Powell and Pressburger


“I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have, if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing – it should have a little bit of magic…”

Emeric Pressburger

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were the greatest film-makers of their age.

The partnership – known as The Archers – produced some of the most memorable films ever made, films like A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and my own favourite, A Canterbury Tale. Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger wrote the scripts and Michale Powell directed the movies, yet there was always much more integration and teamwork than that, which is why the great Powell and Pressburger movies always have the title, ‘Written, Directed and Produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.’

It’s difficult to categorise an Archers’ production. They were always immensely well crafted. In an era where most movie plots have holes in them big enough to drive a tank through, Pressburger’s plots were water-tight, beautifully crafted stories. There is nothing superfluous in a Pressburger script; every moment matters, every word counts.

They were also stunningly visual. Powell was probably the finest exponent of Technicolor – his films are saturated, drenched with wonderful colours. But he wasn’t merely a colourist, he had the true artist’s eye for shade and tone, shadow and light. His black and white films – films such as A Canterbury Tale, The Spy in Black and I Know Where I’m Going – are beautifully shot and lit. Both Powell and Pressburger thought in pictures and understood the power of the images in films to beguile and seduce. (Perhaps the greatest sustained example of this is Black Narcissus, a film where the viewer is enchanted by the beauty of the Himalayas, only to find out that the entire thing was shot in Shepperton using gloriously painted backdrops and scenery.) Some would claim that the Archers’ films are categorised by a whimsical love of fantasy. There is no doubt that they liked, indeed revelled in, the fantastic; the heavenly court of A Matter of Life and Death, the vivid ballet sequence of the Red Shoes; the exploits of the bizarre ‘Glue Man’ in A Canterbury Tale.

But, like all the greatest fantasy, their films tell us something about reality, like all great stories, they are fundamentally true.

In A Canterbury Tale, for example, the bizarre exploits of the Glue Man, are intended to point people to what is real; to the continuity, the tradition, the historical reality of the tiny English village in which he is active. The main character in Blimp is depicted with huge sympathy – yes he has turned into a reactionary old buffer, but we learn that it was not always so, we see his heroism, his gallantry, his pain. Blimp tells you that people can be genuinely heroic, that people can truly love one another, that evil must be fought, that friendship is stronger than nationhood. All good things, and true.

And Blimp contains one of the most sympathetic treatments of a German that you are likely to see in a British wartime film (or any other British film come to that). Fantasy? Only people with their eyes closed to reality believed that all Germans were knuckle-dragging, psychotic sadists. Pressburer, in particular, knew the truth; and in Blimp he celebrates the possibilities of friendship and love, in a time of war and hate.

To dismiss Powell and Pressburger as ‘spinners of fantasy’, therefore, is far too simplistic. The fantastic elements are certainly evident, but they always serve as a framework for real and compelling characters and vital truths. They stand in a tradition of English storytellers such as Chesterton, Dickens and Kipling. Curious considering the writer was a Hungarian and the director had a lifelong love-affair with the Scottish Isles. (Paradoxically, Emeric, with his love of Arsenal and his fondness for Dickens was probably more English than the Kent-born Michael).

I think, in the end, why I love Powell and Pressburger films is because they refused to be limited. They wanted films – all their films – to be stunning experiences. They wanted to make movies that were utterly unlike anyone else’s. They wanted to take the medium of the movie and stretch it as far as it would go. They wanted to take words and pictures and turn them into something magical. They wanted to show us that life is magical, that history is important, that love can change everything, that things like honesty and honour matter.

And you know what? I think they succeeded.