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An essay by Benjamin Reynolds:

Social Science Research Methods

"Visual representations of places, spaces and landscapes [are not] taken as straightforward mirrors of reality ... Instead, the meanings of an image are understood as constructed through a range of complex and thoroughly social processes and sites of signification" (G.Rose, 1995). Discuss this statement with reference to examples from any ONE form of visual media.

The very production of an image, through whatever means, relies on the involvement of people. Thus, the impossibility of creating a truly objective image representing every perspective negates the concept of images simply being 'mirrors of reality'. Realisation of this within the social sciences has led to what Clifford terms 'a crisis of representation' (Clifford 1986). From a postmodernist methodological point of view this is interpreted as meaning 'nothing in the world is fixed or immutable, we ground things now on moving foundations' (Aitken 1997: 211). Despite, or in response to this, Gillian Rose has produced a methodology that attempts and, to my eyes, succeeds in not only comprising the methodologies of visual analysis that have gone before, but also in providing a rigorous and detailed framework with which to analyse images (Rose 2001). I intend to make use of Rose's methodologies to analyse my chosen visual media, film. In these methodologies Rose places particular consideration on the sites significant to an image and the social nature of the processes bearing on it. With reference to A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944) I hope to highlight some of the ways that the visual representations offered by British Cinema in the 1940s were politicised by the Second World War. In contrast The Way We Live (Jill Craigie, 1946) presents a different image of England at the time, with its documentary style giving it a greater claim to reality (at least to some audiences). Although from our point of view it may be easy to argue that images are not 'mirrors of reality', we cannot assume that this is the case for everyone. Hopkins draws attention to the position film has, in that 'unlike painting and literature, film is peculiar because of the semblance of actuality attributable to the film image and the obscurity of its very production' (Hopkins 1994: 49). This is particularly evident with documentary film, where the audience is to believe that what is being shown is real. It is however as equally influenced by social processes from inception to its viewing as other types of film. I hope to show this by comparing the differing realities presented by The Way We Live and A Canterbury Tale. I hope by using these examples to be able to explore how film as a visual form, distinct from the narrative where possible, can produce different representations of place, space and landscape. I understand these terms to define an area within which people may or may not have interacted but upon which some human significance or value is put. Film is an ideal cultural form to study because of its particularly spatial nature. As Shiel has remarked, there is space within films; with the space of the shot, the mapping of a lived environment on film, and there are films in space; with the shaping of urban spaces by cinema as a cultural practice, and the spatial organisation of the industry (Shiel 2001: 5). Shiel argues that film is more of a spatial system than a textual system, and is interactive with society and its power systems, which Jameson has termed Althusserian Structuralism (Jameson 1989). However for the purpose of this discussion, the consideration of the film as 'a text that can be read' allows a more methodological approach (Aitken 1997: 198).

As an introduction to different methodologies that can be applied to visual representations, I worked with a group to analyse a set of photographs representing 'real life'. We were told that these images were used to accompany stories from a selection of newspapers from that day. By considering different themes, distinct trends appeared through the photographs. Within the composition of the image, we compared the drama of their respective messages and the interpreted stance of the picture (or photographer). There were noticeable technical variances, in both the photos and their reproductions. It was evident that the images were intended for different audiences. When the photographs were reunited with their associated texts, it was interesting to see how our interpretations differed to the meaning intended by the story. This use, and often reliance, on the narrative has strong parallels with film. Our reactions to the photographs, as an audience of eight people, varied over a number of the themes mentioned, reinforcing the need in general to consider representation of different perspectives. Even though there were only eight of us, the images presented more than one construction of 'reality'. Our analysis of the images initially took a fairly ad hoc nature, but by the end our methods broadly replicated those that Rose has devised. She has identified three sites at which meaning is given to the image: the site(s) of the production of the image, the site of the image itself, and the site where it is seen by various audiences. Present at each of these sites are three different types of modality: technological, compositional, and social (Rose 2001: 16-17). These contribute to a critical understanding of the image, and create a methodological approach with which to analyse visual culture. Rose has presented these criteria in a target - style circular diagram. Within this she has taken existing methodological approaches that can be applied to images, such as Psychoanalysis and Discourse Analysis, and placed them in the area that they focus on the most. For example, Audience Studies focuses on the social modality within the site of audiencing, whereas Psychoanalysis would focus on the compositional element at the site of the audience and the site of the image itself. Rose points out that when engaging with an image, it is vital to judge which site and modality has the most bearing on the image. This will allow for more detailed analysis within a particular methodology, and may also tell you something about what you, as the audience, bring to the image.

To demonstrate how the meanings of an image can be better analysed through a methodological process, I will follow Rose's processes with reference to A Canterbury Tale. This film was produced and set in the middle of the Second World War, and released in 1944. As with the majority of British films made in this period, the war had a considerable influence on content, and consequently style. In 1940 Lord Macmillan, then wartime Minister of Information, suggested three themes for propagandist feature films: what Britain was fighting for, how Britain was fighting and the need for sacrifice (Richards & Aldgate 1983). From the conception of the project the film had a political stance, in that it aimed to present what was being fought for. It is no mere coincidence that it is set and filmed in the rural splendour of Kent, as this is the birthplace of the film's director, Michael Powell. What better place to conjure up idyllic images than the place of one's childhood. Interestingly the writer of the story, Emeric Pressburger, was a Hungarian who had fled from the Nazis. The two of them had been working together on films since 1939, and in 1942 decided to form their own independent production company, The Archers, under the umbrella of the Rank organisation. As a Marxist interpretation would note, Rank was one of the largest production and distribution houses in Britain at the time, and with Powell and Pressburger as a well established team in cinema, they were unlikely to produce a film that did not cater for a mainstream audience (Richards & Aldgate 1983). This would clearly affect the production values of the film, who was chosen to act in it, and the way that imagery, narrative and music were combined to create a product. These factors were more apparent with the production of The Way We Live, also funded by Rank, which was both a feature film and a documentary (Enticknap 2001). However the war brought about many changes in society, and with it, the kind of films people wanted to watch (Chapman 1998). Ealing studios had turned to realism after the critics accused Ships with Wings (Ealing 1941) of being a hopelessly out of date class-bound affair. With the rise of the documentary movement and portrayals of 'real' people, it is not surprising that A Canterbury Tale showed The Archers team attempting something in keeping with these developments (Richards & Aldgate 1983).

The meanings that can be taken from this film are partly the construct of the images it presents. As the villain of the story is revealed to the audience within the first ten minutes as being the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper, it is clear that this narrative thread is not the main function of the film. Ian Christie, scholar of the films of Powell and Pressburger, suggests that the writer, Emeric Pressburger, knew that the narrative element of the film had to be subservient to the imagery in order to give the film its true meaning (Christie 1984). The film opens with a map of medieval England, and then cuts to medieval pilgrims walking the Canterbury Way. This use of previous 'texts' is called Intertextuality. This is a concept of Semiology, which studies the signs in a 'text' and how they function (Aitken 1997;Rose 2001). Incidentally the end of this scene sees a bird thrown into the air turning into a plane as the film jumps to present day. This is popular device in film: with 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) the camera follows an ape-thrown bone into the heavens, where it turns into a spaceship. The use of another aspect of Semiology, metaphor and metonym, is one of the main ways in which the deeper meanings of this film are communicated. The initial darkness, when the train arrives at the station acts not only as a metonym for the American's confusion with English ways, but for the group's spiritual state. This is contrasted by the use of light at the end of the film as the three reach the end of their 'pilgrimages', and each experience their own miracle. Their quests are symbolised not only by light but by the vision of Canterbury Cathedral. For example when Land Army girl Alison Smith discovers that her lover is not dead after all, she opens the windows to their old dirty caravan (itself a metaphor for the state of their relationship) and lets the light flood in. This is accompanied by a shot of the Cathedral from her perspective. The image of the Cathedral standing firm amongst the bombed surroundings is not only a representation of England standing strong against the enemy, but also the symbol of the goal at the end of everyman's quest. It is no coincidence that in the last sequence of the film, a regiment of soldiers enter the Cathedral before going off to war. Although it would be considered as a wartime drama, the film does not fit so easily into this genre because of the relative reliance on imagery over narrative. There is an abundance of non-narrative sequences which, as Wicking has pointed out, is quite a rare thing in British Cinema at the time (Wicking 2002). Two particular sequences are of note; the scene with American Sergeant Bob Johnson and Alison Smith talking to local blacksmiths and wheelwrights; and the scene where Bob Johnson joins in with some young children in a drawn out pretend battle. These sequences provide not only the representation of ordinary people, but inform us about the characters. I believe the association of an American soldier and a city girl who has come to work in the country, with English pastoral imagery may be a deliberate device to make this situation seem less unusual in real life to those who were encountering it across Britain at the time. Giving the American soldier a comical element to his character as is done through his association with children in the play battle would certainly make the American soldiers arriving in Britain seem less alien. Also, the presence of an American suggests that it was intended for an Allied audience as opposed to just British. The sequences of Land girls working could be interpreted as promoting the occupation to those who might be able to join up. The images present a particular view of England, empowering the pastoral image, and glorifying the concept of Englishness. This is the overriding impression that the film creates, which supports the idea that this was more a propaganda piece on the qualities of England than a representation of reality.

Although attempting to portray England as a land of visionaries and pilgrims amongst honest folk plying their trade, it is debateable whether this is the impression that the audience had. The value of artistic intention is contested by different methodologies (Rose 2001). Although Foucault's Discourse Analysis gives credence to Auteur Theory, other methodologies such as psychoanalysis do not give it much credit. Roland Barthes has termed this 'the death of the author' (Barthes 1977). I believe that if the creator's intentions are made clear, whether through the creation or through accompanying media, this can affect the meaning given to it by an audience. As it was, the critics of Britain and America were quite baffled by it on its release. A review from the New Chronicle at the time presents the prevalent view of the film as 'a confused and at times vaguely unpleasant story' (Winnington 1944). It was re-edited for release in America, re-released in Britain, and eventually restored in 1977 (Richards & Aldgate 1983). Undoubtedly the role of a country's censorship policy will have a huge impact on the meaning in the image and the audience response. Rockett has identified the draconian policy in Ireland between 1920 and 1970 as a form of resistance to its old metropolitan capital, London, which underlines the political influence associated with visual representations (Rockett 2001). Over the decades the changes in society's expectations of film has also brought about a change in attitude to this film. While being considered as something of a classic by an audience of film buffs, it may be useful to note that this would not necessarily be the reaction by a more mainstream audience who might not be able to put up with the aged technologies of the film. It is also dated by its depiction of society at the time. Despite the fact that it was made during the 'people's war', the class system of the previous centuries was only just being dismantled, and is still evident in the film (Chapman 1998: 161). A Marxist interpretation of some of the shots might lead to the conclusion of the upper classes knowing best. The camera treats Colpeper with reverence, as in his first scene, where he is viewed seated like a judge at the top of a flight of stairs. Despite being the villain of the story he is also presented as an English visionary who ultimately knows best. A Marxist point of view might also claim that he represents the upper classes' abuse of power, with his antics of pouring glue in girls' hair to justify his own ends. The loss of, and distance from, the pastoral idyll presented means that this past 'reality' takes on a different charm. To audiences now it presents a world that once was, rather than a present world that can be fought for. At the start of the Second World War British cinemas were closed, only to be reopened shortly later in view of the role that they could have on morale and as propaganda devices (Richards & Aldgate 1983). The invention of television and emergence of home video and DVD have taken the film out of the confines of the cinema. It is now possible to pause and rewind a scene, to watch it over and over again and to analyse the symbolism of the way a shot is framed. But these are still limitations if we are trying to reach an impossible objective view of reality through the film. The degree to which we view something as being realistic is as much to do with the quality of the film, steadiness of the camera and where we want to watch it, as it is to do with the content and narrative within the image. The virtually worldwide monopoly of the large production and distribution cartels in Hollywood means that we are continually presented with one perspective of reality, and other 'realities' find it hard to enter into this network without fundamentally changing their perspective (Stringer 2001). This highlights the fundamentally political nature of visual representations.

In J.B. Priestley's English Journey in 1933, he presents three different Englands (Priestly 1984). The one that A Canterbury Tale depicts is the one of cathedrals, ministers, manors and squires. He remarks that this is not a vision that could be realised with the large population of England. It can be argued that this was not the future that the English fought for or, consequently, voted for. The progressive policies of Labour under Clement Atlee were much more attractive, with the guarantee of housing, employment and social security (Richards & Aldgate 1983). The representation of this new England as depicted in The Way We Live (Jill Craigie 1946) seems more realistic through its presentation as a documentary. This was done by using certain techniques, such as using people playing themselves (Enticknap 2001). Although it does not have such an out and out propagandist nature to it, The Way We Live is just as much trying to promote a certain view of England, and is as such no more a mirror of reality than A Canterbury Tale. Prior to The Way We Live town planning had always been depicted as a top-down affair. In this film it was presented as an interactive process, with meetings and debates, and with different viewpoints on the best course of action. Like A Canterbury Tale, it presents its main character as a visionary, though in this case it is the mastermind planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie, promoting his plans for urban renewal in Plymouth (Gold & Ward 1997). The film pictures him standing on a rock looking out across the blitzed city, imbuing him with the semblance of power. As it is likely that this is a construction of an event that happened at a different time, if at all, it brings doubt on the 'real' nature of the rest of the film. Considering that our notions of representations of reality have evolved with film overtime, The Way We Live is going to appear as a product of its time, but when it was made it may have been considered as a realistic portrait of life. The depiction of space in films may attain, for certain audiences, an apparent reality. But the image will always be the result of subjective social influences at every stage or site of its existence. It could be argued that it depends upon how much you analyse films, and only find what you are looking for. When I chose to look at A Canterbury Tale, I suspected it would be affected by the attitudes of wartime propaganda, so with this I brought to the film certain expectations of what to find. Likewise my use of certain methodologies influenced how I analysed the images. My background elicits what I brought to the film, and in turn how I interpreted it i.e. 'we never look just at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves' (Berger 1972: 9). In A Canterbury Tale I see an attempt to associate the landscape with national characteristics. Likewise The Way We Live presents an image that is just as much a product of the creative team behind it and the audience watching it, and is no more a mirror of reality than any other visual representation, despite its aspirations and immediate impressions.


Aitken, C. S. 1997, "Analysis of texts: armchair theory and couch - potato geography," in Methods in Human Geography, R. Flowerdew & D. Martin, eds., Longman, Harlow, pp. 197-292.

Barthes, R. 1977, Image, Music, Text Fontana, London.

Berger, J. 1972, Ways of Seeing Penguin and British Broadcasting Corporation, London.

Chapman, J. 1998, The British At War. Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939 - 1945 I.B. Tauris, London.

Christie, I. Alienation Effects. BFI Monthly Film Bulletin [October]. 1984. British Film Institute (BFI).
Ref Type: Magazine Article

Clifford, J. 1986, "Introduction: partial truths," in Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography, J. Clifford & G. E. Marcus, eds., University of California, Los Angeles and Berkeley, pp. 1-26.

Enticknap, L. 2001, "Postwar Urban Redevelopment, the British Film Industry, and The Way We Live," in Cinema and the City, M. Shiel & T. Fitzmaurice, eds., Blackwells, Oxford, pp. 233-244.

Gold, J. R. & Ward, S. V. 1997, "Of Plans and Planners," in The Cinematic City, D. B. Clarke, ed., Routledge, London, pp. 59-82.

Hopkins, J. 1994, "Mapping cinematic places: icons, ideology, and the power of (mis)representation," in Place, Power, Situation and Spectacle, C. S. Aitken & L. Zonn, eds., Rowman ad Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, pp. 47-68.

Jameson, F. 1989, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act Routledge, London.

Priestly, J. B. 1984, English Journey, Jubilee edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Richards, J. & Aldgate, A. 1983, British Cinema and Society 1930 - 1970 B. Blackwell, Oxford.

Rockett, K. 2001, "(Mis-) Representing the Irish Urban Landscape.," in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, M. Shiel & T. Fitzmaurice, eds., Blackwells, Oxford, pp. 217-229.

Rose, G. 2001, Visual Methodologies Sage, London.

Shiel, M. 2001, "Cinema and the City in History and Theory," in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, M. Shiel & T. Fitzmaurice, eds., Blackwells, Oxford, pp. 1-18.

Stringer, J. 2001, "Global Cities and the International Film Festival," in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, M. Shiel & T. Fitzmaurice, eds., Blackwells, Oxford, pp. 134-145.

Wicking, C. A Canterbury Tale. BFI Monthly Film Bulletin [126], 67. 1-12-2002. London, British Film Institute. 10-1-2003. /Reviews/44_ACT/ACT01.html
Ref Type: Electronic Citation

Winnington, R. News Chronicle. 1944.
Ref Type: Electronic Citation

See also Rural landscape and national identity in popular culture

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