The Masters  
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.

A lot of the documents have been sent to me or have come from other web sites. The name of the web site is given where known. If I have unintentionally included an image or document that is copyrighted or that I shouldn't have done then please email me and I'll remove it.

I make no money from this site, it's purely for the love of the films.

[Any comments are by me (Steve Crook) and other members of the email list]

  Steve's Logo

Submitted by Roger Mellor

Powell and Pressburger and "The Battle of the River Plate"
By Richard Combs

What is it about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger? How did they come by the remarkable trick of being the most frequently "discovered" of British filmmakers? The constant making and remaking of their reputation is not their doing, of course. But they seem to have contrived, like the genie in the lamp in The Thief of Bagdad - worked on by Powell without Pressburger - to hide themselves away until, every few years, someone comes along, rubs the lamp, and hey presto!, they're rediscovered all over again. It's a phenomenon unique to the country where their films were made. Every issue of a new print or season of their films is greeted with more than just enthusiasm. There's a strange simulation of surprise, the pretense that they've not been here before, that we've never truly seen them before. At least, it seems to be a regular event with the British film press. The latest Powell-Pressburger season, fourteen new prints soon to be sent round the U.S. in a traveling repertory, was unveiled at London's Barbican Centre in September 1994. The film editor of the capital's best-known listings magazine welcomed it with this confession: "When I first came to live in London in the mid Seventies, I hadn't heard of Michael Powell, let alone Emeric Pressburger!" Could this be true? Are English critics that forgetful, or is there some hole, destined never to be filled, in their consciousness of their own cinema?

It would be easy to put this sort of thing down to cynical journalism, to the weary repetition of an In Praise of Neglected Filmmakers piece without even bothering to update it. But something more is involved here, something like a self-willed amnesia, a need to remain in a state of innocence and ignorance, with a constant renewal of hope and expectation, about these two filmmakers. They shimmer in the consciousness of many English critics like a dream of another, better cinema, a national cinema to look up to.

Some rescuing has been necessary. They have suffered neglect and misunderstanding, even if they haven't been blotted out of the historical record by unsympathetic audiences or hostile critics. Their partnership began in 1938 and lasted substantially until the mid Fifties, with a late accidental birth in 1972 when they made a 55-minute children's film, The Boy Who Turned Yellow. In their heyday they were known for extravagant, playful, unclassifiable works like A Canterbury Tale ('44), A Matter of Life and Death ('46), and The Red Shoes ('48). Contemporary reviewers were often exasperated by their excessiveness and apparent lack of discipline, though it was exasperation with what were seen as shortcomings in obviously major talents.

Aesthetic impatience turned to moral outrage when Powell, on his own, made Peeping Tom in 1960. Reviewers' disgust at this tale of a camera buff who is also a sadistic sex murderer did threaten to end his career. But Peeping Tom shortly became a cause celebre with a new generation of critics: to the everlasting glory of his name, if not the immediate benefit of his working life, Powell had made one of the first films to tackle the dangerous sport of moviemaking itself, at a time when notions of "taste" in cinema were about to take some Stretching anyway. A few months later, reviewers also had Psycho to gag on.

In the Sixties, Pressburger turned himself into a novelist, but Powell actually had quite a varied and interesting career in an industry not known for generosity toward its senior practitioners. For a while after the Peeping Tom furor, he became a television director (including an episode of the U.S. series "The Defenders"), before making two films in Australia in the late Sixties. There were two Powell-Pressburger retrospectives at London's National Film Theatre in the Seventies, while Powell himself was installed as guiding light/consultant to the Movie Brats. His cinema of romantic excess appealed to Martin Scorsese, and his technocratic, special-effects whiz-bangery to Francis Coppola.

Many movie careers, it has to be said, have suffered worse turbulence, neglect, or even eclipse. Revivals - much rarer - of, say, British Hitchcock or David Lean don't have the same sense of a heroic cause, a perpetual ride to the rescue, about them (though the latter is arguably more in need of it than P&P). No, the Powell and Pressburger Rescue Mission has become an event in itself, and by now probably has as much significance in British cinema as the films they made.

What are the qualities that made them so endlessly discoverable? One negative reason is that there may not be many other British filmmakers who are that tempting to discover even for the first time. But behind this is the tantalizing ideal quality of Powell and Pressburger - the promise they hold out of a grander, more expressive, more sublime cinema, one that carelessly expands beyond the habits of realism that circumscribe national consciousness, and particularly thinking about movies. There may be something about their filmmaking that is so quintessentially of the cinema, and so distinctly un-English, that it is hard to pin them down in an English context. It's difficult to make their reputation stick - which is why we have to keep restating it - and even to define exactly what they did.

The Rescue Mission has created its own explanation of Powell and Pressburger, which has inevitably become rather cut and dried, and unsatisfying. It's their subversive quality, we're often told, that makes their films valuable; it's why they were put down in their day and why they've so often needed rescuing. Powell and Pressburger were romantic visionaries who worked in genres (exotic melodrama like Black Narcissus) that didn't go down well with middlebrow critics, and whose discursive, heightened, at times expressionist storytelling style also didn't suit such tastes. But "subversive" is a loaded term, and can be taken too glibly to mean that Powell and Pressburger are some uncomplicated progressive force, in cinema and politics, who just weren't appreciated by their blinkered contemporaries.

They were fascinated by English history and literature, by mystical beliefs, traditional values, and strong caste systems - whether of the Himalayas or the British military. The political framework of even their most outlandish fantasies was invariably conservative, sometimes in ways that would make a modern Conservative blush. What made this so strange on screen, strangely liberating if not liberal, was that it was the product of two very different perspectives: the native-born Powell and the emigre Hungarian Jew Pressburger. Their stories often have an English dottiness - the business of the "glueman" in A Canterbury Tale - or a boys'-adventure silliness when it comes to war, touched by an element of European surrealism.

The critics of their day weren't always wrong when they complained that Powell and Pressburger's films could be technically brilliant, full of special-effects razzle-dazzle, and at the same time unfocused and messily told. When they attempted to adapt one of the dotty storylines, and the boys' adventure values, to an epic about national character and the nation at war in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ('43), the result was the most comprehensive mess they ever made. Colonel Blimp has lately been "rediscovered" as a Powell-Pressburger masterpiece, and is certainly seductive in its sweep and playfulness, the modernity of its storytelling, and its tackling of the moral and spiritual values of a nation in a way no modern film would dare. But the sentimental, 19th century view of soldiering offered as a way of understanding what happened in two 20th century world wars is dismaying verging on insulting.

If there is a trick to Powell and Pressburger, it's this strange double time-warp in which they worked. The mysteriousness, the seductiveness, the provocative quality of their films - the reason why we think we've never quite discovered them - may be that they're receding from us as fast as they've moved ahead. In their idiosyncratic devices for diving through a story, they were certainly ahead of their time. It's just that we're not bothered now by their discursiveness, by odd mixtures of realism, romanticism, and fantasy. On the other hand, some of their attitudes and heroic poses are as old-fashioned as silent cinema. On the way, it's no wonder that they anticipated the modern taste for melodrama, and even, in their Celtic mood (I Know Where I'm Going!), the politically correct treatment of other cultures and their mythology.

Is there anything left to be discovered? Well, consider The Battle of the River Plate (U.S.: Pursuit of the Graf Spee, '56), almost the last film they made together under the Archers banner. It's an entirely characteristic subject - about an early victory in World War II for Britain's Senior Service, her Navy - but it's never been elected to the P&P canon; in fact, it's hardly ever mentioned. The problem, perhaps, is that it's too much Powell and Pressburger. This is naked Powell and Pressburger: an awkward, unsatisfying, intriguing thing that reveals very clearly what they could and couldn't do, and yet even in its weaknesses opens up odd avenues to the cinematic future.

Like A Canterbury Tale, it's a wartime saga that combines the ineffable, the documentary, and the stiff-upper-lip heroic, within a style discursive enough to contain all its narrative voices. It recounts the brief career of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which in the first months of World War II roamed the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, sinking British merchant ships. In December 1939, it is surprised and attacked by three British cruisers, Adax, Exeter, and Achilles, and forced to take shelter in the port of Montevideo, in neutral Uruguay. Given a deadline to carry out emergency repairs and leave, and with his three pursuers waiting at sea, the Graf Spee's Captain Langsdorff decides to scuttle his own ship. It expires in a fireball described by a watching diplomat as a "twilight of the gods."

Unlike A Canterbury Tale, however, The Battle of the River Plate is not addressed to a nation at war; its heroic, inspirational qualities have become conventions of that least inspirational genre, the Fifties British war film. This is one reason why it is politely passed over: actors like Anthony Quayle and John Gregson, jaws jutting on the bridges of warships (their cousin, Kenneth More, does his bit a few years later in another successful sea hunt, Sink the Bismarck!), don't appeal to the devotees of romantic-mystical-transcendental Powell and Pressburger. And they undoubtedly make stiff, conventional work of the battle scenes here: smoke-blackened sailors toughing it out on burning decks, or Quayle glowering after his prey with the occasional curse, "Take that, you beast!"

But, discursive slice of history that it is, The Battle of the River Plate doesn't begin in this mode, nor does it end there. One of its little oddities, in fact, is that the self-destruction of the Graf Spee leaves the war film without a climax. There's a strange sense of emptiness, of frustration, about the final shots of the three British ships resuming their watch at sea. Is Quayle more relieved or disappointed when he announces, after the enemy's vanishing act, that "many a life has been spared today"?

The war film is dissolved, anyway, from the moment the Graf Spee arrives in Montevideo. It's dissolved in a Mardi Gras-style montage of the city's nightlife - the frenzies of a Latin nightclub owner (a cameo from Christopher Lee) - and the playing-off of the machinations of the various diplomats, the brash intervention of an American newscaster, the canny evenhandedness of the Uruguayan premier (are his protestations about little Uruguay - "Every time we have been threatened, my whole country has taken a step forward" - meant to remind us of Britain?). There's more fun here, in the play of national stereotypes and competing voices, than in the ponderous allegory of A Matter of Life and Death. But if this is a frustrated war film, and a bit of a cut-up, a cross-sectioned allegory-cum-comedy, then where is its center? What is it really about?

The answer is that it is, or should be, about Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch) and the Graf Spee - a fittingly dark romantic subject for Powell and Pressburger. Their partnership began, after all, with The Spy in Black ('39), made on the eve of World War II, with Conrad Veidt as a heroic German spy penetrating Britain's defenses in the previous war. And The Battle of the River Plate begins, in quasi-documentary mode, with, Langsdorff explaining to a captured British captain how he maintains himself at sea for months on end, how he plots his "kills," and how he keeps switching disguises (the Graf Spee is then being dressed as an American cruiser).

But the film never gets any closer to Langsdorff, either; the psychological portrait that seems to be promised is never delivered. Partly he falls victim to Powell and Pressburger's schoolboy soldiering cliches that would embarrass Kipling. As a captain, he never does more than puff on a big cigar and move wooden blocks, representing his victims, round his charts. And in Montevideo he disappears along with everything else, his motives for scuttling his ship never hinted at. In his place, the Graf Spee, as all eyes turn on it, acquires a life force of its own, truly a mysterious and powerful beast - what will it do? where will it go? - a White Whale in wartime gray.

At which point, the hesitations and insufficiencies of The Battle of the River Plate, its indecisiveness about its true subject, begin to look like something else. It becomes a modern narrative with a hole in its center - a tease about the teasing business of cinema. The Graf Spee is not just a beast. "I'm like a pretty girl. I change my frock, I change my hat," says Langsdorff, about disguising his ship to fool the enemy but also to "keep your navy interested." This is the pocket battleship as sex object, as screen goddess. And is Peter Finch, with his leather jacket and his conspicuous binoculars, such a romantic blank because he really is no one, Captain Nemo, a character whose place is behind the action rather than in it, our master of ceremonies?

Could a Fifties British war film be as selfconscious, as tauntingly self-reflexive, as this would suggest? It's interesting to consider that Powell was only a couple of films away from Peeping Tom, and that something cumulative might be working its way to the surface here, some admission that all the romantic obsessives, all the exotic spectacles, of his lifetime in cinema are just forms of the romantic obsession of cinema. They can be summed up seductively in a figure like Langsdorff (the spy/eye/I in black), just as they will be neurotically in the boy with a movie camera in Peeping Tom.

Arguably, no scene in Peeping Tom is as sexually charged, as convulsively self-reflexive, as the end of the Graf Spee. The sex object blows itself (herself?) up in an orgy of self-destruction as the populace of Montevideo looks on. A privileged few see it - as we do - through telescope or binoculars, and the American newscaster excitedly reports the event as "a staggering spectacle ... it's like a thriller that you can't put down."

The photographer-killer of Peeping Tom, to distract one of his subject-victims, tells her to "look at the sea." In an early defense of P&P and Peeping Tom, Raymond Durgnat turned this into a pun about the meaning of the film: "look at the see." Look, now, at The Battle of the River Plate. It has enough sea and see to fuel the next stage of the Powell-Pressburger rediscovery programme.

Film Comment 13th March 1995 v31:n2. p20(4)

Back to index