Lightwood recommends films by The Archers

In this time when many are catching up with those unread classic books (the thick ones) and those films that we missed or meant to watch again, Lightwood recommends those that deserve another reading or viewing. In our “to watch” category, the films of The Archers, the British production company active in the 1940s, are an important part of the cinematic canon.

Here are Archer films to watch:

The films are the creation of Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902- 1988), who are credited together as writer, director and producer of the Archer films: 24 films between 1939 and 1972.  I saw six of these films on the Criterion Channel, which LW also recommends for classic, modern and more avant-garde cinematic works.

The 49th Parallel: (1941) A WWII German U-Boat crew is stranded in Canada and must make their way west, meeting a variety of characters along the way (Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, among others). The film is propaganda supporting the British war effort, but its heart and soul come through to make it a strong dramatic story.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: (1943) Four decades (1902 to 1942) in the life of General Clive Candy, his friendship with a German soldier, and his relationships with woman (all three played by Deborah Kerr). This film is recognized as a top-ranked British film and features Roger Livesey, who along with Kerr became part of the Archers acting ensemble.

A Canterbury Tale: (1944) During WWII, An American GI roams through pastoral England, where he and his acquaintances learn they are not so different. The story behind the story is that the heads of British films knew that there was friction among the American forces and the British people and soldiers. The British called the American GIs “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” The Archers took on the job of creating a film that showed a more gentle, “downhome” American soldier (one of the three “pilgrims”) who wants to learn from his English “neighbors.” The film is part mystery plot, mystery play, travelogue (the film was shot in Powell’s birthplace in Kent, England), and heartfelt drama. It features Eric Portman, Sheila Sim and Dennis Price.  

I Know Where I’m Going: (1945) A young woman finds herself and love in the Scottish Hebrides with a beautiful and feisty portrayal by a young Wendy Hiller and co-starring Roger Livesey. The interesting story related to this film is that The Archers were set to shoot A Matter of Life and Death. They were waiting for the technicolor camera that they needed, but it was being used at the time by Laurence Oliver in Ireland to shoot Henry V. So, while waiting, they shot I Know Where I’m Going, another Archers classic film.

Black Narcissus: (1947) Deborah Kerr is named Mother Superior and with a group of nuns goes to create a mission hospital and school in the far reaches of mountainous India. A film about the cultural differences, love, and the acceptance (or not) of others unfolds in beautiful technicolor. 

The Red Shoes: (1948) The most famous of the Archer films, Moira Shearer, a ballet star, is caught between a composer and an impresario, each of whom demands perfection from her leads to her downward spiral. Again, with the amazing technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff. With the strong support from Archer actors, Anton Wallbrook and Marius Goring.

A Matter of Life and Death: (1946) This magic realism/fantasy film about the power of love is often thought on par with the classic United States film, It’s a Wonderful Life. It stars David Niven and a young Kim Hunter before she made the film of A Streetcar Named Desire. The Archer film, the last one to be made during WWII, was released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven; since it was released so close to the end of WWII the word “death” in the title made U.S. distributors uneasy. But whatever title you find it under, this is a cinematic masterpiece of story-telling and production.

To pursue The Archers story further, LW recommends a series of short documentaries about the production company, made in 2018.

There is an in interview with Director Martin Scorsese about his friendship with Michael Powell and his views on the Archer films. To quote Scorsese, The Archers created “the longest period of subversive filmmaking in a major studio.” Perhaps not subversive as we use the term today, but because The Rank Organization (J. Arthur Rank) left Powell and Pressburger alone to create what they wanted without interference. Artistic freedom: what is more subversive than that.

“The Colour Merchant” is an interview with Michael Powell’s widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, an academy award-winning editor. In the documentary, Schoonmaker reminisces about The Archers productions. It also focuses on the innovative uses of technicolor in the Archer films and focuses on Archer cinematographer, Jack Cardiff.

“Special Effects” is primarily about Alfred Junge, Production Designer for the Archers. It details the imaginative and often expressionistic special effects that Junge and his crew created for A Matter of Life and Death.

There are many things for us to watch and that makes us be highly selective. Lightwood selects The Archers as part of our viewing. Wonderful films for these times.

Laurence Carr, publisher  

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