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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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Death in the Day's Work
by Max Breen (1946/7 studio publicity)

Adventure, even in peace-time, is by no means dead.

In my youth, adventurous-minded boys were apt to bewail the fact that the unexplored portions of the earth were shrinking, so that before we could grow old enough there would be no wilderness left to explore.

We need not have worried.

Nowadays, however, it is the film location-units that venture into the unknown, to being back not gold or ivory, but celluloid in which is captured the magic of romance; and they find that the world has not, after all, shrunk to such an extent as many people suppose.

As a recent round-the-world flier put it, "People who say it's a small world can't have flown round it lately".

The region of the Upper Amazon, for instance, which is still an almost complete mystery consists of an area of one million square miles. That's enough to make an adventurous young man's blood tingle. It has done so already, as witness the many young men who have joined expeditions in search of the mysterious Col. Fawcett.

The problem of Lt.-Col. P.H. Fawcett, D.S.O., is too well known to need elaboration here, but for the benefit of the few to whom it is still news it may be briefly mentioned that in 1925, in company with his son and another young Englishman, he undertook an expedition on to the Matto Grosso plateau in search of a prehistoric city of great antiquity, of which he claimed to have exclusive knowledge.

He never came back, nor did his two companions; and although travellers' tales have been brought back from time to time of a mysterious tall fair-haired man who spoke English, nothing authentic has ever been heard.

Many people, however, including his wife, believe firmly that he is alive; and every now and then some clean-limbed, adventurous young Englishman, bored with bob-sleiging on the Cresta run or stalking snow-leopards in the Himalayas, will start restlessly from his chair and say "Come on, chaps, let's go and look for Fawcett".

From 1939 to 1945 there were, of course, other activities to engross clean-limbed adventurous young Englishmen; but recently the jungle backwoods in Brazil have echoed again to the crackle of deep-chested, full-throated English oaths as some unwary adventurer has trod on a sting-ray or disturbed a nest of fire-ants.

This time, however, it was not Fawcett who formed the quarry, but film; the film, in fact of life among the Brazilian Indians, which will be seen in London shortly - The Archers' production The End of the River.

For this the director, Derek Twist, made two journeys up the Amazon - one a preliminary survey-trip and again with his entire production unit.

That part of the world is no joke to penetrate. It brings to mind Kipling's description of campaigning in Egypt -

"There was heat and dust and coolie-work and sun,
 There were vipers, flies and sandstorms, there was cholera and thirst"
and except that there are no sandstorms, it forms a fair general understatement of the joys of jungle penetration. A viper is a nasty, mean little fellow - but infinitely nastier and meaner, and considerably smaller, is the Brazilian jararaca, which is about as thick as your finger and as long as a lead-pencil, and deals death quicker than an automatic ticket-machine can issue you a single to Kensal Green.

If your tastes run rather to something you can see coming, what about the anaconda? There's a snake! - twenty-one feet long, weighs 3½ cwt., even before a meal, and you couldn't get both arms round the thickest part of his body, even supposing you wanted to. He's been known to swallow a goat whole, excepting the horns, and simply lie up quietly in a dark corner until he has digested the goat and the horns have rotted off.

Fish, too. Thos of us who meet fish chiefly in the company of chips might be a little anxious about the sting-ray, that flat, grey, somnolent-looking fellow who lies half-concealed in the mud on the bed of a stream until you tread on him, when he whips up a prehensile tail with a barbed fang into your leg.

Even he would not be so bad without his business-partner, the piranha. This fish has a great reputation as a man-eater, and his chief asset is his uncanny ability to be on the spot when fresh blood is about. The sting-ray draws blood and the piranha - a shoal of him - flashes in for the feast.

It is said that one day an Indian, happening to scratch his finger while in a boat, dabbled it in the water to wash the blood off, and never saw it again. The piranha, though only about a foot long, has jaws like a bulldog, and can crush a bone as easily as your haberdasher can cut out a coupon.

The birds as a rule are not dangerous unless you are on the point of death, and there are not many animals that are, except the lord of the jungle, the puma [More usually known as the jaguar in South America], which seldom attacks man unless unwisely driven to it, and the peccary, or wild pig, which is rather a craven when alone but a terror when in the majority. The tapir, too, can be an awkward customer when slighted.

Other items on the debit side are the omnipresent jacare, or alligator; the leech, which fastens on your skin while you sleep and blows itself up into a little bladder of blood (your blood); the vampire bat, which performs the same trick on a grander scale; and the berni-fly, which lays eggs under your skin; by-and-by these hatch out and wander about, causing inconvenience.

The bird-eating spider, which weaves a web 20 ft. wide, is perilous if you happen to be a bird; otherwise he is merely horrifying.

Add to these the ever-present jungle and river denizens the hazards of swollen rivers, treacherous currents and sandbanks, dangerous rapids, leaky canoes, and, always lurking behind the dense green jungle, hostile tribes of little copper savages who are adept with bow-and-(poisoned) arrows, and with blow-tube and poisoned darts, and have a penchant for shrinking human heads into ghastly miniatures, and it will be acknowledged that the modern production-unit takes its life in its hands and richly earns the approval of cinema-audiences, vicariously adventuring thousands of miles away and months afterwards.

Incidentally, Michael Powell, the producer and sponsor of The End of the River, is no stranger to location perils; it was he who took a production unit of twenty-six people to the Island of Foula in the Outer Hebrides [the Shetland Islands] just before the war, when they were cut off from the mainland by storms. Supplies ran low, an actress was trundled forty yards in the wind and narrowly missed being bowled over a cliff, and the newspaper headlines of Europe grew large with concern.

The subsequent success of the film The Edge of the World (recently re-issued) justified the risk run; but it was no laughing matter at the time.

There was a day, before film-making became as well-regulated an affair as it is to-day, when it was unnecessary to go out on location in search of danger - it was right there "on the set".

An early production company, Selig, kept a regular zoo at their Chicago studios; the first American-made film depicting jungle life was made there in 1910, and featured the great cats - lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, pumas, jaguars, cheetahs - as well as such comparatively domestic animals as camels, elephants and monkeys.

There were several regrettable errors of judgement, resulting in bloodshed - much of it human blood. Three enormous Rocky Mountain grizzly bears at this zoo in less than a year killed two keepers and mauled or injured seventy people.

And there was Sally, a dear little brown bear less than two years old and only eighteen inches high, which bewitched film audiences with her endearing manners and charming ways; but at least two people, a man and a woman, were disfigured for life and half-blinded by the little pet's mischievous habit of trying to remove faces with her steel-tipped paws.

The old-timers tell of many hair-raising experiences in filming wild animals, but for sheer daring the palm must surely go to Miss Kathleen Williams a darling of the screen before World War One, who in 1913 actually undertook to walk under a tree and allow one of Selig's lions to leap on to her back from a branch. She would certainly not be allowed to run such a risk nowadays, even with the leather jerkin which she wore under her dress and which undoubtedly saved her from a bad mauling and the ever present possibility of blood-poisoning.

Nowadays, the film actors and technicians must go to the wild places of the earth in search of their excitement; and that there is never any scarcity of volunteers speaks highly for the adventurous spirit of our film pioneers today.

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