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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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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Inside sleeve of Steve's video

Red Ensign (1934)

[Back cover]

Red Ensign
Directed and written by Michael Powell
With Leslie Banks, Carol Goodner, John Laurie.
Great Britain 1934.

This was Michael Powell's twelfth film in four years as a director, and his first in the robust campaigning style of his wartime classics such as 49th Parallel. David Barr, shipbuilder, fights to keep the yards working during the depression of the 1930's. The story of his struggle for a British shipbuilding industry can also be read as a plea for a strong British film industry, reflecting Powell's own lifelong commitment.

"It was the first time that Michael Powell himself realised that there was something special about a Powell film, something going on on the screen, or behind the screen, which you couldn't put your finger on, something intriguing, aloof, but in the long run memorable."
Michael Powell - A Life in Movies (1986)

[Inside sleeve - left]

The film starts with a montage of idle shipyards and a flurry of written titles: "For over 200 years the British Mercantile Marine has carried the Red Ensign to every port in the world. Today many of our ships lie idle for want of cargoes. Shipyards are deserted. The distress flag is flying." This is the story of David Barr, ship-builder, and his fight to bring back prosperity to British ships'. The film thus announces a strategy in strong contrast to that of John Grierson's celebrated documentary movement, which was likewise concerned with social issues and with imperial trade (it was initially sponsored by the Empire Marketing Board) but which distrusted the use of the personal story to carry a propaganda message. In turn, Michael Powell was never slow to express his dislike of documentary methods and of the documentary hegemony in British film culture, and Red Ensign bears this out in the purposeful way it uses a triangular love affair to resolve its political story: David Barr fights the cautious businessman Lord Dean both for the affections of heiress June MacKinnnon, and for the use of her money to finance his construction programme.

Powell pointedly gives a minor character the name of Grierson and has him pointed out as 'the best riveter in the yard' The film has some strong documentary footage, put together in a style that evokes Soviet montage, but is not afraid of embracing the theatrical in terms of sets and acting style. This blend, and the strong crusading tone of the film, prefigure the distinctive kind of patriotic work Powell would do in wartime in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, in films like 49th Parallel (1941) and A Canterbury Tale (1944). Red Ensign is of equal interest as an early Powell film and as a document of 1934, one which now seems to be as much about the British cinema as about British shipping. Barr campaigns to have the Board of Trade impose a quota on the shipping industry: this will support British ship-building by compelling British ship-owners to buy a minimum proportion of their fleets from British yards. It is precisely the mechanism which the Board had been applying to the film industry since the Films Act of 1927 in the face of powerful opposition from many exhibitors and distributors. When Barr speaks out against the short-sightedness of his board's policy of 'internationalism', he is told that "we're here to discuss business, not patriotism", and replies that "patriotism is good business, can't you see that?" In the words of Geoff Brown (Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1981): "the temptation to equate Barr's struggle to make an all-British ship with the emerging work of Powell (and indeed Michael Balcon, his executive producer) is irresistible!"

Charles Barr [Any relation to David Barr I wonder?]

[Inside sleeve - right]

Michael Powell (1905-1990) grew up in Kent and became fascinated by film-makers like Gance and Griffith while still a schoolboy at Dulwich College. His father moved to France and in 1925 found him a humble job with Rex Ingram's MGM unit based near Nice, where he was able to sample many aspects of movie-making before returning to England in 1928. Soon established as a prolific director of mainly low-budget thrillers, he revealed his ambition with The Edge of the World (1937), which led to a contract with Korda's London Films, a share of directing duties on the spectacular Thief of Bagdad, and the start of a twenty-year partnership with the writer Emeric Pressburger on The Spy in Black (1939).

Together they created some of the most original film contributions to the war effort, including 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), 1 Know Where I'm Going! (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). The Archers, as Powell and Pressburger now signed their joint films, continued to exploit Technicolor and a vein of metaphysical melodrama in Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), before renewed crisis in the British film industry forced them into the compromised co-productions of Gone to Earth and The Elusive Pimpernel (both 1950). The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) marked the artistic climax of their 'total cinema', but led to three years of failed projects. After Oh Rosalinda!! (1955) and two nostalgic war films, The Battle of the River Plate and Ill Met by Moonlight (both 1956), the partnership ended.

Powell found scant backing in Britain for his romantic vision, so he went to Spain for Luna de Miel (1959), Germany for Bluebeard's Castle (1964) and Australia for They're a Weird Mob (1966) and Age of Consent (1969). His later career suffered from the scandal of Peeping Tom (1960), which offended many, while also inspiring younger British and American film-makers- including Martin Scorsese, who helped secure its re-release and became an eloquent champion of Powell and Pressburger's work. Powell's last decade saw impressive restorations of his major films by the National Film Archive, tributes and retrospectives around the world, and the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Movies (1986).

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