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Not Just Propaganda: A Canterbury Tale, Colonel Blimp and Wartime

By Andrew Moor

     The British cinema industry was riding high during the 1940s. Its two major producers, Alexander Korda and J. Arthur Rank, had by then developed major production companies. There was a burgeoning sense (if not a consensus) of what a 'British film' could or should be, and the onset of war with Germany in September 1939 gave the industry a sense of purpose and a 'great tale to tell'. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were key players in this industry. They were first brought together by Korda to make The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), both starring the German émigré film star Conrad Veidt. These are 'Hitchcockian' spy-thrillers, but they also work as propaganda. Contraband, in particular, is atmospherically set in blacked-out London at the start of the war, and beautifully captures the disorientation of its darkened streets. In a sense, then, Powell (the cosmopolitan English gentleman with a genuinely international imagination) and Pressburger (the émigré from central Europe, recently arrived in England) forged their working relationship making films which spoke about nationality, as this was the dominant theme of wartime. Yet neither of them was entirely 'contained' by the propaganda function of their work together, and if they celebrate various aspects of Britishness, they also interrogate it, and their imaginations are likely to take them abroad.

     There followed another pair of related films, each elaborating on the theme of border-crossings which the two spy films had introduced. 49th Parallel (1941) traces the journey of a German submarine crew trapped in Canada, and was made at the behest of the Ministry of Information (it was partly government funded). Its purpose was to win over American public opinion for the war against Nazism, and to draw the U.S.A. out of its neutral position. The following year, Powell and Pressburger released ... one of our aircraft is missing (1942). Here, a British bomber crew, which has bailed out over German-occupied Holland, is helped back to England by the Dutch Resistance movement. These films have impeccable credentials: their messages are clear; their narratives are episodic, linear and relatively simple; and their style is more or less conventional.

     By 'conventional', I mean that they broadly exhibit the features of an 'understated realism'. Although there are many exceptions, it more or less holds true to say that by the 1940s a quiet, observational style was deemed to be what British cinema 'ought' to possess. Not for British cinema the 'tinsel' and escapism of Hollywood; instead, a sober documentary-influenced style. It can also be said that this style of cinema harmonised with some of the prevailing, patriotic ideas of the time, and presented an image of the nation (and its wider Empire) pulling together in the fight against Fascism, steadfast, stoical, unemotional, and putting aside differences of class, gender or region. 'We' were all in it together; it was a 'People's War'.

     The real situation was more complex. The films of Powell and Pressburger amongst others rarely settle into anything like a documentary realism for long, and one of the most fascinating things about British cinema of this period is the way it produced 'soft propaganda' singing up the virtues of British homes, landscapes, traditions and people, even though the people making these films were sometimes immigrants from 'Continental Europe', who (like Pressburger) may even have had the official status of 'enemy aliens'.

     These early collaborations are finely made feature films, but they are confined by their genre, and limited - to a degree - by their immediate function as propaganda. Stranger and more fascinating by far are The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Canterbury Tale (1944), the first two films Powell and Pressburger wrote, produced and directed for J. Arthur Rank. In terms of content, these films do share themes with the more generic war-work. Questions of geography are emphasised: notions of home, homeliness, migration and exploration are dramatised; and wrapped up with these ideas come emotionally charged senses of permanence, transience and nostalgia. The journeys we see enacted have a purpose. They are pilgrimages. Yet however much Emeric Pressburger's stories are tales of journeying, they also seem to crave roots and a sense of belonging - belonging to a house, or to a particular, spiritually invested landscape.

     These are common themes for wartime, and I would argue that Blimp and A Canterbury Tale contain much that agrees with the values of the 'People's War'. For example, Blimp is about how fascism should be fought. It shows that old-fashioned traditions need to be 'pensioned off'. It salutes modern Britain. Its surviving characters literally salute the troops marching by off-screen in its closing shot, and these gestures of respect are directly 'to-camera', honouring the contemporary audience sat in the cinema. It is a mature, sophisticated exploration of the 'British character', figured through traditions and history, 40 years of which are presented for us in flashback. It may well focus on a wealthy elite class, but it strives to put aside a class-ridden sense of Britishness, and its most dynamic, exciting sequence is a motor vehicle chase to London set in 1942 to an American jazz-swing tune, 'Commando Patrol'. It is very much a film about the real politics of the 1940s; it could not be more modern.

     Where Blimp has been said to explore 'how' the war is fought, A Canterbury Tale takes a pastoral theme - spiritual renewal in a rural setting - to examine 'why' the allies were fighting. Chillingbourne, the film's fictional village in the country of Kent in south-east England, represents the old values of the nation as a whole, and representations of the countryside like this were a common feature of wartime British culture. The film directly works through some topical tensions about the large numbers of American soldiers stationed in England and about the morals of the so-called 'mobilised women' recruited into the war effort, such as Alison Smith, the central character played by Sheila Sim who has been conscripted into the 'Land Army' to do important farm-work. By overcoming the sexism she encounters in the village of Chillingbourne, and by managing to feel at home there having left metropolitan London behind, Alison's journey dramatises a conventional image of a nation undivided by region or sex. A Canterbury Tale seems at first to lack some of the cinematic zest of Blimp, as if it has been seduced into idleness itself by the hot August Kent countryside it gazes at so lovingly (a lot of the shots slowly dissolve from one to the next - even the editing has been lulled into a quiet torpor). Do note, however, that things are more dynamic once we get to the cathedral city of Canterbury: Peter Gibb's squadron parades through the streets before being posted into battle, and the hymn-march 'Onward Christian Soldiers' blares out of the cathedral organ as the closing credits start to roll.

     So far, so good, but by stressing these conventional features I have quite dramatically ignored all that is so weird or so arresting about these two films. Stylistically they transcend their immediate propaganda purpose, and it has to be admitted that many found these films to be confusing when they were released. Blimp's epic scale, its conspicuous use of Technicolor film stock (hard to acquire at the time) and its flashback structure (mercifully now restored after decades of existing in a much shortened version) mark it out as a strange product of the mid-war years, and its notorious reputation survives as the film the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, tried to ban. Through its central figure of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), the film represents foolishness among the 'officer-class'; it refers to the newspaper cartoonist David Low's long-running and well-known caricature of stubborn, hot-headed stupidity, 'Colonel Blimp', and (as if this were not contentious enough) it gives some of its most eloquently intelligent lines to Clive's life-long friend, the German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, played by the émigré Austrian actor Anton Walbrook. We are taken back to 1902 to see Clive as a dynamic, independently minded young officer, but watch him lose touch with reality as he grows out-of-date, clinging to his woolly notions of 'gentlemanly' conduct. These notions might be quaint, but with Nazi totalitarianism glaring at Britain from occupied France, they are potentially fatal.

     The Ministry of Information was the government department with an overview of the film industry and it exercised an informal line of control through a process of vetting scripts, but in the main it sustained a serviceable dialogue with filmmakers, and there was broad agreement about themes and ideas which would win official approval. Blimp certainly attracted the Prime Minister's angry attention (and it is astonishing to note that despite the war effort he took the time to notice it), but it was not within the MOI's remit to ban the film. the fact that it was completed, released and (after some delay) does stand as evidence of democratic free speech, and this was what the war was supposedly being fought for.

     If I cannot do justice to the breadth and richness of Blimp in this short introduction, I can highlight a few aspects which seem to me still to be striking. First is its sense of visual flair. Blimp shows Powell and Pressburger working towards a new way of seeing and showing - an entirely fresh visual aesthetic. Look at the celebrated 'hunting trophy' montage sequence filmed by Jack Cardiff, which marks all the years Clive Candy spends killing animals because he has neither a war nor a wife to occupy his time. It is not just that this sequence flies in the face of 1940s 'British realism' (which would be historically interesting in itself). This is the sort of vibrant, visual display we might associate with the directors Ken Russell or Richard Lester, but they worked through the 1960s when a more liberal and anti-establishment attitude was in fashion. As early as 1942, Powell and Pressburger are clearly looking for a cinematic language which is modernist without being 'avant garde'.

     Then there is the casting of Deborah Kerr in three roles, and it is perhaps too easy to forget how startlingly novel this was. She is Edith, the feisty schoolmistress who marries Theo; in a gentle interlude she is Barbara, the former nurse whom Clive then marries; and then she is Angela, working as the aged Clive's driver in World War Two. She represents Clive's 'ideal' of course, and the emotional complexity explored here shows how far Blimp exceeds its purpose as a satirical comedy. When they are reunited as old widowers, Clive tells Theo that he had always loved Edith, and that his own wife Barbara had looked so like her. To this touching confession, Theo simply responds that he 'never thought it possible that an Englishman could be so romantic'. That evening, Angela (who much prefers her less angelic nickname 'Johnny') drives Theo through the 'blackout' to his lodgings and her face is briefly lit up for him to see. Theo recognises Clive's fixation - it might be foolish, morbid, nostalgic, sentimental or genuinely romantic, and all of these possibilities seem to dance gently over Anton Walbrook's face. What he also sees, of course, is a reincarnation of his own dead wife, whose memories of the England she left behind long ago are what made Theo seek refuge in London. Amid Blimp's hustle and bustle, Walbrook's almost static presence in these sequences give a gravity to Theo and forms an emotional core to the film. We see this too when Theo pleads for asylum at his tribunal in 1939. It is a very untypical scene for Powell and Pressburger: slow, steady, quiet, gently tracking forward as Theo tells the truth about what England means to him.

     Perhaps making sense of A Canterbury Tale requires us to overlook a frankly perverse storyline: a warped 'Glueman' is terrorising a village, attacking girls who are out at night, pouring glue in their hair to stop them from cavorting recklessly with soldiers. Three young 'pilgrims' (Alison, Peter and an American soldier called Bob) spend a weekend in the village getting to know the local magistrate, Colpeper, while they try to solve the 'Glueman' mystery. As they pursue their investigation the spirit of the place works on them and they are effectively 'captivated' - though the key turning point in the narrative occurs when all three attend a lecture about local history which Mr Colpeper gives to the troops. Colpeper draws out links between his everyday audience in the village hall and the characters in Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century poem The Canterbury Tales. His words cast a spell (Eric Portman's performance is itself mesmeric), and as he describes Chaucer's pilgrims we imagine we see and hear them. So does Alison, and shortly afterwards as she climbs a hill to the old Pilgrims Road, she seems to hear their ghosts making music and laughing. The film genuinely believes in this 'inner' vision, and later, when we get to Canterbury, genuine miracles seem to occur (and it is possible that Mr Colpeper himself is responsible for them).

     Perhaps we have entered a world of fantasy, a world seemingly far-removed from the violent realities of war? Well, in 1942 Michael Powell wrote that '[n]o artist believes in escapism - and we secretly believe no audience does'. [T]hey will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.. The 'truths' in these two films are not the easiest ones to hear: sections of the British army are hopelessly out of their depth and need to be shocked out of their old-world charm; and the blunt aggression of warfare is veiled behind 'good manners' and gentlemanly conduct (just as Clive's scarred face is hidden behind his moustache). However seductive the communal, pastoral image of old-fashioned Englishness is, there is something terrifying lurking there too. Clive learns his lesson: he is forced to recognise, understand and respect modern values. Colpeper's sexism is also undone by Alison: her modern values disarm him completely. In their last reels, then, both of these films 'tow the line' and reconcile themselves to the 'grand story' of the British at war, but they remain ambiguous, their messages are complex, and the fact that Powell and Pressburger show us these things in the midst of 'Total War' is all the more astonishing.

Andrew Moor, 2010

Andrew Moor is the author of Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces (London, I.B. Tauris, 2005) and co-editor, with Ian Christie, of The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-maker (London, BFI, 2005). He is Reader of Cinema History at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.

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