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: 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: 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: 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.

Film 2019: The Red Shoes


I’ve stayed with the Powell/Pressburger box set for a second week for two reasons. The first is that this is a working Sunday, which means I wanted something familiar, a known quantity. The other is that this is the biggest box set in my collection, with as many films as four of the other six put together, and if I just watch one every few weeks, there’s going to be a long series of these films at the end.

The Red Shoes is a classic British film, released in 1948, and starring Archers regular Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and ballerina Moira Shearer in her first acting role. It’s a film about ballet, for which The Archers effectively created their own ballet company, choosing rightly to cast dancers who could act rather than actors, and incorporating an uninterrupted fifteen minute ballet, composedand choreographed for the film, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Red Shoes’ – as is the film, naturally.

I’m in no position to comment on the ballet elements of this film because I’m a complete ignoramus in this sphere, a true don’t-know-art-but-I-know-what-I-like. Better people than I have praised the film in this regard (and dismissed it contemptuously) and I’m happy to go with their interpretation.

The three principals are Boris Lermontov, Director of a ballet company (Walbrook), Julian Craster, a gifted musician and composer (Goring)and Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page, a dancer with the capability to be a great dancer (Shearer). The latter is the girl in the Red Shoes, both in terms of the ballet and in her own life, and though Shearer is by a distance the weakest actor in the production, the story centres upon her.

Lermontov – based primarily upon Sergei Diagheliv with elements of J Arthur Rank and Michael Powell himself – is the consummate artiste. He lives for dance, eschews what we would call human emotions, and is contemptuous of those who dilute their potential or their achievement by falling in love: dictatorially, he will sever relations with them instantly.

Lermontov is the incarnation of Cyril Connolly’s ‘Pram in the Hallway’ belief. Dance is his life, and no other considerations must be allowed to divert even the tiniest fraction of commitment to that. And he will not tolerate those who do that.

Which is going to be the cae with both Julian and, especially, Vicky.

It’s a long time in coming. The film takes a realistic amount of time to building this pair up as the different yet parallel successes they are going to be. Julian, a more forceful personality, more convinced of his own genius, is the dominant element in this act of the film: he starts as a music student whose Professor has stolen his work, is offered a lowly musiiical role with Ballet Lermontov and progressing to rescoring ballets and then the composition of the music of the Red Shoes Ballet.

Because of Shearer’s limitations, which the film works around brilliantly (though not unnoticeably), limiting the number of lines she has, and using her as a still point, a point of silence around which things happen, Vicky’s progress is quieter but more determined. She believes in herself and her abilities but, paradoxically, lack’s Julian’s overt confidence in that talent. Only in the ballet senes does Shearer truly come alive, and she is dynamite: passionate, emotive, tireless, dominating the screen.

The inevitable happens: Vicky and Julian fall in love. It comes out of the background, with no open signs to the audience, who are put in the same position as Lermontov, to whom it is no mere surprise but a shock, a shock that threatens to overturn his plans. Julian is fired. Unable to persuade Lermontov to rescind this decree, Vicky quits.

Some critics see this development as springing from Lermontov developing personal feelings for Vicky, and given the sequence of events, it’s a distinct point. I can only say that I have never felt it in the film. Part of it may be from the fact that Walbrook was gay (but so too was Goring), but the careful and complete portrait of him created by the film at every point means that I can only see his interest in Vicky as being her potential ability, and the possibilities of developing that further than any other dancer he has worked with: Svengali instead of lover or husband. Goring is far more convincing as someone wanting to spend his life with Vicky. There is a beautifully touching scene as the pair cuddle in the early hours, in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, moonlight on the Mediterranean Sea, and Julian drifts into the future, imagining an eager and beautiful young women asking him what was his happiest moment…

But this is not just a film about ballet, but rather a film about obsession, and ability, and the drawing of lines, and besides the tragedy of the Red Shoes must be played out. Vicky accompanies her Aunt on a holiday in the Med whilst Julian supervises the First Night of his Opera. Lermontov finds her, draws her back to dance ‘her’ ballet, TheRed Shoes. Julian arrives from London to take her home. He and Lermontov blaze at each other over Vicky’s future. As I said before, Lermontov is concerned with Vicky the Dancer, Julian with Vicky the Woman. His is the deeper, more holistic love, but Vicky is the Dancer and the Red Shoes cannot beremoved whilst there is dancing to be done. Julian accepts his defeat gracefully, unable to move outside his love for Vicky, whilst Lermontov is only triumphant.

Vicky is wearing the Red Shoes. It’s an intentional inconsistency, a moment of artistic unity, not chronological accuracy. Crippled, broken by her loss, by the destruction caused by having to choose at all, Vicky is drawn away by the Shoes: down the stairs, out of the theatre, across the road, and with Julian running with hopeless desperation to stop her, she makes the only choice that is entirely hers to make, and throws herself under the train.

Oh yes, it’s melodrama, but ballet is melodrama, the elevation of feelings and urgencies into emotion that cannot be contained, and so Vicky’s sacrifice is entireky in keeping with the film. The Red Shoes Ballet is danced with an empty spotlight highlighting all the moves Vicky can no longer make. Her last, dying request to Julian is that he undo the Red Shoes, returning herself to him for a final moment.

Though I barely understand half the film, I am absorbed by it. Walbrook and Goring are sensational and so, in her very undetstated way, is Shearer. The film makes not merely a virtue but a triumph of her limitations, relying on her still presence in scenes to create a sense of effect on the other players. She is entirely at home in the dance and in everything that relates to the dance, and of course her fellow dancers, and it is of immense help that, even when stood still, Shearer has the capacity to dominate a scenewith her flaming red hair, her slim physique, her long, pale legs. Though perhaps a little too round in the face for classical beauty, this adds an individuality to her appearance that completes a stunning picture.

In the end, I return to that theme of obsession, of ability, and how or even if this can be reconciled with the massive distraction that is love for someone else. The Archers step back, offer no definitive solution. In their differing ways, Boris Lermotov, Julian Craster and Victoria Page are all destroyed by their inability to find that solution. Modern opinion will find it misogynistic that it is the woman who is singled out for physical destruction, but would you want to be either of Lermontov or Julian afterwards?

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.