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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From: Cinemascope, Issue 36, Fall '08, pp. 62-65
The Small Back Room
A Bow Made in England
By Gary Hentzi
The Small Back Room (1949) has been unavailable in this hemisphere for so long - and then only in a mutilated TV version shortened by over 20 minutes from the original 107 minute running time - that most North American film enthusiasts had come to think of it as little more than an afterthought to the extraordinary body of work created by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger during the 1940s. Even in Europe, the Region 2 DVD was out of print, meaning that with just a few stray copies being traded over the internet and the odd festival screening, one of the most remarkable films of the decade could be watched by only a tiny minority with the patience to track it down. With the new Criterion DVD, viewers on this continent can see for themselves that The Small Back Room is an achievement fully comparable to its celebrated predecessors, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).
Powell and Pressburger's unique alchemy is so elusive that it is unwise to try to isolate a single essential quality. The enormous range of visual effects, from the starkest black-and-white to the most sumptuous Technicolor, the acute sense of place and local custom, the sophisticated, quasi-literary feeling for how a character may be transformed by experience, whether miraculously or tragically, the affection for eccentricity and unwillingness to look away from perversity or weakness - all of these are hallmarks of their oeuvre, and all (minus the Technicolor) are present in The Small Back Room, in addition to a wholly unexpected quality: a disturbingly pertinent relationship to the modern world. Set in the dark days of 1943, The Small Back Room is ostensibly a war film, but of an unusual kind. As with the WWII sequences of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the action takes place entirely on the home front, where British authorities are faced with a new and mysterious weapon: an air-dropped anti-personnel device which lies in wait for anyone who may be tempted to handle it, indiscriminately killing both soldiers and civilians. Evidently intended to break the spirit of the public, it is, in short, an instrument of terrorism.
Against a backdrop of a country faced with a serious external treat, the unexploded bomb becomes a metaphor that reverberates in various directions, one of which is the film's setting in the backroom environment of politics and bureaucracy where military research is carried out. In contrast to sentimental assumptions about World War II-era England, the film portrays those charged with the country's defence as short-sighted, incompetent, divided against themselves, and motivated as much by personal ambition and petty resentments as by any sense of devotion to a larger cause. Theirs is a world of backbiting, conspiracy, and boardroom ambushes, where scientific rigour and military effectiveness run a distant second to self-preservation and self-promotion. It's a place where a bureaucratic animal like the suave salesman Waring (Jack Hawkins) is entirely at home, while a gifted scientist like Professor Mair (Milton Rosmer) is doomed by his naïveté to lose his research section in an administrative coup, a situation described in the Nigel Balchin novel on which the screenplay is based as "a queer feeling of sitting on a bomb with a time fuse."
If this first elaboration of the bomb metaphor underscores the irony of the film's treacherous setting, reminding us of how a nation at war can be its own worst enemy, the second belongs to the characterization of the protagonist. Recruited to investigate the cruel new weapon, explosives expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar) turns out to be a bomb with a hair-trigger himself. An alcoholic with an artificial foot, the result of an unspecified injury that requires constant treatment with painkillers, he is crippled by insecurity and self-loathing no less than by his physical disability, and harbours a self-destructive anger that he can barely contain. Although his girlfriend Sue (Kathleen Byron) recognizes his worth and is willing to try to defuse this volatile human package, it remains uncertain for much of the film whether he will be able to convince himself that he deserves her. And between his disgust with himself and his contempt for his superiors,it seems unlikely that he will ever come to assume a leadership role amongst his colleagues or even be able to exert any significant influence on how their business is done.
While the film's evocation of terrorism and the inability of the authorities to mount a unified response to foreign threats strikes an uncannily contemporary note, the design of the narrative locates it within a significantly older tradition - indeed, one that stretches back to Sophocles and Homer. Powell and Pressburger are telling a version of the legend of Philoctetes, the Greek prince who inherited the bow of Hercules and, en route to join the Greek campaign against the Trojans, was abandoned by his comrades on the isle of Lemnos after a bite from a serpent leaves him helpless with constant, agonizing pain. Languishing for ten years on the island in continual suffering, Philoctetes is only rescued once the Greeks, stymied in their efforts to conquer Troy, learn from an oracle that they cannot succeed without the weapons of Hercules, thus compelling them to seek the assistance of the long-abandoned invalid. Finally cured of his wound and the bitterness he feels towards his former comrades, Philoctetes returns from exile and uses his bow to slay the Trojan prince Paris, a deed that becomes a turning point in the war.
With his crippled foot, his lingering psychological wounds, and his figurative exile to the small back room of his own alienation, Sammy Rice is a modern counterpart of the suffering Philoctetes, who may or may not come to use the brilliant and questioning scientific mind that is his own formidable weapon. The Small Back Room is, moreover, concerned with an ethical issue that was of surpassing interest to the ancient world and retains its urgency today: the conflict between the resentment of an individual at the corruption of his fellows and the demands of loyalty to a common cause. That this matter involves more than just contemporary England is suggested by the film's use of timeless locations like Stonehenge and Chesil Bank, a shorthand for the themes of local history, customs and values that were developed more fully in A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I'm Going! (1945). As Powell and Pressburger make clear, it is a whole way of life that is at stake, although one at least temporarily in the hands of fools.
Whereas the ancient Greeks were preoccupied with the hero's moral conflict and with the sheer spectacle of his anguish, later generations have found other matters to interest them in the Philoctetes legend, and these too are relevant to Powell and Pressburger's film. Writing in the late 18th century, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing suggested that what moves us about Philoctetes is not his unrestrained suffering per se but rather the greatness of spirit that prevails in spite of a pain so severe that it threatens to eclipse his humanity, to render him something less than himself. Over the two-and-a-half centuries that have passed since Lessing's day, this view has become, if anything, even more natural to us. In an even more influential interpretation, André Gide's play Philoctète (1898) drew a suggestive parallel between the Greek hero and the figure of the artist. Justifying himself to those who would remind him of his duty to his fellows, Gide's Philoctetes finds a paradoxical superiority in his situation as a man apart: "I came to understand that words inevitably become more beautiful from the moment they are no longer put together in response to the demands of others." This is a Philoctetes who cherishes his autonomy and esteems the products of his imagination above all else.
Such a contest between collective responsibility and individual freedom was of clear interest to Powell and Pressburger. Although they had enjoyed remarkable success during the '40s, working first for the British government as an offshoot of the Ministry of Information and then as part of the J. Arthur Rank Organization, the latter association came to an end when Rank and his minions walked out of an early screening of The Red Shoes - by any standard, one of Powell and Pressburger's most important collaborations and arguably the finest film ever made about the relationship between art and life. To be sure, the film had also gone substantially over budget, yet one can excuse Powell for feeling that he and his partner had been underestimated by these businessmen, who saw only the difficulty of making money from such a sophisticated piece of work. Not for nothing was their production company called The Archers: like Gide's bow wielding hero, they prided themselves on their creative freedom, proudly blazoning the words "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger" across the credits of their films. In his memoirs, Powell would explain that "This bold and arrogant title maintained our claim of complete independence from our sources of finance and distribution, and from all white-collared inhabitants of boardrooms."
One speculates that Powell and Pressburger were drawn to the subject matter of The Small Back Room at least in part because of their own recent, unpleasant experience with those "white-collared inhabitants of boardrooms", so similar to the small-minded schemers and stuffed shirts they lovingly skewer in the film. Free to make any film they desired after extricating themselves from the increasingly unsympathetic atmosphere of the Rank Organization, the Balchin novel offered a suitably dark meditation on the ways that talent can be held back, diverted, and even destroyed by the professional networks in which it must operate. Yet their recognition of the grim necessities of a country at war also allowed Powell and Pressburger to effect an imaginative resolution to the ethical problem that the film outlines: reaffirming their independence as artists while reiterating their allegiance to the higher cause represented by the English past, a communal ideal that stood in sharp contrast to the modern England in which they lived and worked. Tellingly, Powell and Pressburger had adopted their collaborative nom de plume after Arthur Conan Doyle's poem "The Song of the Bow," which begins: "What of the bow? / The bow was made in England / Of true wood, of yew-wood / The wood of English bows; / So men who are free / Love the old yew-tree / And the land where the yew-tree grows."
Yet what is sometimes called the "High Tory" strain in Powell and Pressburger's work would merit little attention if it consisted of nothing more than reverent invocations of English iconography, and here the Philoctetes legend offers another suggestive parallel. In Sophocles' version of the story, the protagonist consents to return to the battlefield in part because he is moved by the willingness of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to take his side against his comrades, who would have tricked the uncooperative hero into complying with their wishes. This feeling of solidarity with another, the knowledge that even one person sympathizes with his injuries and recognizes the justice of his complaints, is enough to put an end to Philoctetes' internal exile from his former fellows. While it might seem a stretch to place Sammy's girlfriend Sue in this same position (although it should be noted that as late as the end of the 19th century, Sophocles' drama had been staged with the part of Neoptolemus played by a woman), the argument for her central narrative is supported by Powell himself, who viewed the film as a love story and described Sue as "the kind of woman... who keeps the world turning without making a song and dance about it." It is Sue, more than any other character, who embodies the traditional virtues of courage, strength, and selflessness in her efforts to save Sammy from himself, just as he will eventually show the same quality in the climactic scene on Chesil Bank, when the film abandons its chiaroscuro visual language for unobstructed sunlight and Sammy puts aside his resentments and works to defuse the unexploded bomb in the stark isolation of the deserted, windswept beach.
This splendid episode, in which Powell displays his deft ability to create tension through simple shot selection, provides the narrative with a conventional crisis, but it is the scenes of troubled interaction between Sammy and Sue that make the film a unique experience, as if one had suddenly come upon a project conceived with adults in mind after having sat through so many others made for children. The Small Back Room is indeed the love story that Powell claimed it was (though a love story in which one party expresses her concern for the other with lines like "Did you remember to take your dope?"), and the centrality of Sammy and Sue's relationship is indicated by its oblique reflections throughout the film. For example, Corporal Taylor (Cyril Cusack), a young soldier attached to Professor Mair's research section, has a stutter that is clearly meant to imply his kinship with the physically and emotionally hobbled Sammy, yet he has been rendered an object of pity by his wife, who is unfaithful to him. Early in the film, when Sammy and Sue are out together in a nightclub, they are waylaid by a modish acquaintance named Gillian (June Elvin), whose aggressive flirtatiousness and overfamiliarity represent some of the less beneficial influences that the modern world brings to bear on relationships between men and women (duly pursuing the guiding metaphor, Sue describes her as "an incendiary bomb"). Even the Chesil Bank sequence is implicitly concerned with Sammy and Sue's future, not only because it is uncertain whether Sammy will survive, but also because the ancient beach is presided over by the Cathedral of St. Catherine, the patron saint of unmarried women - an unidentified, subtextual detail which Powell casually slips into the background of the scene.
Between the subtlety of such gestures, the startlingly unvarnished depiction of the protagonists' relationship, and the uncertain generic boundaries (war movie or love story?), it becomes sadly understandable how a film of such extraordinary merit could end up in the cultural exile that The Small Back Room has suffered. Powell himself always rated it highly, in 1968 telling the French magazine Midi Minuit Fantastique that he considered it his best film. When writing his second volume of memoirs in 1992, however, he felt that he understood better why it had not found an audience, reporting the opinion of one acquaintance that "the love scenes between David Farrar and Kathleen Byron made the public feel uncomfortable: 'They're so real, they make you feel you are spying through a keyhole at the two lovers.'" In addition, there was the simple problem of timing: "The setting was wartime London and everybody had had enough of that... The public stayed away in droves. They refused to accept that it was a love story. It was a war film. And war films were out - O.U.T." Now that history has taken yet another turn, it is high time The Small Back Room received the acclaim it deserves. Certainly, we are no longer likely to be startled by the candidness of the love story - or if we are, then it will be only the healthy shock of rediscovering a film that has more in common with our own era than with the period in which it was made, even as it tells a story that echoes back across centuries.
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