The Archers

The study of cinema is the study of directors, or more accurately, the study of auteurs. Single visions brought to life via a committee. Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford, all of these names immediately pop into our minds when we think of directors. Their films are connected through common motifs, iconic imagery, recurring themes, and most importantly, a singular vision captured. One man helming the show.

The problems with this idea is simple, cinema is quite possibly the most collaborative form of artistic expression. Both a blend of consumer oriented marketing and genuine emotional pathos, it takes a village of hundreds, sometimes even thousands to bring a movie into existence. Why then would critics, scholars and students choose to focus their studies on one particular position? Frank Capra was the first to propagate the ‘name above the title’ and critics and scholars, notable Andre Bazin and Andrew Sarris took up the idea, developed the Auteur Theory, and as such, we have interpreted the study of cinema as a study of individuals. Because of this narrow view, many notable contributors have gone unknown and forgotten for far too long. Many filmmakers don’t quite fit the mold of the Auteur Theory, these people do not play nicely, and thus, they have been left of the list.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are two such names that commonly get lost in the shuffle. They were writers, producers and directors, and they signed their films in that very manner. But even beyond that, they understood that the success of their films went far beyond their own collaboration. They were merely the governing body of The Archers, a stable of talent that has yet to be reproduced. In front of the camera were those faces: Kathleen Byron, Marius Goring, Deborah Kerr, Sir Esmond Knight, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Eric Porter, Conrad Veidt, Anton Walbrook, and on and on. Behind the scenes, the artist: Jack Cardiff, Christopher Challis, Brian Easdale, Hein Heckroth, Alfred Junger, Reginald Mills, these people all had their own roles and they knew them quite well, loved them even.

Powell, Jack Cardiff, Geoffrey Unsworth, and Christopher Challis
Michael Powell, Jack Cardiff, Geoffrey Unsworth, and Christopher Challis

Powell and Pressburger and their team of Archers behind them never claimed to be easily identifiable or pigeonholed into any one interpretation. What do Anglican Nuns, Ballet, Mystical Scottish Islands, and two world wars have in common? The Archers. What does and Englishman with a European sensibility and a Hungarian trying very hard to be English have in common? Archers. Who are these Archers and what do they stand for?What Do They Know Of The Archers Who Only Archers Know?

Michael Powell

Michael Powell - A Life in Movies

Michael Latham Powell was born September 30, 1905, just one day after Michaelmas – The Feast of Archangel Michael, in Kent, England. Born at the beginning of the century, and the dawn of a new medium, Powell would identify his life and the evolution of cinema as one and the same, even titling the first volume of his memoirs, A Life in Movies.

Powell took his first job in the picture business with Rex Ingram who was shooting films in Nice, France. Powell started at the very bottom mopping up, fetching coffee, and living surreptitiously at the studio. As time went on, he was entrusted with more duties and made his debut as a background actor in The Magician (1926). Powell continued his career in the film industry by taking still photographs for promotional purposes. His path crossed momentarily with another rising English filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, when he was assigned to take promotional stills for Champagne (1927). Hitch enlisted Powell’s help on Britain’s first talkie, Blackmail (1929) and it was Powell who claims to have come up with the British Royal Library as the setting for the final chase, although he was not credited.

In 1931, Powell started a working relationship with producer Jerome Jackson and was giving the opportunity to direct “quota quickies”. Quota Quickies were very low-budget hour-long films designed to fulfill a legal requirement of the British Film Industry. From 1931 to 1937 Powell directed twenty-three quota quickies, some of them fairly decent, Red Ensign (1934) and Phantom Light (1935), others completely forgettable and lost to time. In 1936, Powell met and joined forces with Joe Rock and directed The Man Behind the Mask for Joe Rock Productions. Rock saw something in Powell, and gave him the opportunity to direct a movie from Powell’s own script. The Edge of the World (1937) was a box office and critical success and proved that Powell was capable of handling much more than the run of the mill quote quickies.

Powell was hired by Alexander Korda, the founder of London Films Productions, at sixty pounds a week. His first assignment was to research, scout and plan a movie he was also going to direct, Burmese Silver. Burmese Silver was a vehicle for actor Conrad Veidt, but the project was scrapped due to political issues. Instead, Powell was offered another Veidt vehicle to work on, The Spy in Black. The screenwriter that was hired to work on The Spy in Black was a Hungarian émigré named Emeric Pressburger.

Emeric Pressburger

Emeric Pressburger

Imre József Pressburger was born in Miskolc, Hungary on December 5, 1902. He would change his name to Emmerich when he fled Germany and finally to Emeric when he landed in England. His writing career began in Germany with a script for Robert Siodamack in 1930, but the Hungarian Jew would flee the Nazi occupation, even leaving the key in the door to save the stormtroopers the trouble of kicking it in. Pressburger would write and work in Paris for a short period of time before he finally settled in England, a country he adored and adopted as his own. Much like Billy Wilder and Joseph Conrad, Pressburger wrote not in his native tongue, but in the language that he loved. There is something unique and special to Pressburger’s writing, especially the dialog which is intelligent, yet casual when spoken by the actors. If there is anything one thing to be culled from Pressburger’s writing, it is his sense of economy.

Alexander Korda, also a Hungarian, was putting together a stable of other Hungarians at London Films when he hired Pressburger. Pressburger was assigned to re-write the script for the upcoming Conrad Veidt vehicle, The Spy in Black. Pressburger made a list of notes and presented it at the meeting with Korda, Irving Asher, and Michael Powell. Powell recounts the meeting that would change and shape both of their lives:

Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting. I listened, spellbound. […] Emeric unfolded his notes, until they were at least six inches long. He had stood Storer Clouston’s plot on its head and completely restructed the film. […] I glanced across the table at Irving and his unfortunate screenwriter. They were sitting with their mouths open. Nobody had ever told them that when you buy the rights to a famous book which turns out to be useless for a screenwriter’s purpose, you keep the title and throw the book away.” (Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies. Alfred P. Knopf, New York: 1986. Pages 302-303)

The Spy in Black was released on August 12, 1939 and was a success. Knowing a good thing when they see one, the two collaborated once again on Contraband (1940), which also re-teamed them with Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. They followed Contraband up with The 49th Parallel (1941), for which Pressburger won the Oscar for Best Original Story. The two decided to form a company where they and they alone would have sole possession of their films and careers. From 1942 to 1957, they made nineteen films under the banner of The Archers.

A Production Of The Archers

Archers Logo

The two showed mutual respect for each other by signing all of their films: “Written, Produced and Directed By Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”. The name for their company came from a pastiche poem by James Agate:

The arrow was pure gold
But somehow missed the target
But as all Golden Arrow trippers know,
‘Tis better to miss Naples than hit Margate. (A Life in Movies, page 387)

Their logo was of a target with an arrow thudding dead on in the bullseye. The target had other arrows imbedded in it, they didn’t always hit the bullseye, at least not on the first shot, but they found it enough. Martin Scorsese watched these movies over and over again while he was growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy and he saw this title card as an announcement that a great movie was to come. A sentiment that Powell most likely had in mind with such an audacious logo.

The Archers could hardly be identified by any one thing in particular, if anything, they are defined by their ambition. Not every film works, but the ones that do, work marvelously. To once again borrow from Scorsese, “They were the most successful experimental filmmakers.” They were experimental, but they were also very serious filmmakers. While trying to convince Wendy Hiller to take the part of Edith Hunter/Barbara/Angela (the role would later go to Deborah Kerr after Hiller became pregnant) in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1942), Powell sent her a letter that opens with a manifesto of sorts that clearly shows the two mean business:

One, we owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.

Two, every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.

Three, when we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

Four, no artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.

Five, at any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. And we agree with them and want the best workmen with us; and get them. These are the main things we believe in. They have brought us an unbroken record of success and a unique position. Without the one, of course, we should not enjoy the other very long. We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks. But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if you have only paddled, with a nurse holding on to the back of your rompers.

We hope you will come on in, the water’s fine. (Ian Christie, ed. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Faber and Faber, London: 1994. Pages 16-17)

Under the banner of The Archers, Powell and Pressburger would make a series of complex and fascinating films, none of which were concerned with British realism, the typical fare at the cinemas then. In fact, the two of them strove to work against British manners and realism, as seen in one of their greatest works, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. In an interview with Kevin Gough-Yates in 1973, Powell sums up his personal philosophy of filmmaking, “To me, films are images – thousands and thousands of images with different textures and things. So naturalism has never interested me.” Powell was more vocal in this manner than Pressburger, but considering that Pressburger was responsible for coming up with these magical ideas, it can assumed that it was of equal importance as well.  Consider the ballet of The Red Shoes that appears halfway through the film of the same name, it is a subjective look at the mind space of the dancer. The same could be said of David Farrar’s battle with the whiskey bottle in The Small Back Room (1949). Surrealism, expressionism, impressionism, call it what you will, the audiences loved it all the same. The critics didn’t and Powell & Pressburger were left out in the cold for many years until they were rediscovered by the film brats of The New American Cinema.

The Collaboration

Michael Powell, Kim Hunter, Emeric Pressburger
Michael Powell, Kim Hunter, Emeric Pressburger

Powell and Pressburger are arguably most famous for signing their films “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”. What does that mean exactly? The simple answer would be to divvy up the tasks and see who did what. Pressburger was responsible for the first draft for the script, which he did not discuss with anyone until it was all out on paper. Powell would make his pass, sometimes changing very little, sometimes changing a lot. One exchange in Blimp shows exactly what type of writing collaboration the two had:

Sequence 97: Interior General’s Car

Theo: What is your first name, Ms. Cannon?

Johnny: Angela.

Theo: Lovely name. It comes from ‘angel’, [doesn’t it?].

Johnny: I think it stinks. My friends call me ‘Johnny’. (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, p. 260)

The first three lines are Pressburger’s, Powell contributed the fourth line.

Powell and Pressburger

When they had agreed on a script, they would then hop into production mode. Pressburger would commonly take point with the studios as Powell was taken to temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way. Powell was almost solely in charge of direction, but after shooting was complete, Powell would go off to clear his head, and Pressburger would oversee the editing process and score:

The scoring, dubbing, and editing were very much Emeric’s domain. Michael loathed having to go into the cutting room. Emeric saw editing as a natural continuation of his job as a screenwriter. (Macdonald, Kevin Emeric Pressburger The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Faber and Faber, London: 1996. Page 268)

After the film was complete, Powell, being the showman of the two, would be the face that would help market and promote the film, most likely while Pressburger started work on their next script.

Even this breakdown of duties is an over simplification. Powell would refer to their collaboration as “a marriage without sex”. Pressburger would say of their partnership, “He knows what I am going to say even before I say it – maybe even before I have thought it – and that is very rare.” Looking at another successful collaboration, that of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the men behind Comedy Central’s South Park and the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon) gives some insight into the workings of Powell and Pressburger, or indeed any collaboration. How Parker and Stone have divided up the tasks of creation and production as can be seen in the TV documentary 6 Days to Air (Arthur Bradford, 2011). Parker is seeing doing to bulk of the lifting when it comes to the actual writing of the final script and direction, with Stone contributing ideas and voices. However, Parker admits that he needs Stone there to collaborate with, not as a security blanket, but because Stone contributes and X-Factor that is unquantifiable. Powell and Pressburger were that X-Factor for each other, both building off one another in ways that are hard to pinpoint. 

Reggie Mills, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Reggie Mills, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Like all good things, their collaboration came to an end. Not because of a blow out fight, a disagreement over a movie, or anything sensational. They just simply out grew each other. In talking about his collaboration with Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese gives some insight into the end of a collaboration

It’s the old story. One has to be very careful about such a strong collaboration, because at a certain point in time, one of the collaborators will begin to get more satisfaction out of it than the other. And that’s when it’s time to make changes. (Ehrenstein, David. The Scorsese Picture: The Art & Life of Martin Scorsese. Carol Publishing Group, New York: 1992. Page 160)

The two would continue their friendship, and even a working relationship until both of their passing. First, Pressburger went in 1988 and then Powell in 1990. Powell was not present when Pressburger passed, and not at all concerned with naturalism, Powell corrected this problem in art once more. At the conclusion of his two-part autobiography, Powell imagines a day spent at Pressburger’s cottage, Shoemaker’s Cottage, where the truth of their collaboration is finally revealed:

You know that all these writers on film that you have set to writing about us – you’ve written about it yourself, in your own autobiography – you know, Michael, how they are always trying to explain: ‘Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’? You and I know what it means, but they don’t. They think there is some secret about it. I’ll tell you what it is, Michael. The only secret about it is that we are amateurs. When films were silent, films were an art. We all know that. But when they learned to talk, people tried to turn them into a business. Telling a story, Michael, is not a business. It is an art, and we are different from other artists, because we were left alone by Arthur Rank for nearly ten years to go our own sweet way, thinking we were professionals. But we were amateurs, Michael. That’s why our films were different from other people’s. (Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie. Random House, New York: 1992. Page 570)

Their Legacy

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

The films of The Archers are some of the most incredible things committed to celluloid. Generally unsung to the masses, they never-the-less are incredibly important and influential to following generations of filmmakers. Musician Brian Eno once claimed that The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought a copy went out and started a band. The same could be said of the effect The Archers had on cinema. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Bernard Travinier, etc. have all taken as much as they possibly could from The Archers and incorporated it into their own films. The legacy of The Archers lives on in the medium that they adored.

I can think of no better way to sum up the career of Powell & Pressburger than with the help of one of their own films. In A Matter of Life and Death (1946) Peter (David Niven) and June (Kim Hunter) must confront and conquer this world and the next to remain together. In the end, they triumph and in a touching close-up, their faces held close together, they whisper, “We did it!” There is a secondary level to this line and movie as well, June is American and Peter is English. Combined, these two nations beat the Axis and made the world safe again. “We did it!” And yet, there is another reading, one of Powell and Pressburger giving each other a hearty handshake, a pat on the back, and a moment to bask in what they have accomplished. “We did it!”

They certainly did.