Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Red Ensign (1935)
By Henry Coombs
If you're at all interested in Powell ...
31st January 2000
I expect I'm like most people: I only sat down to watch this film because of the director's name. In many ways it's exactly what I expected. Direction is adroit, the boats and the boat-yards are lovingly filmed; it's by no means a bad bit of work. Money, of course, had to be shaved off the budget somewhere, and - surprisingly, given Powell's later career - the score was the first thing to go: there's a quotation from Smetana's `The Moldau' at the beginning, another at the end, and that's it. Also, no-one had time to polish the script. The romance (for instance) is worked in with such perfunctory terseness it will probably make you laugh.
I was surprised to see myself caught up in the story. The crusading hero (David Barr, played by Leslie Banks) has to be one of the most abrasive the screen has seen: a monomaniac who barks out insults at everyone around him in clipped tones and then wonders why he isn't more popular. I won't even comment on his moral code... And yet, there's no doubt I was on his side. I was even conned into liking him. By the end of the film the most critical thought I could manage was, `Well, it would be a pity to lose the British shipping industry just because its champion is such a jerk.'
Many critics (well ... three, to my knowledge) see the British shipping industry as a metaphor for the British film industry. I'm not sure if they're right or not. But `Red Ensign' is an argument for Britain's quota system in another sense: it shows that directors of obvious talent were allowed an apprenticeship, making films that, on examination decades later, really aren't so bad.
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