Posts Tagged ‘Powell-Pressburger’

My Classic Movie Pick: A Matter of Life and Death

The Archers logo from A Matter of Life and Death

The Archers logo from A Matter of Life and Death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Matter of Life and DeathIn September 1945, Michael Powell and Emeric  Pressburger began production on  a new movie for the studio that they created, The Archers.  The film, written by Powell and Pressburger, was called A Matter of Life and Death in the United Kingdom.   For the U.S. audiences, it was re-titled Stairway to Heaven.   This film was one of the more unusual ones that the team of Powell and Pressburger ever created.  A romance, with a history lesson, and a fantasy, all rolled into one concept.  The British cast members were led by David Niven, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Robert Coote, and Kathleen Byron.  American actress Kim Hunter was the female lead and Canadian actor Raymond Massey also starred in the movie.

The plot centers around RAF pilot Peter Carter(Niven) desperately trying to land his damaged and burning airplane after a mission over Germany on May 2, 1945.  His crew has already bailed out as he had ordered them to do, not revealing that his own parachute was all shot up.  He manages to contact June, an American radio operator based in England.  He talks with her movingly as he knows his life is about to end, and he makes the decision to jump from his plane without a parachute before it crashes into the sea.  By all accounts, Peter should have died but Conductor 71(Marius Goring, dressed as a very pompous French Aristocrat, circa the French Revolution) misses Peter due to the thick fog over the English Channel on the night of May 2nd.  Thus, Peter wakes up on a beach in England, instead of being led to Heaven by Conductor 71.   The next morning, after Peter awakens on the beach and realizes he is alive, he happens to meet June, who is bicycling back to her home for some sleep as her shift has ended.   As Peter and June spend time talking to one another,  so surprised and relieved that Peter survived the jump, they fall in love.  Conductor 71 finds Peter and is able to freeze time, in order to greet Peter and tell him that Peter should really be dead and that he must take Peter to Heaven now.  Peter demands that there be an appeal, after all, it’s not his fault that the Conductor messed up.  Now that June is in his life, he doesn’t want to go to Heaven.  The Conductor has a consult with his superiors who agree that Peter can make an appeal.  The Conductor returns to Earth to tell Peter that he has three days to prepare his case for staying on Earth.  He is allowed to pick a defense counsel from anyone who has already died, but has a hard time deciding on who to choose.

.Roger Livesey Stairway to Heaven

Meanwhile, June has a friend, Doctor Reeves,(Roger Livesey), who is fascinated by Peter’s survival, and thinks that the visions of this Conductor are a result of a brain injury; chronic adhesive arachnoiditis from a slight concussion Peter suffered two years prior.  Reeves schedules Peter for surgery to correct the problem and to rid him of the visions.  Unfortunately, Dr. Reeves is killed in a motorcycle accident before the surgery is to take place, but now he can be Peter’s Defense Counsel in Heaven.   With Dr.  Reeves in place for the defense, Heaven chooses its prosecutor for this unusual appeal and Abraham Farlan(Raymond Massey) is picked for the task.  Mr. Farlan was the first American who died in the American Revolution and there is no love lost between him and England.  He even admits he is shocked and saddened that an American maiden, such as June, and a Bostonian too, could fall in love with an English man!  As Peter is given anesthesia and is unconscious for his surgery, the court trial in Heaven begins.   Immediately, Dr. Reeves challenges the make-up of individuals in the jury, which are individuals who hate the British.  The judge agrees to let this jury be replaced with a mixture of modern day Americans.

Events from World History and British History are cited by Reeves and Farlan, and finally Reeves requests that June be allowed to take the stand.   This poses a problem as she is still alive, not a resident of Heaven, so Conductor 71 solves that problem by causing June at the hospital, awaiting the outcome of Peter’s surgery, to fall asleep so that she can then give her testimony to the Heavenly court.  Reeves proves that June truly loves Peter as she shows that she is willing to take his place in Heaven so that he can go on to have a longer life on Earth.   “…nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love,”  says Dr. Reeves in his summation.  I won’t reveal anymore about this movie’s end as I want anyone who reads this blog to search out the film on their own to see it!  The production team made a very creative decision to film all of the Earth scenes in rich technicolor and all of the Heaven scenes in black and white, a reverse of what was done for The Wizard of Oz.   Jack Cardiff, an Oscar-winning cinematographer, shot this film for The Archers, and his love of the craft shows.  It is a beautifully lensed  film.   To convey that it takes a while for the characters to travel to Heaven, a huge escalator was built by a team of engineers.  They dubbed the project “Operation Ethel” and it took 3 months to build it and cost 3000 pounds.  The escalator had 106 steps, each step being 20 ft. wide, and it was driven by a 12 horsepower engine.  Unfortunately the noise from that engine was so loud that all the dialogue for those scenes had to be re-dubbed in studio.  There was also a 9 month wait for the film stock and Technicolor cameras because they were in use by the U.S. Army to make their training films!

A Matter of Life and Death was chosen for the first ever Royal Film Presentation on Nov. 1st, 1946, then it went out to the general public in the U.K. on December 15th, 1946.  It had it’s first showing in America, under a new title: Stairway to Heaven, on Dec. 25th, 1946, in New York City.   The Archers Studio, aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, made wonderful movies to view, usually filmed by Jack Cardiff,  with very interesting plots and this is one of my favorites that they produced.  Other films in their canon that I have seen and enjoyed are: I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Contraband, 49th Parallel, and  A Canterbury Tale.  A Matter of Life and Death is available at Amazon and Turner Classic Movies will air it on April 18th.

The Archers Blogathon: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Cover of "Life & Death of Colonel Blimp (...

Cover via Amazon

Roger Livesey

Roger Livesey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was glad when I discovered that Classic Film and TV Cafe would be hosting a blogathon about The Archers production company and their films.  Why am I such a fan of films that were made years before I was born?  Films made in another country too?  It comes down to several reasons: great stories told well, actors and actresses at the top of their form,  skilled  technicians who were also true artists at their tasks.  The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was the second film made by The Archers and it meets my criteria for a wonderful film watching experience.

The film tells the story of Colonel Clive Wynne-Candy, from 1902 after the Boer War, 1918 after World War I, and  in 1939 at the start of World War II.  Colonel Wynne- Candy is brilliantly played by actor Roger Livesey.  It was his 20th film, but the first time he had the leading role.  His effort to show Colonel Wynne- Candy as an old-fashioned soldier, not bending with the times, but not a bombastic fool, was very well done, and it helped allay the fears that Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Secretary of War James Grigg had about the film.  I will reveal more about their threat to the film’s production later.  Austrian actor Anton Walbrook was chosen to play German Army Officer Theodor Kretchmar-Schuldorff.  His character was a “good” German, who was against the Nazis and all that they wanted to accomplish.  This character also rang the alarm bells for Mr. Churchill and Mr. Grigg and more about this later!  Deborah Kerr had the female lead in only her 6th film.  She was 21 at the time of production and she had to portray 3 different female leads in this one film.   She played Edith Hunter, a love interest for both Livesey and Walbrook’s characters, then she played Barbara Wynne, a new love interest for Livesey’s Colonel, and finally Kerr played Angela “Johnny” Cannon, the retired Colonel Wynne-Candy’s driver.

Anton Walbrook

Anton Walbrook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film is primarily a flashback and it gets to the flashback in a delightfully creative way.  Deborah Kerr, at the film’s beginning, is  Angela “Johnny” Cannon, personal driver for retired Colonel Clive Wynne- Candy.  She is dating a brash, young lieutenant, Spud Wilson, who is bored at his base, waiting for a practice military operation to begin at midnight.  Retired  Colonel Wynne- Candy, working for the Home Guard,  has devised the operation and decided it should begin at midnight; the phrase,”War starts at midnight!” is uttered quite a bit in the film’s beginning.  Lieutenant Wilson decides to turn the tables on old Colonel Wynne- Candy.   He decides to take  his men to London to capture the old Colonel at his Gentleman’s Club, thus ignoring the way the practice operation was to go down.    Angela realizes what her boyfriend is about to do, and she rushes  to London to try and  warn the Colonel, as she knows that the purposeful ruining of his plan will upset him greatly.  Lieutenant Wilson and his men are filmed in an exciting dash to London,  set to jazzy, big band music, chasing after Angela in her vehicle.  The younger men succeed in capturing the Colonel  at the club.  As Lieutenant  Wilson and Colonel Wynne-  Candy have words by the club’s pool, the angry Colonel grabs Lieutenant  Wilson, scolds him for his rude dismissal of the elderly, throws the lieutenant into the pool, jumps in after him, pummels him all the while grousing about young pups, and then  Colonel Wynne-Candy ducks under the water, the camera tracking to the far end of the pool, and out of that end of the pool,  emerges Colonel Clive Candy, as a young Army Officer, fresh off of winning the Victoria Cross in the Boer War for gallantry.  I found that unique pool scene, the  way to introduce the flashback, as so creative and inventive the first time I saw the film.

 

The film moves on to 1902, after the Boer War.  Colonel Candy meets Edith Hunter(Kerr), meets Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff who he has a duel with.   They  manage to become great friends with Candy calling the German Officer Theo the remainder of the film.  Candy loses Edith to Theo, just as he was realizing that he loves her. Being the  honorable British Officer, he doesn’t try to ruin his new friend’s love for Edith.  Time marches on and the second part of the movie happens with the end of World War I.  Colonel Candy has met a group of nurses who were serving the soldiers during the war’s end, and one of the nurses, a Miss Barbara Wynne(Kerr) catches his eye because she reminds him of Edith.  Despite a 20 year gap in their ages, Colonel Candy successfully woos and weds Miss Wynne.  No children are born to their union, but their love for one another is evident.  As the war is now over, Colonel Wynne-Candy finds out his old friend Theo is in a POW camp near London.  Colonel Wynne-Candy goes to the camp to see his old friend, who is surrounded by other POWs when the Colonel finds him.  It is an interesting scene, as Theo is decidedly cold and unmoved towards his old friend, rebuffing the outstretched hand that is offered to him.  The friendship is renewed soon afterwards, and Theo apologizes for his rudeness.   Time marches on once more and now the film is at 1939, and World War II has begun in earnest.  Barbara is  deceased and the Colonel is alone.   Theo is being interviewed by immigation officials as he wants to live in England and not go back to Germany.  He sadly explains that his English wife, Edith, is deceased and that their two children are good Nazis who will have nothing to do with their father.  Colonel Wynne-Candy arrives at the immigration office in time to save Theo from being sent to an internment camp.  The good Colonel has by now retired, yet still wants to serve his country in some capacity.  The War Office asks the Colonel to give a speech about the retreat at Dunkirk, and his planned speech isn’t thought well of by the War Office so the BBC contacts the Colonel to tell him his speech won’t be aired.  Theo asks to read the speech and in a moving scene, he strongly urges his old friend to realize that the Nazis will stop at nothing to rule the world and to make it over in their desired fashion and that Britain must stop them with all means possible.  In a lighter moment, Theo notices that Angela, the driver, resembles Barbara, the Colonel’s late wife, and yes, Colonel Wynne-Candy admits to Theo that he also loved Edith, but wasn’t about to take her from Theo, and that he does like having Angela around as she reminds him of Edith and Barbara.  The film ends with the elderly Colonel sitting on a park bench across the street from his home, which has been bombed in the Blitz.  At his old home’s site is now an emergency water cistern.  He remembers Barbara telling him to never change, and he replied to her not ever would he change, unless their house would become a lake.  He says aloud to Barbara’s memory that the house is now a lake, and yet he’s not changed.  At that moment Theo and Angela join him as a new guard of soldiers is marching down the street to the strains of a military march and they salute the old Colonel as he salutes them passing by.

 

As I hinted at earlier, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Secretary of War, James Grigg, were not happy about this film going into production.  The title, mentioning Colonel Blimp, was the trigger that got their dander up.  Colonel Blimp was a British politcal cartoon, depicting a bombastic, rotund, bald, retired British Army Officer, often depicted at his club in the sauna room, wearing a large towel, pontificating about social and political issues of the day.  The cartoon Colonel Blimp was often contradicting himself in his speeches, and was quite the foolish character.  Grigg, in a memo, wrote to Churchill that a movie about Blimp could put the British military in a bad light just as they were in the middle of a war and needed all of the public’s support.  The second trigger that worried Churchill and Grigg was the “good” German in the film.  Britain was at war with Germany, how could their be a “good” German in this film?  The film began production in the winter of 1943 and The Archers were told that no British military advisors would be loaned to them, nor any military equipment.  Fortunately, the Canadian military stationed near London, had no problems with loaning their equipment to The Archers!  In May of 1943, government officials viewed rushes of the film and their fears evaporated.  The film was released to the public that June, and it was a hit.

 

Many film reviewers immediately assumed that the idea for this film did come from the cartoon that incensed Churchill so much, but the idea actually came from David Lean when he was editor for an earlier Powell-Pressburger film, One of our Aircraft is Missing.  Lean had to cut a scene in that film depicting an older crew member chastising a younger crew member for  not knowing what it’s like to get old.  When Lean cut that scene, he told Powell and Pressburger that that scene would make a fine film all on it’s own and that comment from Lean gave them the idea for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

 

Powell and Pressburger were proud of this film and rightly so.  They would go on to make two more movies featuring Roger Livesey in prominent roles, I Know Where I’m Going, and A Matter of Life and Death.  Anton Walbrook had already appeared in their film The 49th Parallel, and he would famously star as the ballet impresario Lermontov in their film The Red Shoes.  Deborah Kerr would also later  star as the main nun in another Archer’s masterpiece, The Black Narcissus.

 

Pressburger once said, ” I think that a film should have a good story, a clean story, and it should have if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing-it should have a little bit of magic…”  To me, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an excellent example of what Pressburger was defining.

 

Be sure to read the other postings about other outstanding films by The Archers at

 

http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/2012/03/tribute-to-archers-powell-pressburger.html

 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

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