On the Archers – the films of Powell & Pressburger

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll no doubt have seen me blathering on about a course I recently attended on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, organised by the Cambridge Film Consortium, and run at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. My general knowledge of film being woefully deficient in too many areas, I knew very little about the work of the Archers (as they are also known – it being the name of their production partnership). I did catch the restored version of The Red Shoes last year on the big screen; and a few years back I was fortunate enough to see Jack Cardiff attend a screening and Q&A of Black Narcissus, though naturally it didn’t mean as much to me then as it would do now. But beyond this, I hadn’t seen any of their works.

I’m not foolish enough to attempt a full-scale critical evaluation of their work on the back of a day and a half’s study and a few dvd screenings, so instead I’m simply going to jot down a few personal thoughts on what I saw as their main points of interest.

Glorious Technicolor!

The first thing that strikes you about the most famous films of P&P is their extraordinary luminesence. Aided by some of the finest craftsmen in the British film industry, in particular cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Powell and Pressburger delivered a series of films that were unequalled by their contemporaries. In particular, their three post-war melodramas – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) – are stunning achievements even by today’s standards. The awe-inspiring grandeur of the afterlife in AMOLAD, the remote windswept Himalayan convent in BN, and the wonderful, full-blown fantasy ballet sequence in TRS are all remarkable achievements that have withstood the test of time. The ambition and beauty of these films cannot be questioned.

Much melodrama

The melodramatic stories and scripts of the Archers can have the effect of putting off an audience, particularly a modern one. Yet it is just this quality of heightened drama that works so well when mixed in with Powell’s taste for the fantastical. Taken together, the viewer is whisked away in to a story that only has one foot in the real world. This is literally the case in AMOLAD, but equally exotic is the landscape and people the nuns try to civilize in the remote and alien environment of BN, while the aformentioned ballet sequence in TRS drops any pretence at realism and is all the better for it. One can only imagine the effect these scenes had on an audience worn down by the war and rationing.

A cast to die for

Not only did P&P employ a formidable technical crew, they also attracted strong casts. Roger Livesey worked with them on three occasions: I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death and most memorably, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It’s a shame he isn’t better known today. Many other actors returned to work for them: Googie Withers, Kathleen Byron, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, John Laurie – all delivered memorable performances in more than one Archers production. In particular, Powell’s films tended to provide strong roles for women. I Know Where I’m Going! starred Wendy Hiller as an independant woman knowlingly marrying a man purely for his money until fate intervenes, while The Red Shoes tells the story of a woman (Moira Shearer) having to choose between her marriage and her career. In this respect, P&P were somewhat ahead of their time.


Finally, the attraction Powell felt for landscapes and the people that lived there is quite evident. The remote Scottish islands featured in The Edge of the World (1937), The Spy in Black (1939), and I Know Where I’m Going (1945) are all testament to Powell’s romaticised view of their history, beauty and isolation, and the same goes for the wilds of Shropshire in Gone to Earth (1950) and Kent’s quiet splendour in A Canterbury Tale (1944). A mystical quality somehow connects the people with their land, and outsiders from the city must succumb to its charms – as seen in The Edge of the World, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going! and Gone to Earth.

It’s difficult to sum up the work of this most fruitful of filmmaking teams in so short an article, but I hope I covered some of the main points of interest. I would certainly recommend them to anyone with even a passing interest in the history of British cinema.

Published by Gavin Midgley

Freelance film journalist, blogger and geek.

2 replies on “On the Archers – the films of Powell & Pressburger”

  1. Sex; you forgot to mention the sex. Is there a more genuinely erotic film than Black Narcissus? As a pre-pubescent child, I knew this was powerful stuff even if I didn’t quite know the why. And it still is.Nice piece – hopefully, you’ve piqued the interest of PP virgins to enter their world.

  2. I knew I’d forget something John! It was certainly discussed at the course. The eroticism present in Black Narcissus was pretty strong stuff for its time, I suspect. Beautifully done though.

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