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Powell and Pressburger: Battleships and Byron | reviews, news & interviews

Powell and Pressburger: Battleships and Byron

Powell and Pressburger: Battleships and Byron

The 1950s war films 'The Battle of the River Plate' and 'Ill Met By Moonlight' turned a clapped-out genre into art

Stiff upper lips: Anthony Quayle and Ian Hunter in 'The Battle of the River Plate' BFI

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a glorious run of movies from The Spy in Black (1939) to The Small Back Room (1949). Yet the duo’s reputation went into steep decline in the 1950s, and they began to encounter difficulty in securing finance for projects.

There were no Archers movies at all between The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and Oh…Rosalinda!! (1955), and both of those "total films" bombed with critics and audiences who were then into realism and violently opposed to exotic spectacles.

And so, as if to rehabilitate themselves within the ultra-conservative British film industry, the pair negotiated a return to the Rank Organisation with an unexpected foray into the corniest and least inspirational genre of all, the stiff-upper-lip Fifties war film.

The final collaborations of Powell and Pressburger’s classic period, The Battle of the River Plate (1956, pictured below right) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957), have often been neglected or dismissed as too conventional – including by Powell himself – but the films are more interesting than the legend suggests, with an odd mixture of realism and romanticism and technical virtuosity that is a long way from terminal decline and may even serve as a perfect summation of their partnership.

In fact, the last two Archers’ films parallel the duo’s first two films, repeating themes of The Spy in Black and Contraband (1940): wartime, friendship across borders and cultures, foreign waters or landscapes. (The Battle of the River Plate is set on the Atlantic and in Uruguay while Ill Met by Moonlight uses Crete as its background.)

In both cases, the logistics of the story required, as in I Know Where I’m Going!’s spectacular whirlpool sequence, a mix of location and studio filming. Indeed the dramatic energy of The Battle of the River Plate comes from its stunning documentary-style action shots of real boats manoeuvring on real seas, as opposed to plastic models just bobbing in a Pinewood tank.

Rarely included in discussions of their masterpieces, though it was Powell and Pressburger’s most commercially successful film, The Battle of the River Plate is based on the true story of the British Navy's triumph over a German “pocket battleship”, the Graf Spee, in the early months of World War II.

Orchestrated to perfection in the deployment of the British warships, manned by such stalwarts as Anthony Quayle, Ian Hunter, and John Gregson, standing in front of the back projection, looking off screen with binoculars, the plot moves relentlessly forward, Jules Verne-like in its combination of science, engineering, mystery, and romance.

Throughout the movie Pressburger’s dialogue is brilliantly efficient and packed with naval jargon, as when the Lookout (a young Donald Moffat) sweeps his telescope in a long panorama before giving the alert: “Smoke Bearing Red 100!”

It’s intriguing to think that something cumulative might be working its way to the surface in this tauntingly self-conscious war film, with its striking and familiar treatment of The Sympathetic German, a character type that had led Powell and Pressburger into conflict with the wartime British authorities. (Indeed this figure recurs repeatedly in their films.) 

Like Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the German commander of the Graf Spee, superbly played by Peter Finch, is not stereotyped as a cartoon Nazi or Hun, even though Powell sees the battleship itself as a vast, complex killing machine, a kind of “technological Moby Dick”,  in the words of the film critic Raymond Durgnat.

Puffing a big cigar and moving wooden blocks around his charts, Finch’s Langsdorff is a fittingly dark romantic subject for Powell and Pressburger, and never more so than when he teases a captured British captain with his explanation of how he fools the enemy by switching the Graf Spee’s disguises, flags and even its nameplates: “One day I’m the Deutschland. The next I am the Admiral Scheer. So I keep your Navy interested. I’m like a pretty girl. I change my frock. I change my hat. I am a different girl!”

In other words, Powell is giving us the war ship as sex object. In the climactic Montevideo scene, watched from the shore by a young Christopher Lee speaking Spanish in a tight shirt, the sex object becomes a literal bombshell: The fireball is “a staggering spectacle”, according to Lionel Murton’s American newscaster on the waterfront. ”It’s like a thriller you can’t put down.” The same is true of the movie itself.

Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) is another true story of bravery in foreign lands. Yet it belongs to a different tradition of British military mythology, combining the public school prank with the Byronic motif of the poet-adventurer – and, once again, it’s The Sympathetic German who steals the show.

Set in occupied Crete in 1943, and based on W. Stanley Moss’s memoir with its rather incongruous Shakespearean title, the midsummer night in question concerns the kidnapping of a Nazi general (Marius Goring) by Cretan partisans led by a British officer, Patrick Leigh Fermor (Dirk Bogarde, pictured below). 

In Million Dollar Movie, the second volume of his own memoir, Powell describes the film – which he apparently rewatched in Martin Scorsese’s private screening room in the late 1980s – as one of The Archers’ “greatest failures”. However, directors aren’t always the best judges of their own work. And, in this case, Powell was wrong about Ill Met By Moonlight, which is undoubtedly one of the duo’s greatest films. It will probably become the next Powell and Pressburger masterpiece to be “rediscovered” after decades because of the same poetic use of landscape that characterises A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I'm Going! (1945).

Beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Christopher Challis and a rousing score by Mikis Theodorakis turn the Cretan mountains into another Powellian landscape of the mind. Technically, it’s just as inauthentic as the studio-built Himalayan convent of Black Narcissus (1947) or the monochrome Heaven of A Matter of Life and Death (1946), because the political situation in Crete at the time meant that location shooting was filmed in the hills behind Powell’s family hotel in the south of France.

Nevertheless the movie has a very authentic feel for the richness of Greek culture, for the patriotism and bravery of its people, and for the rugged splendour of the countryside. The scene where Leigh Fermor and Moss (David Oxley) join the partisans at a Greek dance is much truer and deeper, for example, more joyous and rebellious, than the ceilidh in I Know Where I’m Going!

Taking its title from a play about dreams and disguises, Ill Met By Moonlight is really a film about identity. Under the opening credits, we see Leigh Fermor in uniform but then, unexpectedly, he reappears in the flamboyant caped outfit of a Cretan klepht, with a dagger in his waistband. He seems to change his disguise almost as often as the Graf Spee. “I like them to think I'm a sort of duke, a latter-day Lord Byron,” he says of the partisans, whose codename for him was “Philidem”.

Like Powell himself, Leigh Fermor is a typical example of the British freelancer, an Aegean Pimpernel: fluent in Greek, he can also speak German like a German and is able to impersonate the kidnapped General Kreipe at German checkpoints. When Kreipe is thrust onto the floor of his own limousine, gagged, and sat upon by a couple of Greek peasants, his rage is compounded by Leigh Fermor’s observation that he’s been snatched by amateurs. (Pictured below: Dirk Bogarde, far right, and Marius Goring, second from right)

Bogarde’s performance is astonishing – uniquely so, in a rather dull career up to that point – for the way he slowly unfolds the conflicts in Leigh Fermor’s personality.

One moment he is quoting "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage" in a ditch as the gang wait to ambush Kreipe’s car. The next he is denouncing the barbarism of the German occupation (“You're not going to leave me in the hands of these Cretans?” asks the General. “May I remind you, sir, that in Crete we're all in the hands of the Cretans.”)

Yet Powell’s unhappiness that Bogarde, one of Rank's contracted stars, had been chosen to play Leigh Fermor may account for his under-appreciation of the film: “I wanted a flamboyant young murderer, lover, bandit – a tough, Greek-speaking leader of men, and instead I got a picture-postcard hero in fancy dress,” he wrote in his autobiography.

The film ends, as do The Battle of the River Plate and The Spy in Black, with The Sympathetic German aboard a British warship coming to terms with defeat. “I wish to correct a remark you made,” Kreipe says to Leigh Fermor. “You are not amateurs. You are professionals.” The same is also true of Powell and Pressburger. They were so professional, and gifted, that, in their last two major films together, they were able to turn a clapped-out genre into art.

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