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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Original at http://www.community.ch/magazine/magazine13/archers.htm
The Archers - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
"Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire ...."
They were the most creative partnership in British cinema - possibly in the world. They made films like nobody else has, before or since - yet they managed to work within the studio system. Even when making war films required to have some propaganda content, they refused to depict the German enemy as ciphers - and they refused to show the British as heroes, either. Their collaboration lasted some fifteen years and the films they made during their high time, 1943-1948, continue to amaze and influence film-makers today, as directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have been eager to admit. Their symbol - an archery target filling with arrows - prefaced films unlike anything being made at the time, shocking the timid British film industry, each one totally different in subject, but always recognisably Powell and Pressburger, always equally credited as joint directors, producers and writers.
Ian Christie, in his 1985 book on the team, aptly took his title, "Arrows of Desire", from William Blake's rapturous poem "Jerusalem" - the Archers had something of the poet's own inspired madness. They were first put together by the brilliant producer, Alexander Korda - who, like Pressburger, was Hungarian-born - in 1939, to make a film vehicle for the German actor, Conrad Veidt, who had been rescued from virtual imprisonment by the Nazis by the Ealing Studios producer, Michael Balcon.
The Spy in Black (1939).
In World War 1, a German submarine officer (Conrad Veidt) is obliged, against his will, to become a spy in Scotland. There he meets and entertains a bitter-sweet romance with the lovely young Valerie Hobson - but she too is not everything she seems. Korda brought in Pressburger to rewrite the script, which wasn't hanging together too well. Powell was delighted with the result.
is another espionage thriller, very much in the Hitchcock style and again teaming Veidt and Hobson.
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
[Emeric wasn't involved in this & it wasn't an Archers production]
This masterpiece of Arabian Nights story-telling does not credit either Powell or Pressburger, [My version credits Powell as a director] although Korda called Powell in (as well as Tim Whelan and William Cameron McKenzie) to supplement the original director (Ludwig Berger) who wasn't meeting his expectations - so it is not an Archers film, although at certain points it somehow seems to look and feel like one and their favoured actor, Conrad Veidt, is masterful as the wicked Vizir. It also makes one aware of the unsung partners of The Archers in creating their enchanting illusions, the Rank Film Laboratories, whose technicians were world-famous wizards themselves in the black magic of "travelling matte".
49th Parallel (1941)
This film saw the Powell/Pressburger partnership drawing closer together, although their screen credits (Powell as director, Pressburger as writer) remained separate. A taut thriller as the surviving crew of a wrecked German U-Boat try to make their way secretly through Canada and cross the 49th Parallel into the still-neutral USA. The cast was impressive, including Laurence Olivier as a surly French-Canadian trapper who finally realises that his separatist loyalties have to be subjugated to loyalty to freedom, Eric Portman icily ruthless as a German officer. A future partner of The Archers, the Viennese actor Anton Walbrook, made his first appearance with them here..Pressburger won an Oscar for his story.
One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942)
[This was the first film made as an Archers production]
Powell and Pressburger, teamed for the first time as scriptwriters, bring to life the dispassionate phrase used by BBC newsreaders almost every night of the war, in a low-key and convincing study of the crew of a crashed British bomber making their dangerous way home on the "underground railway" from Occupied Holland.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
The first film to bear the Archers symbol [the second, OOOAIM was the first] was, and remains a marvellous film. It begins at the turn of the century in Germany, passes by France in World War 1 and ends in embattled Britain in 1942. Based on the cartoon character devised by political cartoonist David Low, it is a continuing love-triangle involving actors Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr over forty years of European conflict, charming, beautiful ... and a devastating attack on the British "Establishment" which was doing its best to lose the war through pure, boneheaded, conservative complacency. Churchill was furious and tried to have it banned.
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
allowed Powell and Pressburger to look forward to the end of the war and the possible dissensions that arise among victorious allies, watching a number of very dissimilar people all converging on Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage, often for reasons they do not understand.
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
mixed the ambition of a calculating young woman (Wendy Hiller) with the quiet charm of a Scottish laird (Roger Livesey) and the mysticism of the Western Isles. A delightful romance, tinged with magic and fear. The metaphysical nature of future Archers films was beginning to show.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
is the Archers in their most mischievously metaphysical mood. If Heaven fails to collect the soul of a bomber pilot (Niven) who should have died after jumping from his burning plane without a parachute - and if he then falls in love with an American air force woman (Kim Hunter) - can the pilot win his case for an extension of his earthly existence on the basis of Heavenly incompetence? His appeal is to be laid before the Highest Authority ....
Black Narcissus (1946)
combined stars Deborah Kerr and Flora Robson, plus the powerful but underused Kathleen Byron, in the story of Anglican nuns attempting to create a school and hospital in the "Palace of Women" of a Himalayan ruler. The film seethes with the underlying sexual and power conflicts between the women, the photography - by Jack Cardiff - is fabulous. The Archers are nearing their zenith.
The Red Shoes (1948)
is the most well-known of all the Archers' films. A dedicated young ballerina (Moira Shearer) is torn between her need to dance and her love for a young composer. The great impresario (Anton Walbrook) who discovered her is determined that dance comes first, but the ballet, The Red Shoes, that he creates for her, finally destroys her. The best film about ballet ever made, wonderfully designed, with some quite astounding special effects.
The Small Back Room (1949)
David Farrar and Cyril Cusack star as bomb disposal experts, fighting fear and the bottle. The Archers return to modestly-budgeted, clever suspense.
The Elusive Pimpernel (1950)
A remake of the 1935 Leslie Howard film, but in typically extravagant Archers style. The team blundered in accepting co-producer Sam Goldwyn's protégé, David Niven for the lead - it was a role far beyond his limited talent. Not a success but interesting in bits.
Gone to Earth (1950).
A middling, rather muddled and muddy romantic movie based on a difficult novel. Despite a distinguished cast, headed by the passionate Jennifer Jones, not a success for the Archers.
The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
The Archers produce a large and distinguished cast, including Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tcherina, Anne Ayars, Leonide Massine, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann, in this extravaganza based on Offenbach's light fantasy opera about a student (singer Richard Rounseville) reviewing past women in his life. Mixed reviews but indisputably lovely to look at.
Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)
The Archers bring Strauss's enchanting comic opera up to date, with a solid cast. Mixed reviews but, as always with the Archers, magnificently cast, stylish and beautiful to watch.
The Battle of the River Plate (1956).
A workmanlike filming of the headlong assault launched by three British light cruisers on the German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee. It would seem that Emeric Pressburger was gradually extricating himself from the partnership or rather, since the two writer/directors remained close friends, from regular film-making.
Ill Met by Moonlight (1957).
A well-made actioner, with an impressive cast. Based on the true story of a daring British raid on Crete in World War II, undercover commando troops and Cretan partisans, led by Dirk Bogarde as the freebooting Major Paddy Leigh-Fermor.
Ill Met by Moonlight was the last full-length Archers feature, although Powell and Pressburger re-teamed briefly in a delightful short movie made for the Children's Film Foundation: The Boy Who Turned Yellow. A charming 54 minute fantasy, written by Emeric Pressburger, about a boy who inexplicably changes colour on an Underground journey and takes off to rescue his lost pet mouse from the Tower of London with an electronic pal named Nick.
Michael Powell went on working solo - his 1960 chiller/thriller Peeping Tom about a voyeuristic serial killer shocked critics and temporarily destroyed his reputation, restored only by pressure from the BFI and from fans like Scorsese. His last film was quite different, a genial romantic comedy set on a desert island: The Age of Consent starred James Mason as a lecherous artist and the young Helen Mirren as a child of nature frequently remiss in the matter of clothing.
Resources: "Arrows of Desire" by Ian Christie of the British Film Institute. An authoritative, lavishly illustrated book by one of the Archers' most fervent fans and supporters. First published 1985, reprinted 1994. Check with ELM Books.
To see Powell himself with some of the actors he favoured pre-Archers, you should look at his unique The Edge of the World/Return to the Edge of the World.
If remote islands interest you - and they fascinated Powell - this is a must-see video, poignantly relevant to the recent tragedy in which four young men were drowned together in a fishing accident. They were the last remaining young males from one of the outermost Western Isles and without them, the fragile population cannot hope to survive. In 1937, Powell filmed a b/w drama on the Shetland island of Foula - its theme was the forced evacuation of an island owing to the loss of its young people. (St Kilda's is an example that comes to mind). Forty years later he returned to Foula to make a brief colour documentary of the island, bringing with him some of his original cast and crew and meeting some of the people who had played bit parts in the feature film.
Referring across to another film on much the same subject, made by Robert Flaherty, consider the classic docudrama: Man of Aran, which Pauline Kael describes as "a truly exalted work-the greatest film tribute to man's struggle against hostile nature."