cartoonist of the twentieth century, and receive permission to use the immortal Colonel’s name in the title.
And so to a synopsis, which will be longer than usual, given the length of the film.
It begins at a brisk pace with uptempo music. Orders are typed and distributed by a fleet of despatch riders, riding in formation in leather greatcoats on motorcycles. It’s a superbly choreographed, sit-up-and-take-notice opening, as pairs of riders peel off at junctions and roundabouts until one remains, deep in the countryside, brought to a halt in a farmyard where Lieutenant ‘Spud’ Wilson’s platoon are billeted. An exercise is to take place: the Army are to test the London Home Guard’s readiness to defend the capital: War begins at Midnight.
This exasperates Spud, a response exacerbated by his Colonel’s hand-written instruction to “Make it Real”. The whole point is that it isn’t and can’t be real: the German’s don’t begin and end at negotiated times. Make it Real? Gah!
Wilson rebels, assembles his biggest toughs and starts the war now. He has an advantage, his girlfriend is driver to the Home Guard Commander, General Clive Wynne-Candy, and she’s blabbed the codewords.
The expedition stops at a country pub en route, where Spud is meeting ‘Johnnie’ (real name Angela, but this is War). It starts with a kiss but it ends with Johnnie sidling out of the pub and driving off furiously, leaving an unconscious Spud behind, roaring a splendidly mixed metaphor: “Mata Hari’s gone to warn the Wizard!”
Johnnie gets to London first, trying to warn General Candy, but her lead isn’t enough to prevent the General and his entire Staff being captured hours ahead of time, to the roar of one of my favourite lines in film history: “Brute force and ruddy ignorance!”
Needless to say, the General et al are captured at the Royal Bathers Club, in the Turkish Baths, and the unfailingly polite Candy first appears in all his Blimpian glory, perspiring bald head, walrus moustache, rising belly wrapped in white towel.
The exercise is ruined before it has begun, and the General doesn’t seem to be able to grasp Wilson’s motives in taking independent action, in emulating the enemy. Wilson, who is only infuriated the more by the sight of this ageing, out-of-touch buffoon, snaps back at him in personal tones that he instantly tries to react, but it’s too late. Candy has lost his temper. He advances on Wilson, swinging at him, roaring that the young man is making fun of his moustache but he doesn’t know why (Candy) grew it, making fun of his belly but he doesn’t know how (Candy) got it.
Taken aback, Wilson finds himself slipping as Candy grapples with him. The two go into the bath, Candy’s rant blurring into the bubbles… and the camera passes along the length of the bath to its far end, from which emerges young Lieutenant Candy, home on leave from the Boer War in 1901, newly awarded the Victoria Cross.
This is the true beginning of the film. From here, it will unfold to depict Candy’s life: why he grew that moustache, how he developed the belly. Much later, we will return to the events we have already seen, see how they unfold from the point of view of Johnnie, who is Livesey’s co-star, Deborah Kerr, then a young actress playing three different roles as the story passes from era to era of Candy’s life.
For now though, we have come to the young Candy, in his stylish red uniform, all buttons and helmet and cloak. His course begins in the Baths that will symbolise the man he becomes, an encounter with his old chum ‘Hoppy’ Hopwood, who happens to be carrying on him a letter passed on by his niece’s Governess, whose sister, Miss Edith Hunter, is herself a Governess, in Berlin. Miss Hunter complains that anti-British propaganda, based on the Boer War, is rife, and that it is a pity that someone like the currently renowned Lieutenant Candy cannot come to Berlin to counter this.
Naturally, Clive wishes to do so, though this is in the face of opposition from the Army, who consider that he shouldn’t have anything to do with politics. Impulsively, Clive ignores what is nearly but not quite an order, and travels to Berlin to meet Miss Hunter, who is, of course, Deborah Kerr.
Unfortunately, by the time he arrives, his guns have been firmly spiked by the Embassy, to whom he has reported on arrival. He is not to say or do anything, and that goes for Edith – who has lost her position – too. They meet at a stamtisch, or coffee shop, frequented by the group to which the most virulent of troubleshooters is attached. He is Kaunitz, a rat-like creature familiar to Candy from South Africa. Clive cannot resist twitting him with music that reminds both of them of their shared circumstances. Unfortunately, this draws Kaunitz’s attention and, despite Clive’s efforts to spare Edith the experience, he denounces them to the crowd.
Along the way, Candy manages to insult the glorious Imperial German Army over its connection to Kaunitz, leading to the inevitable demand for a duel to satisfy honour. His opponent, a complete stranger, drawn by lot, is Ober-Leutnant Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorf (played by Anton Walbrook, the film’s third star). In order to conceal the basis for the duel, it is put abut that it is over Edith, who finds herself becoming Candy’s fiancee for the duration!
The duel ends in a draw. Theo takes a headcut, Clive a cut to the top lip, which prompts him to grow a moustache to conceal the scar. The pair are removed to the same nursing home to recover, as is Edith.
If I’ve made this section sound comic in any way, that’s because the film, without neglecting the fact that this is a serious subject, also treats the military aspects with an amused and detached eye. Historically, the Nineteenth Century is seen as a Century of peace, bit only because the wars were small and, in relative terms, local. The military spectacle and its insistence on what, a century later, we can only see as ritual, is inherently comic and is treated as such. This section of the film especially is gloriously funny throughout.
Yet it’s completely serious about its central trio. In the nursing home, the two men slowly become the best of friends. Clive’s bluffness, his certainty that, the duel being over, there is no point to further quarrelling, is the primary impulse, Theo’s willingness to learn English (as opposed to Clive’s hearty disinterest in learning German) is well-picked out. Not for the last time, the film mixes its opulent depiction of the times with an underlying absurdity.
But Edith, compelled to remain in Germany as the purported fiancee of Clive, and better placed to speak German and teach English, ends up falling in love with Theo, and he with her. Clive is genuinely and heartily glad of this: his congratulations come from his heart, but in the moment of congratulation, his own love for Edith surfaces. Noble Englishman that he is, he sacrifices himself for her happiness, and returns to England alone. There, he confirms the reality of his feelings about Edith in the most certain manner possible – by taking her sister to the Opera? A disconsolate Clive retires to his Aunt’s home, and sets up a study there.
The years pass by in a beautifully timed progression as Clive fills up the walls with stuffed heads, shot on military expeditions around the world. Though the subject might not be so innocent now, it’s a witty, amusing method of moving through time, especially as Clive’s last trophy is a German First World War helmet!
Time slows again to catch up with Clive, a Colonel, on the Western Front in November 1918. It’s cold, raining, muddy, and he is trying to arrange transport back to Britain, with his driver Murdoch (John Laurie). The ageing Clive is full of the assumptions of a British Army Officer, and finds himself up against both American troops, with their greater informality, and a South African Captain who has captured prisoners from Theo’s regiment. Candy is unable to get an answer from them, but we are left with the implication that answers will be extracted by the South African, by brutality.
But the emphasis in this sequence runs beautifully elsewhere. The General is fed at a nunnery where a group of young English nurses are billeted: one of them reminds him of Edith. Following an almost mystic moment of silence, when the War ends at 11.00am the following day (over Clive’s assurances that talk of peace is nonsense) we learn that the nurses come from West Yorkshire, that Clive has moved heaven and Earth them, and especially Barbara Wynne (Kerr, for the second time), who, despite the at least fifteen year difference in their ages, he persuades to marry him.
The difference between the pair is remarkable. Clive is far too old and too stiff to be the proper husband to such a young woman, but her love for him is true and she demands of him that he shall not change, not until the Floods come and their home, once that of his aunt, is drowned.
Their honeymoon is interrupted by the discovery that Theo is a prisoner, waiting to be shipped home to a beaten country that will no longer be able to afford the Army that has been his life. But Clive is wrong in his assumption that, now hostilities are over, all will be friends again: at the Prison Camp, Theo snubs him publicly and hurtfully, but later, on the eve of being shipped back to Germany, Theo phones Clive and is abducted, briefly, to attend a formal dinner party.
There’s a lovely sequence as over a dozen guests, military, political, trade, respond to Theo’s introduction by Clive in a series of different manners, and an over-abundance of goodwill to the defeated enemy, with assurances that Britain wants Germany’s place among nations restored. On the train, Theo tells his stunned compatriots of this reception and the disbelief his greeting has engendered.
There’s an odd lacuna at this point. Theo’s realisation of just how these fat, complacent, self-deluding Englishmen think sets off the light of discovery in his eyes, as if he is already mentally working out how Germany can take advantage of this. But the point is never explicitly followed up. You could, of course, argue that Nazi Germany, and Hitler, are the point this reaches towards, but it seems odd to deliver such an association via Theo who, as we will soon see, is no Nazi: far from it.
Once again, time flies, this time through a series of invitations, press notices, etc, again from all around the world, that comes to a cold, silent end on a Newspaper acknowledgement of thanks for the concern of friends of Clive Wynne-Candy in his inconsolable loss.
Briefly the animal heads return, to march to the eve of another War, at which point the film reaches its critical moment, in Theo.
The Second World War has begun, and Britain is taking no chances now. Theo is an alien resident in Britain: he is summoned to account for himself, to explain why he should not be placed in an internment camp. On a single chair, in the middle of a busy room that gradually slows to a stop around him, the camera, halfway into the sequence, beginning to creep slowly closer to him, Theo explains who he is and why he is here. He was an Army officer, thrust out of an Army that existed no longer, who retrained as an Industrial chemist. He has lost his wife, lost his children too, but not to death: they are good Nazis: Heil Hitler. Having found his country gone mad, Theo has taken himself off to the country of his wife, a country of tolerance and humanity that has only ever done him well.
It’s a long moment of hush, around which the film pivots, but it would not be enough to spare Theo without the sponsorship of Clive: dear old Clive, unchanged and unchanging, still too naive to see the new era for what it is. And Clive is unchanged for all his years. Shamefacedly, he admits to being in love with Edith, displays a portrait of Barbara that he expects Theo to recognise, though Theo sees only the wife of his later years, who he’s lost. And there is Angela, Johnnie rather, the General’s driver, who runs Theo home at curfew, and who causes him a certain amazement and amusement, for it is Deborah Kerr yet again.
And Clive’s unchangedness brings to an end his army career, when he is prevented from giving a BBC talk in which he was to espouse defeat rather than resorting to the German tactics.
But Clive isn’t finished yet. He moves to the Home Guard, his progress portrayed in a series of magazine covers, , included among them shots of his home destroyed by the blitz and turned into an emergency water tank, until we return to the beginning of the film.
This time we are inside the country pub when Spud meets Johnnie. We follow her to London, racing to warn the General, and again failing. War conspicuously does not wait until midnight.
But Clive, though distraught and embarrassed, is still Clive. He will pull strings to ensure Spud is not punished for his actions, insists upon Spud coming to dinner with him. And he still reacts with joy to an Army band marching. Unchanged, even though the Floods have come
This is a magnificent film, of a kind that will never be made again. Both Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger believed it to be the best thing they ever did, and there are many of their later day  peers who will agree wholeheartedly.
It was unwanted when it first appeared, not least by its Prime Minister (though there is no record that Churchill ever saw the film, relying exclusively on notes as to its composition), For daring to satirise the Army in War-time, for pointing out, wholly correctly, that the British Army has always fought each war with the weapons of the last one, for its temerity in portraying a sympathetic German character, and one more clear and understanding of the modern world than its hero, it was criticised, attacked savagely. It suffered under an exportation ban for four months, which the Archers promptly exploited to the film’s benefit in domestic publicity. And it was still the fourth most popular film of 1943.
America did not see it until after the War, by which time it had already been cut from 163 minutes to 150, and renamed The Adventures of Colonel Blimp, or just Colonel Blimp. Its complex, flashback structure was removed and the film further cut to 90 minutes. Not until 1983 was it returned to its complete form, and since then its reputation has grown steadily. Like Black Narcissus, it is regarded as a masterpiece of Technicolour cinematography.
Michael Powell described this film as “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.” It’s a film to which all nations contributed, and in 1995, it was hailed as “may be the greatest English film ever made, not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English.”
As well as being my favourite film amongst the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Archers, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favourite films ever.

The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no 2. A Matter of Life and Death

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.

A long time ago, I watched this film for the first time. It was far enough back that I simply saw it as a film, did not register it as a production by Powell and Pressburger, by the Archers. I would likely only barely have registered the cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey, with a substantial and vital supporting role from Raymond Massey. I certainly would not have registered any other Archers’ films as a result of that first viewing.
I don’t remember when. The odds are that it was a forgotten Sunday afternoon, when a film was all there was to entertain on television: maybe I only saw the film in black and white, which would have destroyed one of the principal elements about the film.
But I’ve watched it many times since. For a long time it was my favourite film by the Archers, once I learned to distinguish between their work and others. I even played it one night when my teenage stepdaughter was around, and was delighted to see her fascinated concentration upon the film through to the end.
A Matter of Life and Death is a film of some significance. Though set during the Second World War, it was filmed after the conflict was over and was commissioned as the first Royal Command Performance. The Archers were asked to write towards a theme, that of post-War Anglo-American co-operation, but no-one expected the film they delivered, though it’s entirely in keeping with Powell and Pressburger’s individual, lyrical, frequently quasi-mystical approach.
Given the issues they had had with the British Government only three years earlier, over the controversial The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, it’s remarkable that they were chosen for this performance at all.
The film begins with its only awkward section, a voice-over introduction. We are in space, moving towards the Earth. The voice-over acknowledges it: “This is space. Big, isn’t it?” Thankfully, it settles down quickly after that and we move towards Earth, and towards the lights and explosions of a battle taking place in the air over northern Europe. A bomber flight is returning home from a raid on Dresden. It’s leading plane is piloted by Squadron-Leader Peter Carter (Niven). The plane is badly damaged from enemy action: its under-carriage has been shot up, making landing impossible, its navigator, Bob Trubshawe, is dead, and Peter is nursing his crew home to over the shores of England, where they will bail out, to home, safety, family and freedom.
Peter doesn’t have that option. He’s on the radio, reporting back to England, holding his last conversation on Earth with a complete stranger, a young, American, radio-operator, June (Hunter). He explains his position: once his crew are gone, he will head his plane back out over the North Sea, to crash safely, whilst he will simply jump out, in the dark, without a parachute.
He will die. He’s ready for it, his mind composed. He’s made his peace and now he is eager to see if Heaven is what he expects. June tries to arrange help, but it’s not on. She takes his farewell messages of love to his mother and sisters, she is the other half of this brave man’s last conversation, the intensity of the situation burning through both. Peter praises her voice, a fine voice, one that in another situation he would have wanted to meet.
And then he’s gone.
The scene shifts. Long escalators reach into the night sky, lines of people in uniform queued as they move ever higher. The scene is in black and white, making it look cold, and sterile. This is Heaven, or rather Heaven’s ante-chamber. Hundreds of servicemen, the dead of the War, thousands of them, are progressing to the collection point, where they are issued with wings. American airmen fall upon a Coke machine. Despite the efforts of a pretty, but stern and starched woman in uniform, Bob Trubshawe insists on waiting for the Skipper. Carter is never late. These are the dead, entering Heaven. Heaven is never wrong, Heaven never fails, but on this occasion, the first in millennia, the counts do not tally. Peter Carter is AWOL.
On Earth, in colour, Peter washes up on an idyllic beach at dawn. It looks like the Paradise he is expecting, down to the goat herd and the naked boy herder, playing the pan pipes. Until a Spitfire tears over his head. Peter is alive. The station is over there. And cycling across the edge of the sands, on her way home after her tour of duty, is a young American servicewoman, a radio operator.
It’s an implausible coincidence, but this film will ask its audience to swallow bigger and bulkier gnats than that, for it is essential to everything we are going to experience that the girl in the bicycle is June, and that the wild-haired airman who accosts her, exhausted, soaked and grinning, is Peter, and the crazy, improbable circumstances of this meeting be the foundation for the meat of this story.
But the situation cannot be allowed to last. In Heaven, the culprit is identified as being Collector 71 (Marius Goring), a foppish Frenchman recruited during the Revolution after he ‘lost his head’, who has failed to find Peter in the fog over the Channel. He is immediately despatched to Earth, to collect Peter. The Squadron Leader is a reasonable man, he will understand that his time was up and that he must now come along. After all, only nineteen hours have passed.


The Collector arrives on Earth, commenting wrily that they are so starved of technicolour in Heaven. It’s a glorious summer evening in the woods. Peter and June have been picnicking. Kissing has been taking place and quite clearly it is going to feature heavily over the lazy, light-drunk hours until night. But June suddenly freezes: no speech, no movement, no breath. The Collector has frozen time around Peter and himself to put his case.
But where nineteen hours ago, Peter was reconciled to death, ready in every respect for it, things are now substantially different. He has met June, has fallen in love with her and she with him. He has a future, he has responsibility for another. He cannot simply agree to die, like that, and go to Heaven.
The fault is Heaven’s, the mistake theirs. The responsibility for rectifying this must also be theirs. Peter Carter demands the right to an appeal, before the High Court of Heaven, for the award of his life.
And that’s the matter of the film. On Earth, in Heaven, there are twin tracks, both of which lead to the title question: A Matter of Life and Death.
June, upset and frightened at what Peter tells her, turns to her friend Doctor Frank Reeve (Livesey, the absolute highlight of the film). Frank is introduced in a bravura scene, observing his village and his patients via  a camera obscura, a panoramic view of the village projected by high mirrors into the bright surface of a circular white table. He sees June cycling in and emerges from the dark into the daylight to hear about Peter.
Why June should think of a village doctor in these circumstances seems strange, but when younger Reeve was a specialist in brain disorders, and he keeps his hand in. When he meets Peter, the two men like each other immediately, although Peter can’t recollect any recent head injury. Frank even knows that, in Civvy Street, Peter is a poet, a piece of news June receives with a shy surprise and admiration that would give any man a swelled head.
Frank has already been behind Peter’s back and spoken to his CO, who’s discharged him into the Doctor’s custody for observation. So Peter moves into Frank’s cottage, where he finds himself being visited by the Collector. His Appeal has been granted, but now he needs to elect a Defending Counsel to speak on his behalf. He has all the dead to choose from, but the task is hard and of increasing importance when the Collector announces that Prosecuting Counsel is none other than Abraham Farlon (Massey).
The name means nothing to Peter, but it seems that Farlon has a place in history, that he was the first patriot to be killed by the British in the War of Independence. He hates the British, and he hates the thought of a good American girl being ‘ensnared’ by the hated enemy, especially a Boston girl: though separated by nearly two centuries, Farlon and June both hail from Boston.
In short, Peter’s trial is to be of more than Peter the man, but of Peter Carter, the Englishman, and June, the American. The trial is to be of nations, not nationals, of cultures and ways of life and thought. Farlan will make it so. The choice of Peter’s defending Counsel will be critical to his trial.
Meanwhile, on Earth, Frank Reeve finds what he suspects: an old head injury, a piece of bone pressing upon the brain, producing hallucinations. The science confirms that Peter’s trial is entirely in his head, but the fact that it is imaginary is of no moment. Peter needs surgery, expert and immediate surgery. It doesn’t matter that his trial may have no corporeal reality, it is real to Peter, and if he is convicted before his operation, no amount of physical repair will rescue his mind.
A surgeon with the necessary skills is found with the American Army. An operation is scheduled, and an ambulance is sent forth. But the evening is stormy, the ambulance has gone missing. Reeve goes out on his motorbike to try to find it and guide it to his cottage, but he finds it at a blind corner and, to save everyone’s lives, drives off the road. He is killed in the crash.
There is a subdued atmosphere in the ambulance, carrying the sedated Peter. He’s not totally under and asks where Frank is. When June says he’s gone ahead, Peter understands what she means, not what she is trying to say: in Heaven, he has his Defending Counsel.
The trial is an immense affair. From space it looks like a nebula, but it is banks and banks of supporters in all kinds and types. The Judge (Abraham Sofaer) occupies a High Seat above a panel of six jurors, of different nations: French, Chinese, Russian, Irish etc, representative of nations with whom Britain has warred. The Counsel stand in high places, facing each other across a massive court: sardonic, ugly, passionate Farlon and the composed and thoughtful Reeve.

Defending Counsel

Their debate ranges widely across the question put to the Archers to begin with. What they have made of it is the question: can an Englishman  who stands for England truly share love with an American woman who stands for America?
The trial has both serious and comic aspects. Farlon concentrates upon the supposed impossibility of any compatibility between English male and American female, calling up a radio that gives a slow, lugubrious parody of commentary on a Test match, painting it as representative of the slowness and dullness of English life into which Peter supposedly intends to inter June.
Frank is initially perplexed, until the Collector pops up with a radio of his own. This is tuned to am American station that issues forth with a nonsensical jive song with a glutinous crooner singing incomprehensible lyrics. Farlon’s face creases in pain and he is forced to admit, ‘I don’t understand a thing.’ Frank allows the music to ring out a little longer before switching off and, with a gentle element of patronisation, admitting, ‘Neither do I’.
On a more serious level, although not without its comic aspect, is the issue of the jury. Farlon triumphantly claims them for his case, pointing to them of representatives of races who have been at war with the English: the whole jury is prejudiced.
This spurs Frank to request a new jury, this time of American citizens. He trusts them to weigh the case honestly, without bias. Farlon agrees, and in a solemn moment, each are, in turn, transformed. The joke is that each are of distinct national types, most corresponding to the historical jurors who have been replaced. But each of them define themselves as American citizens, and that point is of great importance.
The case and the film reach their climax on Earth. The jury asks to hear Peter speak and the court descends, via the massive stairway across the stars that gives the film its American title, Stairway to Heaven. Peter is drawn from the theatre, June from the sleep into which the Collector has placed her to ensure her availability.
Their togetherness and their instant reliance on each other is apparent, and Farlon cannot shake either of them. Nevertheless, he warns Frank that in the whole of the Universe, nothing is greater than the Law.
Frank takes a terrible chance. Asking June to trust him, he tells her that it is essential to Peter’s case that she take his place in Heaven. The very request renders everyone aghast. Peter immediately refuses it, and has to be restrained. But June, both out of trust in Frank, but mostly out of love for Peter, will sacrifice her life for that of her man. She steps onto the stairway. The party begin to rise, withdrawing from Earth. Farlon is still warning Frank of the enormity of what he is doing… but the stairway grinds to a halt.
At a nod from Frank, June runs back down to Earth, to the revived Peter. There may be nothing stronger than the Law in the Universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than Love. The jury finds for Peter. The Department provides a new, and very generous death-date, and all are satisfied.
As the stairway withdraws for the last time, the Collector throws back to Peter the book of chess problems he has borrowed earlier in the film.
On Earth, the surgeon completes the operation. It has been a success. His team congratulate him upon the work he has done. He removes his mask: it is Abraham Sofaer, otherwise the Judge in Heaven.
There is time only for a short coda. Peter’s convalescence is over, he is leaving the hospital to return to his life. June is unpacking his jacket. She finds a book in the pocket, which she struggles to remove, it is crammed in so tightly. It is the book of chess problems. Was everything more than a hallucination?

The Court of Heaven

The Archers were commissioned to write about post-War Anglo-American relationships, with the unspoken request that these be promoted as a positive. Whilst no-one can doubt that that is what they delivered in A Matter of Life and Death, the means by which they approached this was far from conventional.
There are two big issues about this film, and the most obvious of these is the trial. It could be argued that Powell and Pressburger cook the books, providing an implacable, relentless and strong-minded Prosecutor who can easily be dismissed as being wrong. Farlon, who is powerfully incarnated by Massey, is a man out of his time, a man created by the mores and issues of nearly two hundred years ago, a man moved by the spirit of a specific time, of open war between the nascent America and Britain. He was the Revolutionary War’s first victim: of course he stands opposed to everything England stands for.
But at the same time, his arguments cannot have weight, because they are arguments predicated upon a time and an international setting that no longer exists. The War has seen to that: Britain and America are Allies, not enemies.
Farlon represents the voice of the past, and his casting embodies the need to repress that ancient, atavistic fear, anger and opposition.
Because, let’s face it, what Farlon is arguing for is naked racism. He’s standing for Difference, claiming not only that it applies irrespective of people’s personalities, but as a direct and irreversible consequence of their place of birth. And he’s standing for the belief that that Difference is not merely the ultimate element in determining what a person is, but that it is ineradicable.
That’s an argument that is, and always must be seen to be wrong.
The Archers also buttress their argument, by the use of Frank Reeve as the defending Counsel. We have had an hour of the film to get to know him, to like and trust him, to recognise him as being on the side of the metaphorical angels. His arrival as Counsel is the result of an opportune tragedy in which he has sacrificed his life for others. He is a man of the era, a good, decent man, who lends gravitas and meaning to Peter’s case simply by being its proponent.
None of this is spelt out to the extent that the audience sense it is being manipulated in any way, and it will be expecting and wanting a happy ending in any event.
The other aspect is the extent of the reality of this film. It takes place on Earth and in Heaven, the opposing states being represented by the counter-intuitive, and very effective decision to represent the sequences on Earth in colour. Is Heaven real? Or is it only a hallucination taking place in the mind of Peter Carter, Squadron Leader, pilot, and poet with an orderly mind and defined beliefs upon life after death?
There is very little in the film to contradict the hypothesis that Heaven takes place entirely in Peter’s mind. What causes doubt can be reduced to four points, one of them modest almost to the point of being trivial.
The first is Peter’s survival. He bails out of a doomed plane over the North Sea. he survives both the fall and the immersion, and is washed ashore alive. That’s fantastic in itself: surely he would have died? Certainly, he should have, but there are cases, rare but true, where people have survived similar experiences.
The second is Peter’s knowledge of Frank’s death, and his availability as Counsel. Frank comes off his motorbike some distance from the cottage, when Peter is impliedly in a sedated state. But not so sedated that he does not come round, briefly, in the ambulance to ask after Frank. The atmosphere is subdued, the American officer is talking about it being a shame about Doctor Reeve.
We don’t know how much Peter has heard, even if not full conscious, but he is a very intelligent man, and the combination of the atmosphere, Frank’s absence and June’s evasive reply as to Frank’s whereabouts is enough for Peter to understand the true situation, and encompass it within what is a very highly organised hallucination.
The third is the dual role of Sofaer as Judge in Heaven and Peter’s Surgeon. This is more a spooky nod for the audience, an obvious grace note afterwards, but it can be read both ways. We may not be shown Peter meeting the surgeon whilst he’s being properly anaesthetised, but it’s far too easy to posit a believable moment when Peter sees the man’s face, and thus incorporates him as Judge: after all, on Earth it is he that will decide on Peter’s life.
The one point where there is no simple explanation supporting a purely mechanical interpretation of things is, as I said, almost trivial. This is Peter’s chess book. The Collector discusses chess earlier in the film, and ‘borrows’ the book at Peter’s suggestion. We don’t see it taken away, nor at any point does the film call attention to it no longer being in Frank’s cottage.
But it’s presence in Peter’s jacket is clearly a puzzle to June who, we may assume, packed Peter’s things for him, either when he was taken into the hospital for his operation, or when she was preparing to take him home. It’s a big book, and she has to struggle to get it from the pocket. It’s not something she would miss, even in the middle of concerns about Peter’s forthcoming operation. It is a true anomaly: how did it get there on Earth, if it was not placed by Heaven?
Yet though the evidence points to a strictly material interpretation, the film seduces us to believe that it is all happening between two worlds. The very concept, of love versus the law, of the rights of the uncommon man (Reeve and Farlan agree on one thing), are elevated to an uncommon level and we respond to that. We want to believe it is real because it is important to us that it is real, that we be reassured that there is an order to everything, yet that is not a rigid order, fixed for eternity.

The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 5 – I Know Where I’m Going

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.

I Know Where I’m Going is by no means a major film. It’s a love story, charming, quirky, natural, filmed on location in Scotland, on the Isle of Mull, and in the studios at Pinetree before being released in 1944, the follow-up to the controversial Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and much better received.
The film stars a young Wendy Hillier as Joan Webster and Archers’ favourite, Roger Livesey as Torquil MacNeil, with the rest of the cast including the beautiful Pamela Brown, old curmudgeon Finlay Currie and a bespectacled and very serious seven-year-old Petula Clark. It’s title comes from a popular Scottish folk song and, given the limited availability of Technicolour film, was filmed in black and white, using natural light wherever popular. Whilst it’s a genuine shame the film can’t show its lovely and dramatic landscape in colour, the lighting effects are still lovely to watch.
The title song is a simple love story: the singer knows where she is going for her heart is set upon her true love, the boy she is going to marry. Powell took the theme of the song in a different direction. His heroine is very sure where she’s going but the love she has is not for her fiancé but rather the luxurious life he’s going to give her. This was the easiest film to write for him, the entire screenplay coming together in seven days.
Given the age of these films, and the infrequency of their television appearances nowadays, I’m going to be outlining the story at greater length than is my usual practice. The Archers introduce Joan, via the medium of a now clunky voiceover, as a strong-willed and determined young woman from, literally, her baby footsteps. It’s an introduction that, if it were not so homey, and this were not the Archers, could put her on the wrong foot, as a mere gold-digger, but when she is incarnated as the brisk, charming Hillier, her vitality takes over and sweeps us along for just so long as is necessary to keep the audience in her quarter.
There’s a lot to learn. Joan meets a plump, fussy man, old enough to be her father, in a busy war-time club/bar/restaurant in Manchester. He’s her Bank Manager, and he is her father, and this is the first he’s heard that Joan is engaged. Indeed, she’s leaving Town on the midnight train, for Scotland, bound for the Isle of Kiloran, off the West Coast, where she is to marry.
Who is her intended? Consolidated Industries, or at least its Chairman, Sir Robert Bellinger, a man her father’s age.
Joan’s too brisk and efficient, and determined, for her father even to raise objections, let alone her answer them, which the Archers use deftly to keep the audience’s mind clear of doubts about her. How she met him – her employer – how she wooed him, the absence of naivete, all these things could be imagined into something discreditable if the audience is allowed to speculate, and this is going to be a love story in which we must see Joan as worthy of love.
We are kept distracted by Joan’s itinerary. It’s a step-by-step detailed journey, put together by Bellinger or rather his men, covering every step of the journey, with guides at every leg. It’s a metaphor for Joan’s life, both leading up to, and following her marriage. Controlled, foreseen, everything done for her. And it lasts all the way to the harbour where she is to be collected by boat from Kiloran. But a thick sea-fog has descended. Completion of her journey to the island is impossible, not that Joan accepts obstacles. She is a future rich man’s wife: a way will open for her. Where the other stranded travellers understand there is no going forward, Joan waits confidently. She unfolds once more her itinerary – and the wind, rising, blows it into the sea.
The blowing away of Joan’s itinerary is obviously symbolic. She has lost her course, literally and figuratively, and from here on she is struggling to complete her journey and fulfil the purpose that has sustained her since birth. But the only weapon she has with which to fight is money – not even her own – and she is facing forces that do not care about money: nature and fate.
Without her itinerary, Joan is trapped in the everyday, collective, natural world of the Scots. She is easily identifiable as being an outsider, but cut off from the world she assumes to be hers by right of ambition, she is exposed to a very different way of life and of thinking. This is symbolised in the personal love that becomes the centre of the film. Her rich, older, fiancé, is never seen, only directly encountered over a radio line, impersonal, unconcerned, devoid of passion, removed physically from mainland life and determined to avoid the native population.
In contrast, Joan is thrust into the company of Torquil. At first, she is relatively comfortable with him, although he is a stranger. They are companions in distress, both frustrated in their journey to Kiloran, and she is happy to take advantage of Torquil’s evident local familiarity, securing beds and food for them with his childhood friend Catriona (Brown).
He’s a temporary knight, in Naval Lieutenant’s uniform, introducing her to the world of which he assumes she will become part, but that’s far from what Joan intends at this stage. As a result of his brief tutelage, Joan wishes for an overnight wind to blow away the fog, but what she gets is a gale: it is too dangerous to attempt to cross and local boatman Ruaridh Mhor (Currie) refuses to do so. The storm will blow itself out in three days: only then will it be safe.
To this point, Torquil is a slightly inconsequential adventure, a hiccup on Joan’s natural progression to her wedding and his luxurious future.
But come the morning, and the revelation of the greater obstacle in Joan’s way, as they bid a (tactful) retreat to the hotel in Tobermory (Torquil is quietly solicitous of his lifelong friend Catriona’s limited funds), it all goes wrong. They get as far as Moy Castle, which June wants to enter. She’s heard about the curse, and something about her feeling out of place makes her want to assert her status as the Laird’s wife, superior to the local world as impervious to the curse attached to the Castle.
Unfortunately, her pretensions are immediately exploded as Torquil, reluctantly, introduces himself as McNeill of Kiloran, landlord of her rich fiancé, and the true Laird. Not just a White Knight but a real Knight.
And Joan’s nose is pushed even further out of joint when the pair catch the bus. Torquil is recognised, and joins in conversation with the locals. They are respectful of him, but democratic in their interactions. Torquil is of the country, of the land, as are they, and the talk turns to the rich man on Kiloran, and the strange way in which he acts, taking his provisions from far afield when there is as good and better locally sourced. Torquil’s concern for her feelings is rebuffed, with a huffily proclaimed support for Bellinger’s choices.
The two book into the Tobermory hotel and have lunch before venturing to the Post Office for a radio link to Kiloran. On the excuse of propriety, but in reality due to her humiliation, Joan insists on separate tables.
The radio link to Kiloran further demonstrates the gulf between Bellinger and the locals. It’s our only chance to directly assess him: rich, fruity voice, unconcerned about Joan’s delay except as a nuisance, secure in the belief that nothing bad can happen to him because of his money and status and, in the hearing of the locals, who are clearly beneath his notice, he sends Joan off to the Robinsons, another English couple, living locally, who he describes as ‘the only people worth knowing around here’. Joan has the grace to appear a little embarrassed at his unheeding rudeness, but the greater contrast is to Torquil who, as soon as Joan and Sir Robert have concluded their business, is immediately on to his factor, getting a report about the island and its game, with the evident love and passion of a true Laird.
The two separate. Joan goes on to Bellinger’s friends, where initially she meets their extremely serious seven year old daughter (Petula Clark in only her third film role). When the Robinsons appear, they are every bit as we imagine them, charming, enthusiastic but shallow, as exemplified by Mrs Robinson’s passionate concern for Bridge: Joan must go with them on their afternoon visit to Mrs Crozier at Ard-na-Croich, where they will spend the afternoon with cards in their hands.
Unfortunately, Joan has not taken into account that Torquil is sunk deeply into all aspects of this landscape: he too is a guest for afternoon tea, at which he waits on table in his jovial, bluff, unaffected manner.
But the tiny wedge that Bellinger’s rudeness created to divide Joan’s loyalties is due to be widened very quickly. Mrs Crozier’s servants request permission to take the evening off to attend the ceilidh that has been organised to honour her gamekeeper’s golden Wedding Anniversary. That permission is freely given, but among those attending that evening are Joan, escorted by Torquil.
How this comes about is left to our imagination, and I think it’s a slip by the Archers not to depict the actual events. Certainly, it’s easy to construct a scenario whereby Joan, getting a little tired of the Robinsons’ artificiality, expresses interest in the ceilidh itself, and that Torquil is the only other person interested in seeing it, Mrs Crozier excluding herself due to age, and offering himself as escort. But I would like to have known what was said about her going out alone with him, because she’s on remarkably good and friendly terms with him when they get there.
I don’t mean by that to imply any funny business: this is 1944 or thereabouts, and Joan is engaged, and what’s more Torquil is a perfect gentleman, but they are easy-going with each other, and on friendly terms, and when Joan climbs a ladder to see better into the barn where the dancing is taking place, she makes no objection to Torquil’s protective arms encircling her.
The ceilidh is quite the best scene in the film, for its ease, its naturalness, and the unaffected enjoyment it gives everyone involved.
Joan sees these ordinary, friendly people, and sees the wholeness of the lives they live and the simplicity of their pleasure. Of course, there is a personal worm: the ceilidh has been enlivened by the presence of three Glasgow pipers, hired to perform at a wedding on Kiloran and who, prevented by the ongoing gales from crossing, have lent themselves willingly to this far more humbler event. But Joan puts this behind her and stays to enjoy the fun.
Though Torquil has not put himself forward in any way, he’s still recognised as Kiloran, and the couple’s son, who has organised all this is celebration of his parents, asks him to present himself, a job Torquil undertakes with wonderful ease and respect. The son, himself in uniform, is played by John Laurie: younger but still raw-boned and gaunt of face, and seen here in glorious good humour, happy and proud, no matter how strange that seems.
The ceilidh is the hinge-point of the film. After this, Joan knows she is in danger, that her purpose is under deadly threat, and that it is imperative that she get to Kiloran and complete her chosen course. But though the winds are easing blowing themselves out, the crossing to Kiloran is still not safe. Ruaridh reviews the skies expertly and declares it will be safe on the morrow, but not today. Not for any money: Ruaridh knows his seas and his weather, and he is for the bus to Tobermory to see his dentist.
Joan’s desperate. In Torquil’s eyes, she’s being deliberately stupid, being every bit the rich man’s wife she intends to be, setting herself up above the authorities he instinctively defers to, the people who know. Ruaridh’s assistant Kenny, a fresh-faced lad of maybe 20, is saving up to marry Ruaridh’s daughter, Bridie. He needs £20, more money than he’d ever hope to have seen in all his life to date, to buy a share in the boat and establish himself as a man who can keep a wife.
So Joan offers him £20 to take her to Kiloran. And Kenny cannot resist.
Torquil washes his hands of her: Joan is clearly mad, clearly some form of idiot life, and he wants no further part in this. Bridie comes to plead with Joan not to do this, not to kill her Kenny. Joan appeals to her, woman to woman, but Bridie’s fear leads her into an unforgivable insult, openly saying that Joan wishes to kill Kenny because she cannot wait one night to be bedded.
The only person who sees straight is Catriona. Torquil expostulates to her over Joan’s stubbornness, only for Catriona to call him a fool for not seeing. Joan is not running to Bellinger, she is running away from him. To Torquil it’s a thunderbolt: he genuinely has not imagined that she has feelings for him that she is fighting, but once he sees, between that realisation and his own feelings for the stupid, stubborn woman, he has to be there to prevent disaster. Torquil joins Kenny on the boat.
Joan’s desperation to escape puts all three into direct danger, exactly as forecast. The winds rip the awning from the boat. A wave swamps the engine, cutting it out, leaving Torquil and Kenny frantically working to clean and replace every part. Joan’s suitcases, including her wedding dress, are swept into the sea, beyond recovery. With the boat drifting slowly but inevitably towards the whirlpool of Corryvrecken, the three work desperately, the men on the engine, Joan on baling out. At last, the engine work is done and, on the very brink of Corryvrecken, power is restored, and the trio escape.
Ruaridh and Bridie are waiting at the harbour when the boat limps home. Ruaridh is ready to exact vengeance on the foolish Kenny, but the latter faints before Ruaridh can strike him, and in the end only his spittle displays his contempt.
Catriona takes in Joan, ensures she is bathed, fed and put to bed.
In the morning, exactly as predicted, the storm has blown itself out. It is sunny, the sea is like a mill-pond and the boat is on its way from Kiloran. Joan can complete her journey. Torquil, however, has reached the end of his leave and has to return south, to his naval duty, without ever reaching the island.
On the way to his bus he carries Joan’s bags, until their ways part. Joan is perfectly composed, the epitome of a future Lady Bellinger. But just before they finally part, she asks a favour of Torquil: would he kiss her? Immediately she’s in his arms and he is kissing her passionately (for 1944: no tongues). But when he releases her, Joan takes up her bags and says goodbye.
Alone and now bereft, Torquil heads along the road until he reaches Moy Castle, where he stops. leaving his bags, he ascends the crumbling steps and starts to explore the derelict castle. As he goes from room to room, climbing higher, a voiceover reads out the history of the Castle and the Curse.
Long ago, the lady of the Laird of Kiloran betrayed him and ran away with the master of Moy Castle. Kiloran’s men attacked and took the castle, and McNeill of Kiloran punished the unfaithful lovers by chaining them together, on a stone island in a flooded dungeon, without food or drink. Whoever weakens first will drag their lover to their death. And thus was Kiloran cursed, that if he ever enter Moy Castle, he shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.
Lost in his thoughts, on the Castle tower, Torquil hears pipe music. The three wedding-bound pipers appear around a bend in the road. Marching ten yards in their wake is Joan, looking joyful. Torquil hurls himself down the stairs, meeting her at the Castle entrance. She throws herself into his arms, recanting her huffy claims to prefer imported fish and swimming pools, that local catch and the ocean are much better.
The voiceover repeats, “And he shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.”
The beauty of this love story lies in it being far more than just the seemingly inconsequential affairs of two human beings. The Archers don’t go in for such one-dimensional stuff. Joan’s choice is hardly between lovers but between worlds, between naturalness and artificiality, and she chooses the best of these, learning to see that life is something to be part of, and to be experienced along with others, who care and share together, locked into a place wherein they have roots that they cannot even dream of breaking, instead of insulating herself from the world, from disturbance and consequence, protected by shields of gold and silver and paper, and never being of anywhere.
Given this elemental aspect of the story, I think on balance that the film is enhanced by the necessity of black and white: it is rendered every so slightly ethereal, archetypal by the lack of naturalistic colour.
It also stands up for its effects, even after so many years. The scenes during the storm at sea, and with Corryvrecken, are clearly studio shot, but come over very well in the technology of the time, but it would take a very close study of one of the stars, at the expense of the story, to determine without knowing aforehand that Roger Livesey never left the studio.
Livesey was committed to a West End play, which makes his performance all the more creditable given that every night, after filming at Pinetree, he was off to London to act in a completely different production. Every night. But the careful selection, and mixing of shots fools all but the most vigilant of watchers into taking Torquil as being in Scotland. Mixing long shots with doubles (who learned to mimic Livesey’s distinctive bluff gait), and close-ups, places him on the scene.
And Livesey is, as he is at any time in an Archer production, quite simply superb. Despite being too old to be a Naval Lieutenant, he looks the part, he brings to the part passion, solidity and strength. Though he never reaches Kiloran, he is nevertheless at once and always in his rightful place, a man who knows who and what he is, who is neither ashamed nor arrogant, and who sees everyone around him as his equal. Livesey even manages to project the sense that Torquil can only be this rooted because of the democracy of everyone around him: he accepts their respect because it is rooted in equality. If he were an English Lord, one senses, deference would be a horrible embarrassment.
And Hillier, aided by the protection of the script until she has had the chance to impress herself upon the audience as a woman of greater sensibilities than those few she’s yet displayed, embodies Joan’s growing realisation that her chosen course is maybe not the best thing in the world. She clings to it because it has borne her for so long, but inside is a human being, a woman with the capacity to love. Scared though she is of a life she hasn’t foreseen, she grows into accepting that it is the only possible thing.
A lovely film, a gentle film, a film buoyed by its own love of place, of country, of Scotland. A well-deserved favourite.

A Matter of Film and Glory: The Archers – Introduction

A long time ago, I watched and got hooked upon a weird old British film called A Matter of Life and Death (known in America as Stairway to Heaven, loooong before anyone had heard of the Yardbirds, let alone Led Zeppelin).
I expect it would have been a Sunday afternoon, when no other entertainment or excitement was permitted, and BBC and ITV would schedule films to stretch out the long hours between dinner and tea (even longer for those who went to Evening Service).
But one day, when we still had black and white TVs, when one of the more unusual aspects of the film would have been completely obscured, I found A Matter of Life and Death on, and watched it, and grew fascinated.
It was about a British bomber pilot, played by David Niven, who baled out of a crippled airplane without a parachute and woke up alive. He should have died, but Heaven made a mistake, and when they came to pick him up, he’d met and fallen in love with an American woman.
Because of his refusal to simply give in and die, the pilot went on trial for his life before the Court of Heaven.
A Matter of Life and Death was made in 1946, and was the first Royal Command Performance film. It co-starred Kim Hunter and a criminally underrated and undervalued British actor called Roger Livesey, and was written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and directed by Powell. Livesey was a favourite of the pair and had a starring role in several of their films, including one which is known as probably the greatest English epic of all time.
Powell and Pressburger – the one from Kent, the other from Hungary – had teamed up to make films that represented their shared sensibilities in 1940. With their third film as a partnership – One of our Aircraft is Missing – they began calling themselves The Archers, and remained a successful Film Production team for almost twenty years, before ending their partnership in 1957, though they would work together again on two later productions.
In between, they made a number of visually splendid, artful, thought-provoking and, in one case at least, highly-controversial films. Over the years, I gradually worked my way through other works by The Archers, learning to relish the experimental, emotional and frequently quasi-mystical nature of Powell and Pressburger’s instincts.
In the mid-2000’s, a 9 DVD boxset of the duo’s works was released, a superb compilation that was deficient only in its inexplicable decision to exclude the astonishing Black Narcissus. Within a year, a revised 11 disc set was released, including that film. It contains all the partnership’s landmark and classic films, though One of our Aircraft is Missing was still omitted.
Though nearly every film from Powell and Pressburger has at least something to recommend it, I’ve always had my particular favourites among their work. In keeping with universal tradition, this should amount to a Top Five, which I will review in, of course, ascending order. However, as this would be to exclude the simply marvelous The Red Shoes, I shall preface this short series of posts with an Honourable Mention.