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Spirit of Place: Powell and Pressburger Abroad

By Ian Christie

The flight to Argentina was one of those endurance jobs, from north of the northern hemisphere to south of the southern hemisphere, picking up contingents of guests en route... twenty-nine hours flying time. - Michael Powell, Million-Dollar Movie

     The two volumes of Michael Powell's memoirs, A Life in Movies and Million-Dollar Movie, are punctuated by vivid descriptions of long distance travel. These range from his early experiences of driving the length of France with his father in the 1920s, to the stormy voyages required by Edge of the World in 1936, through grim wartime transatlantic crossings, up to the gruelling and often fruitless journeys in search of finance that marked the 1950s and 60s. Later, there would be the invitations to festivals great and small, as the Powell-Pressburger canon was rediscovered during the 1980s.

     All of these accounts radiate Powell's delight in travel. Little wonder that he knew and admired the doyen of English travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose wartime exploits are celebrated in what would be the Archers. last film together, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). Set in German-occupied Crete, Powell hoped to film this on location, but was forced to settle for Southern France - an ironic echo of the geographic compromise that had been forced on him twenty years earlier, when Edge of the World had to be made on the even more remote Scottish island of Foula instead of St Kilda, which had inspired it. Then, the forced relocation had been the making of the film, setting it in a community that still clung to the island life. But Ill Met turned out to be ill-fated, and its weakness led Powell to dissolve his partnership with Pressburger.

     Place - and the travelling involved in reaching places - mattered enormously to Powell. The thrill of long, arduous journeys by air, sea, rail and automobile pulses through his memoirs, as a counterpoint to the thrill of commanding a film set. And it was places that inspired his imagination: places that he would grasp by reading their history and literature, by studying maps - and by walking the landscape. The journey to Argentina in 1955 was prompted by an invitation to a film festival, which led Pressburger to suggest considering a film about the scuttling of the German 'pocket battleship' Graf Spee, in 1940, in the neutral waters off Montevideo. The logistics of staging the battle between three smaller British warships and the Graf Spee would eventually take Powell to the Mediterranean, where he enjoyed the thrill of choreographing real warships - including one of the original squadron combatants. But it was also Powell and Pressburger's visit to Uruguay that informed the way this factual story is told, by on-shore commentators, which lifts the film above many routine 1950s British war movies.

     The cosmopolitan bustle of Montevideo was both filmed on location and staged back in the studio in Britain, as the Archers had done since their first 'international' film, 49th Parallel (1941). Matching location filming with studio-built sets was at the heart of film-craft between the 1930s and 50s, and for Powell and his collaborators it was second nature. Audiences today may marvel at the creation of the Himalayan mountain convent in Black Narcissus entirely at Pinewood studios, with some additional shooting at a nearby garden. This untypical all-studio approach was based on Powell's belief that the unity of atmosphere required by the melodramatic story could best be achieved in the studio, while interspersed Himalayan footage would distract and take the film dangerously close to becoming a travelogue.

     Ten years later, in Battle of the River Plate, the Montevideo material was used 'sparingly' - "we didn't want to turn the film into a travelogue" - and the delicate balance between authenticity and artifice was maintained, as it had been in some of the greatest Archers' films, such as A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I'm Going!. Today these films attract enthusiastic pilgrimage to the places they represent and where they were partly shot - the Isle of Mull and the villages around Canterbury. And what visitors who know the films well discover is how intricately they weave together 'found' elements of landscape and buildings with studio sets, which amplify and for practical purposes duplicate elements of the real fabric of Mull and Kent.

     The ability of film to create 'magic geography' was recognised and celebrated by the Soviet pioneer Lev Kuleshov, who produced practical demonstrations in the early 1920s, showing how actors could appear to be together in a space that did not in fact exist. 1 For Kuleshov and the early Soviet directors, this was a proof of the power of 'montage', or editing, and a blow against naturalistic theories of cinema. Film is artifice, they insisted; and Powell shared this 'constructive' view, as a filmmaker trained in the same period, who had imbibed the lessons of Soviet montage, along with the magic of Disney and much else.

     The most important achievement for Powell was always to create a believable 'world' within each film, and frequently a series of subsidiary worlds, such as the episodes scatter across Canada that make up 49th Parallel, or the earthly and the heavenly worlds that Peter Carter simultaneously inhabits in A Matter of Life and Death. His means of creating these worlds would vary according to need and opportunity, with no technique, however seemingly artificial, ruled out. He had, after all, been an enthusiast among the generally sceptical filmmakers at Rank in the 1940s for the proposed 'independent frame' policy of using extensive back-projection to streamline production.

     But Powell also instinctively understood how much 'reality' is needed to anchor or ground a film, and communicate a sense of place to the audience. Consider the 'snap' of the bird turning into a Spitfire fighter at the beginning of A Canterbury Tale, jerking us out of a nostalgic Chaucerian Kent into the wartime present of 1944. Or the opening sequences of A Matter of Life and Death, which move from a model of the universe, through a studio-built blazing cockpit, to the early morning beach at Stanton Sands in Devon, where the almost palpable texture of sand and sea convinces both David Niven and us that we are in a 'real' place.

     This is, of course, what a later theorist of cinema, Christian Metz, would call 'the reality effect', while emphasising that it is precisely an effect created by the operation of various devices and codes shared by filmmaker and spectator. 2 Again, Powell instinctively understood how cinema plays with such conventions of 'reality', as he showed in A Matter of Life and Death, and would demonstrate again with terrifying wit and sophistication in Peeping Tom. But a sense of place, and how to communicate this on screen, mattered even more to him. 'Place' for Powell was already a construct: it was what he had read about, seen on the map, travelled to, and viewed first-hand with the seasoned eye of the traveller and of the filmmaker. The landscapes of Gone to Earth and The Elusive Pimpernel are already both 'literary' and historical, shaped by Powell's boyhood reading and experience. Travelling to Latin America in 1955, he read Antoine de St Exupery's Vol de nuit, a story about the early days of flying in the Andes, as a way of beginning to grasp this new reality. Sensuous experiences of all kinds would follow, all vividly recalled in Million-Dollar Movie, and would ultimately shape the onshore sequences of The Battle of the River Plate.

     Powell's own explanation of this passion for travel and for place would have invoked Rudyard Kipling, whose stories and poetry had been his companion since childhood. Kipling travelled prodigiously, and wrote about a world of restless travellers and shifting identity. Powell took from him the motto, 'All art is one', but he also grasped Kipling's almost mystical sense of place, expressed in Puck of Pook's Hill, where an otherwise unremarkable space is revealed to be the sum of all its historical occupants - an early anticipation of 'psychogeography'. The belief in a 'spirit of place', which may not ultimately be visible, is what animates the greatest of Powell and Pressburger's films - think of the optimistic end of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as Clive Candy muses on what has survived the destruction of his house. And it continued to inspire Powell during the rest of his career, as much in his unmade as in his all too few completed films.

     Ian Christie

1 Lev Kuleshov, The Art of the Cinema (1929), in Ronald Levaco, ed. Kuleshov on Film, University of California Press, 1974, pp.51-53
2 Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema - Translated by Michael Taylor, New York, Oxford University Press, 1974, repr. University of Chicago Press, 1991 (translation of Essais sur la signification au cinéma).

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