Tagged: The Archers

The Battle of the River Plate (UK 1956)

The films of Michael Powell Powell and Emeric Pressburger tend to diminish in the 1950s in the estimation of most critics and film reviewers. Certainly the mid 1950s was the time when The Archers partnership eventually broke down and the two filmmakers went their separate ways but the films themselves are still very much worth watching. The Battle of the River Plate remains a favourite for me, partly no doubt because I saw it as a small boy with my father in early 1957 during its first cinema run. I didn’t then know who Powell and Pressburger were, although I had probably already seen The Thief of Baghdad (UK 1940) on TV. The Battle of the River Plate is now generally seen as just another British war picture of the 1950s and as a film lacking the imagination of the 1940s Archers’ war pictures. However, I think there are some interesting aspects of both the film’s production and the presentation of the final version that appears on screen. Why did The Archers make a film like The Battle of the River Plate? I don’t think there is enough space here to tease out all the reasons, but mainly I think it was a matter of finding a property/an idea that they could develop in the circumstances in which they found themselves after leaving Korda’s London Films and dallying with ABPC for the artistically interesting but not very profitable Oh Rosalinda! in 1955. They would develop their naval war picture with first 20th Century Fox and then once more with the Rank Organisation.

The British war films of the 1950s present different views on wartime events compared to the wartime productions which are all in some way influenced by wartime propaganda considerations. Most of the 1950s films celebrate successful campaigns, often in ways which seek to bolster British prestige during a period which is either ‘post-imperial’ in South Asian narratives or grappling with the final days of the Empire in Africa, elsewhere in Asia, and in the Caribbean. Robert Murphy in his book, British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000) titles his chapter on the 1950s films, ‘Reliving Past Glories’. Murphy points out that ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ features strongly in For Freedom (UK 1940), a British propaganda film from Gainsborough that is a mix of documentary and fiction about the early events of the war that was hastily compiled and distributed.

The USS Salem presented as the Admiral Graf Spee

The ‘Battle of the River Plate’ was a naval battle in the early months of the war which saw three British light cruisers force the German pocket-battleship the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ to scuttle in the estuary of the River Plate between neutral Uruguay and pro-axis Argentina. A ‘pocket-battleship’ was the British term for a German design that attempted to create a powerful ‘ship destroyer’ while staying within the constraints laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. The resultant ships were only one third of the tonnage of the later German battleships like the Tirpitz. They were diesel-powered, lighter but more efficiently armoured than Royal Navy vessels. They also had larger guns with greater range. This meant that they could outgun smaller cruisers and destroyers and outrun capital ships. Initially they were to be used to destroy British and Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The film sticks fairly closely to the real events of the engagement and its aftermath, so much so that at least one of the IMDb comments refers to the film as a documentary (and MUBI calls it a ‘docudrama’). It isn’t but it does represent a factually detailed story. It is interesting to watch and compare with contemporary films featuring similar engagements in that The Archers were able to find either the original ships or closely-related sister ships – at least on the British side. They had the advantage that production manager John Brabourne was the son-in-law of Louis Mountbatten who commanded the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s. The ‘Graf Spee’ was impersonated by the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Salem. There was only a limited amount of studio tank and ship model work required. Much of the movement of ships was actually shot in the Eastern Mediterranean. Michael Powell was able to shoot footage of three Royal Navy ships on exercises, so that the Archers didn’t have to pay to hire the ships.  Similarly, the USS Salem was on duty in the Mediterranean. This did mean however that Chris Challis had to shoot, using the heavy Vista Vision camera, in very tight time slots with virtually no preparation. The overall schedule for such an epic production was very tight and was acknowledged by the trade press (Kine Weekly) which praised The Archers production for efficiency.

The bridge of HMS Ajax with Anthony Quayle as Commodore Harwood i/c the British squadron (front left, turning)

I’m not going to describe all the elements of the battle which is well-covered on Wikipedia. I’ll focus instead on some of the decisions made by Powell and Pressburger. The most obvious P&P touches come with the introduction of of Bernard Lee as Captain Dove of M.S. Africa Shell. The sinking of the Africa Shell is the first action of the film and when Captain Dove is brought over to the Graf Spee it allows us to explore the German warship and how it functions through Dove’s eyes, including his meeting with Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch). The presentation of Langsdorff is very much in line with P&P’s creation of ‘human’ German characters and the only surprise is that it is not a German or Austrian playing the role (i.e. no Anton Walbrook or Conrad Veidt). Captain Dove had written about his time aboard the Graf Spee (and had played himself in For Freedom) and he eventually he agreed to act as consultant with Bernard Lee taking the role. Pressburger produced a film script in four acts – (1) Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee, (2) Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, (3) the ‘engagement’ and (4) the intrigue in Montevideo following Graf Spee’s entry into the port for repairs. The film was relatively long at 119 minutes and includes a large number of speaking parts and shoots in various far flung locations from Montevideo to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland where the Royal Navy provided more ships.

The Graf Spee refuels at sea. These are British ships photographed in the Moray Firth.

Pressburger’s script works pretty well I think for the first three acts but I feel a little uncomfortable with Act 4. P&P seem to revive the light comedy touch which worked so well in the opening flashback of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), so we experience the comical actions of the ambassadors of Germany and then Britain and France (together) visiting the Uruguayan Foreign Minister in Montevideo and studiously ignoring the other side in the waiting room. The radio commentary by Lionel Murton as an American presenter seems to be just a device to explain the difficult situation that the German Captain Langsdorff finds himself in. For me the touch is too light in both the diplomatic engagements and the radio broadcasts. The final shots of the film don’t provide what in less decorous terms might be called the ‘money shot’ – i.e. the final actions of the captain who doesn’t go down with his ship. IMDb tells me that the German dubbed version has a voiceover explanation of what happened to Langsdorff. I’m surprised P&P ducked the ‘real’ ending. I presume these decisions were partly to gain the wide release that funder Rank required.

Lionel Murton as the American radio reporter broadcasting the final few hours as crowds waited for the Graf Spee to leave port.

It’s worth noting that Rank made the decision, puzzling in retrospect, to produce a slate of pictures using VistaVision. I’d like to spend more time at some point on the undoubted qualities of the format. By running horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, VistaVision produced a much larger negative image and therefore a more detailed image for a projection print, even if the image was cropped to produce a widescreen format. VistaVision and Technicolor together produced stunning images, arguably superior to CinemaScope. However since Rank was distributing and exhibiting CinemaScope prints from other Hollywood producers in 1956 it seems odd to go with Paramount’s rival system. Odeons and Gaumonts under Rank’s control were being equipped for ‘Scope but VistaVision prints were generally narrower at anything between 1.66:1 to 2:1, compared to the CinemaScope standard of 2.35:1. The Battle of the River Plate appears to have been intended for projection as ‘modern widescreen’: 1.85:1. For more on VistaVision, see ‘High Fidelity Widescreen Cinema’, a research project by Stephen F. Roberts, University of Bristol 2018 which includes a detailed case study of The Battle of the River Plate.

The final images of the British squadron off Montevideo after the Graf Spee was scuttled.

The film was chosen for the Royal Film Performance on October 29th 1956. The earlier P&P film, A Matter of Life and Death had been the first Royal Command Performance film in 1946. The Battle of the River Plate opened on general release at Odeon circuit cinemas over the Christmas holiday in a double bill with the classic French children’s film The Red Balloon. Both films were given a ‘U’ Certificate so that family attendance was possible. There were many events in cinemas during its run with Odeons seeking out local men who might have served in the battle. It’s safe to say the film was a big hit with audiences, the biggest for The Archers. It was also the last Archers film, although Powell & Pressburger worked together on Ill Met By Moonlight which was released in 1957 as a ‘Vega Films Production’ for The Rank Organisation.

I don’t agree with the general lack of contemporary interest in The Battle of the River Plate (which was released in the US later in 1957, by Rank, as Pursuit of the Graf Spee). It is less expressionist than most P&P films and more concerned with the detail of the chase and the engagement and its aftermath. It doesn’t portray that 1940s idea of all working together, though we do see something of the ratings on the ships during the battle. The Captain Dove episodes do introduce us to the other captured Merchant Navy Captains and the potential of the Dove-Langsdorff relationship which could have been developed further. But overall it is a magnificent feat of filmmaking – a ‘big picture’, as was P&P’s intention. Naval historians and veterans will spot all the errors because of the use of substitute ships but it is a fine presentation of the historical event.

I couldn’t find a trailer so here is the early scene in the film in which Captain Langsdorff welcomes Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee:

The Silver Fleet (UK 1943)

The American poster for The Silver Fleet distributed by PRC – Producer’s Releasing Corporation

The Silver Fleet is one of the two features produced by The Archers in the 1940s that weren’t directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who were usually bracketed together as producer/writer/director on all The Archers films). The omission of the two names on the credits has led to this film being slightly overlooked in the general interest shown by cinephiles in The Archers’ work. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality work in the film and I found it a worthwhile addition to The Archers work in the period.

The project followed on from the success of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), the first official Archers film. The Dutch authorities in exile in the UK were delighted by that film’s portrayal of Dutch resistance in helping a British bomber crew escape from the Netherlands after they were shot down. They requested another film showing resistance featuring Dutch sailors. Powell and Pressburger, with J. Arthur Rank’s money behind them, were keen to comply but they were already setting up the mammoth shoot of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). At this point details get a little murky as Powell’s biography and the biography of Pressburger written by his grandson Kevin Macdonald provide different details. (Powell was well-known for embroidering or simply mis-telling his stories.) The original idea for the film was based on a true story about a U-boat brought to the UK by a Dutch crew. Pressburger fashioned this into a propaganda piece and the project was assigned to the team of Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley. Sewell was well-known to Powell and had worked with him on Foula making The Edge of the World in 1937. He was ‘borrowed’ from the Royal Navy (he was a captain of ‘small ships’) and Powell believed he was perfect for this job. Wellesley was an experienced writer of British films since the early 1930s. He was perhaps best known as the writer of the original stories for Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) and the Ealing film Sailor’s Three (1940). Pressburger was the main producer on the film with Powell busy shooting Blimp on the adjacent sound stage at Denham. Macdonald suggests that he was unhappy with the finished script and felt that Sewell and Wellesley produced a film that toned down the viciousness of the occupation forces. Macdonald himself argues that the film was “exactly the type of polite, anodyne war film which Emeric had been reacting against”. I think I can understand Pressburger’s reaction but I’m not sure I agree with Macdonald.

The wonderful Kathleen Byron tells the tale of Piet Hein . . .

The film is set in a fictitious Dutch coastal town where Jaan van Leyden is the owner of a small shipbuilding yard which at the time when the Nazis invade is in the process of building two submarines for the Dutch Navy. The occupation authorities soon summon him and give him an ultimatum. He must complete the building programme and hand over the submarines. His workforce will be forced to carry on (effectively starved into work through food controls). Before he accepts his fate van Leyden goes to collect his son from primary school and through the classroom window he hears the teacher (Kathleen Byron) telling the children the story of Piet Hein, the Dutch admiral who captured the Spanish silver/treasure fleet in the Caribbean in 1628, thus contributing greatly to the war effort of the Dutch in their fight against Spanish hegemony in the Low Countries. Van Leyden decides he must follow Piet Hein’s example. He adopts the name of the hero and having agreed to the German demand, secretly begins to plan a resistance struggle. He tells no one (not even his wife Helene played by Googie Withers) about his new identity and communicates with resistance fighters in his workforce through messages from ‘P.H.’. One consequence of this is that he and his wife and son are branded ‘quislings’ (after the Norwegian collaborator and puppet-state leader for the Nazis).

. . . and the equally wonderful Googie Withers

Charles Victor (left) and Joss Ackland play shipyard workers who discover a messages from ‘P.H.’ written on the lens of a pair of goggles

I think there are three main reasons to rate this film. First the performance by Ralph Richardson and in the smaller roles by Googie Withers, Kathleen Byron and others are very good. I don’t know Richardson’s film work as well as I should. He handles this difficult part with great aplomb, moving from engineer to action man and then into the masquerade of collaborator with ease. Googie Withers is arguably under-used after her success in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. (Ms Withers’ mother was Dutch-German.) The rest of the cast included some familiar names such as Valentine Dyall as the chief Nazi and also some Dutch Navy personnel and other non-professionals. The performance by Esmond Knight is one of the talking points in the film. Knight, a good friend of Powell’s, had been blinded while serving on HMS Prince of Wales in the sea battle with the Bismark. In The Silver Fleet he plays the local Gestapo chief as an uncouth, callous but also arguably comical character. His visual impairment (he later got back the use of one eye) perhaps explains some of his ‘over’-acting. It didn’t really work for me and I’m usually a fan of his work.

Ralph Richardson as Jaap van Leyden looks over the yard where his submarines are built

The second important feature of the film is the use of location shooting and carefully constructed studio sets. The creative trio of Erwin Hillier, Alfred Junge and Allan Gray worked together on this film for the first time and would later become the mainstays of The Archers productions in the mid-1940s. Junge had worked extensively in British film production since the 1920s, including work for Hitchcock as well as Powell, but the other two were both more recent recruits. Hillier and Junge were both born in Germany and Gray was born in Austria-Hungary. The locations included docks in Dundee and Cammell Laird’s in Birkenhead and street scenes in King’s Lynn (also used, I think, in One of Our Aircraft is Missing) as the part of the UK most like the Netherlands.

The third interesting feature is the narrative structure. The film begins with an unusual scene on board a submerged submarine with men seemingly comatose. This cuts to Helene reading her husband’s secret diary and we eventually realise that the rest of the film is then one long flashback, starting with van Leyden’s summons to meet his new masters. One of the heavy criticisms of the film is that there is relatively little ‘action’ for a war movie and that the final section, when the audience knows what is going to happen, goes on too long. This wasn’t how I felt watching the narrative unfold. I didn’t mind the lack of action as such, just as I don’t think it matters too much that the Nazi actions against the local population are not as severe as they are in other Dutch resistance narratives. This narrative is all about van Leyden’s actions and the price he pays in order to play the Piet Hein role. The narrative tries to be a stirring propaganda picture and also a presentation of the pain and terror of resistance acts and how they must be faced down – with a stiff upper lip and a display of bonhomie and charm. In this sense, the long final section of the narrative works because Richardson’s performance is so beautifully judged. Richardson is credited as ‘Associate Producer’ on the film and he was, at the same time, working on a short (45 mins) propaganda film for The Archers, The Volunteer (1944), but this time written and directed by Powell and Pressburger.

The Silver Fleet was another screening on Talking Pictures TV.

I Know Where I’m Going! (UK 1945)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

If you are in the UK and you haven’t seen I Know Where I’m Going!, you can watch it free on BBC iPlayer for the next four days and I urge you to do so. It’s one of the best films by the UK’s top filmmaking duo, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, AKA ‘The Archers’. I watched it again on the day La La Land was released in the UK. I was intrigued to hear the American film being lauded for its ‘unconventional’ love story. Micky and Emeric knew all about those.

I Know Where I’m Going! begins with some interesting credits and a montage of scenes from the early life of Joan Webster, the girl who has always known where she is going. Now, in the form of Wendy Hiller, she is the 25 year-old daughter of a bank manager engaged to the wealthy businessman and owner of the company she works for. She has to make her way to the (fictional) island of ‘Kiloran’ which her husband-to-be has, in effect, ‘taken over’ for the duration of the war – and their wedding. The only problem is that the weather in the Western Isles is notoriously fickle and Joan finds herself stranded on the larger (real) island of Mull, wondering if the small boat coming to collect her will ever arrive. Of course, she isn’t alone and all kinds of people are aware of her predicament, including Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). Let the drama, the romance and the fun begin!

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona's house.

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona’s house.

It’s worth reflecting on a few ideas about the narratives created by Powell and Pressburger. First, although the setting is unusual, it wasn’t a first for Michael Powell as in 1937 he’d made The Edge of the World, perhaps the best known of his films before he worked with Pressburger. This fictional story was set on an isolated island in the Shetlands and ‘inspired’ by the final days of the even more isolated island settlement of St Kilda out in the North Atlantic, whose last inhabitants left in 1930. Although barely seen at the time, The Edge of the World was re-edited with new material in 1978 and became part of the ‘re-discovery’ of Powell’s early work. Intriguingly though, the other Archers’ film which I Know Where I’m Going! in some ways most resembles is Black Narcissus (1947). In both cases the narrative offers us a proud and intelligent young woman who finds herself in a remote place which deeply unsettles her – especially when she is confronted with a man who understands the place. However, this 1945 narrative is less tragic and (slightly) less dramatic than the later film. The two films both feature a second romance as contrast and they focus on ‘cultural difference’ as the basis for a fantasy and possibly a metaphorical study of British society. In Black Narcissus, the woman is played by Deborah Kerr who had played the triple female lead in another Archers’ film, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). She wasn’t available in 1945 so P&P turned to Wendy Hiller (who had lost the 1943 role to Kerr). One of the things I like about IKWIG (as Powell himself calls it in his autobiography) is that the story starts in Manchester and not London. I hadn’t noticed before that Wendy Hiller was born in Cheshire, so she’s nearly Mancunian. I wish I’d seen more of her films. She’s totally credible as a middle-class young woman from the ‘industrial North’, one with strong convictions who can be set up to lose them in the most delightful way.

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

The fun begins with the credits which are matched by two expressionist sequences, one as Joan heads north on the Glasgow sleeper and another brief one when she is praying (for the third time) for the winds to drop so she can get to Kiloran. It occurs to me that P&P use these sequences (derived from 1920s German cinema?) more in their b+w films when they don’t have colour to express emotion. The Small Back Room (1949) is perhaps the film in which they are used most extensively (and dramatically). As well as these sequences (which include Joan remembering the dancing at the ceilidh as a contrasting emotion to willing the winds to drop) IKWIG is marked by a significant amount of long shots and images of extreme weather mixed with noirish interiors. Some of the landscapes have mist and fog and a ‘glow’ of sunlight through the clouds which all adds to the sense of Celtic fantasy. The long shots composed by Erwin Hiller also have the function of ‘disguising’ Roger Livesey’s double since Livesey was starring in a West End play and never travelled up to Scotland. As in Black Narcissus, many scenes were shot on studio lots, including the Corryvreckan whirlpool sequence. This latter concerns one of two ancient myths about the fate of lovers that P&P used to underpin the central romance. The other involves a curse on the MacNeil men if they enter a ruined castle. The blooming romance represents P&P’s response to the coming end of the war. In this respect it refers back to A Canterbury Tale (1944), a film which has baffled many audiences. In political terms, this is Powell’s ‘high Tory romanticism’, not necessarily reactionary but definitely preferring the spiritual qualities of the rural and preferably the wild landscape to the ordered, rule-managed materialism of the urban society.

The film’s title was suggested by Powell’s Irish wife Frankie and it comes from the traditional Scots/Irish ballad. In the film it is beautifully sung by the then 69 year-old Boyd Steven (with the Glasgow Orpheus Choir) and used in the closing credit sequence:

Here’s the song:

“I know where I’m going

And I know who’s going with me.

I know who I love

But the de’il [the devil] knows who I’ll marry

The film has a score by Allan Gray and an entire sequence with performances at a ceilidh. In this sense it is another movement towards Powell’s concept of the ‘composed film’. It’s also one of Pressburger’s best scripts with its sly digs about the ‘rich and soulless’ – the wonderful irony of the three pipers hired for the wedding by the industrialist but who also can’t get to the island and therefore play at the ceilidh and provide Torquil with another opportunity to woo Joan. This time I also noticed that in the opening narration we hear that “When Joan was only 1 year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right, left? No, straight on!” I wonder if this is a joke about the political climate of 1944?

IKWIG has everything, even an early appearance by Pet Clark as a rich brat. It also has an ‘eagle hunter’ with ‘Torquil’, his eagle, on his arm (credited as ‘Mr Ramshaw’). If you miss the BBC screening in HD, there is a Criterion Region 1 DVD (with an essay by Ian Christie) and Region 2 DVD in the UK.

The Tales of Hoffman (UK 1951)


The new DCP of the digital restoration of The Tales of Hoffman was the final matinee screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester before the move to HOME. The post-screening discussion was led by Andrew Moor of Manchester Metropolitan University. Andrew wrote a piece on the film for Criterion’s website and also co-edited a book on Powell and Pressburger’s films with Ian Christie. The discussion was dominated by the audience members who were primarily music/ballet/opera fans. Since I know little about any of these art forms I found this illuminating but slightly frustrating and here I want to focus on the film as an Archers production from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The Tales of Hoffman is interesting for several reasons. It represents in some ways the fruition of Michael Powell’s long-held desire to make the ultimate ‘composed film’ – to marry music, dance, theatre and film as a single coherent work. But to do this Powell had to work quickly and cheaply at Shepperton in order to comply with The Archers’ contract with Alexander Korda’s London Films. The film was really Powell and Pressburger’s last attempt to deal with Korda and after this production they bought themselves out of the contract and took three years off – a long ‘rest’ for such an active partnership.

Powell commissioned a new English libretto for the opera. Emeric Pressburger had less to do on the script this time – although unlike Powell he had actually ‘experienced’ the opera, playing “second fiddle in the orchestra in a production in Prague”. Powell’s plan was to record an opera performance conducted by Thomas Beecham (the originator of the project) and then to ‘compose’ the film on a silent stage with actors miming to the playback. He thus created one of the earliest forms of ‘music video’. This approach also helped him to use ‘real’ ballet dancers, ‘real’ singers and ‘real’ actors. Only two of the cast, the Americans Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, were both singers and actors in the narrative.

The Tales of Hoffman was the only opera written by Jacques Offenbach (who mainly produced operettas) and he died a few months before the completed work was first performed in 1881. The story is based on three tales written by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffman between 1814 and 1818. The opera uses a fictionalised version of Hoffman himself as the hero of each story with the framing device of the ‘telling’ of the tales in a tavern. For the film The Archers added a ballet sequence at the beginning and the end, placing the tavern sequence as a potential meeting place for Hoffman and the ballerina. There are many descriptions and analyses of the opera and the BFI website features an extensive look at the restoration with images from the film and other materials (which they don’t want to offer for download – the images on this blog were obtained from other sources).

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of 'Olympia' with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Leonid Massine

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of ‘Olympia’ with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine (© StudioCanal)

The great coup for the production was to persuade Moira Shearer to dance in two sequences. Made into a star by The Red Shoes, Shearer was sought by many film producers but refused them all, only agreeing to work with Powell. Alongside her The Archers were able to cast many leading figures from the ballet world. Just as important for the production was the creative team of Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson in production design and art direction, Reginald Mills as editor and Chris Challis as DoP with Freddie Francis as operator.

I think this screening completed my ‘set’ of Powell and Pressburger films. Although I can’t really appreciate the music or the dances, I can admire the cinematic ‘composition’ that The Archers created and especially the genius of the set design, performances and camerawork/editing. In a sense the film takes us back to Powell’s early experience with Rex Ingrams in Nice in the 1920s and to Pressburger’s early career in Germany. What is most fascinating for me is to see all the links to The Archers’ early Technicolor successes. The final tale is set on a Greek island and the designs reminded me to some extent of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (the Western Front battlefield) the prologue also reminds us of the meeting of British and German officers in the bar café at the early part of Blimp. Elsewhere we had overhead shots and a staircase reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death and the whole film referred constantly to techniques developed for Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The casting too includes many of the ballet stars from The Red Shoes (Shearer, Tcherina, Helpmann and Massine) plus the third of Powell’s great loves of the period, Pamela Browne as Niklaus, Hoffman’s companion (a male part usually played by a woman in the opera).

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

Perhaps the most important outcome of watching The Tales of Hoffman for me was that it sent me back to reading the second part of Michael Powell’s long autobiography Million Dollar Movie. I first read it on publication in 1992 and I had forgotten many of the stories. He gives rare insights into the production process and the battles with Korda. All lovers of P&P’s work must have mixed feelings about The Tales of Hoffman. In one sense it represents the peak of their achievements in ‘composed’ films. Powell himself rates it as a ‘bulls-eye’ for The Archers in their four Korda productions of 1949-50. I think I prefer A Small Back Room (1949). Hoffman does not have the same glorious melodrama feel of The Red Shoes and it did seem to me that the camera felt slightly more constrained in its movements during the ballet scenes. Sadly the last three Archers films though all interesting and entertaining did not raise the spirits in quite the same way as their 1940s’ films. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see digital restorations of Oh Rosalinda! (1955 in ‘Scope), The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) – the last two both in VistaVision.

Here’s the trailer for the Hoffman restoration. Even if you don’t know opera or ballet, it’s a real treat for the eyes:

The Red Shoes (UK 1948)

Moira Shearer as the ballerina who must dance.

Moira Shearer as the ballerina who must dance.

Cannes, May 2009 and Martin Scorsese gives an emotional introduction to a screening of the film that inspired him as a young filmmaker, The Red Shoes from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, in a new print following restoration initiated by Scorsese himself. Following the recent demise of the great British cinematographer Jack Cardiff for whom The Red Shoes was a triumph, it seems a perfect moment to post a set of notes on the film I wrote back in 2001.

Warning: This is a long post, but worthwhile, I hope, if you love the movie or want to study it in detail. It also assumes that you have seen the film.


The Red Shoes eventually became a commercial success despite the lack of belief shown by its UK distributors. Indeed, it was for many years the most successful British film at the American box office and throughout the 1950s and 1960s became a favourite film of thousands of young girls who dreamed of the ballet. The film was perhaps the high point of the careers of both of its joint creators, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Its success was hard to match in box office terms and led them towards future opera films which were even more ambitious and decidedly less commercial.

The status of Powell and Pressburger has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. From the late 1940s through to the 1970s the duo suffered because their notion of a cinema that was anti-realist and romantic/passionate clashed with the prevailing critical opinion that favoured directors such as Carol Reed and David Lean. The re-discovery of Powell and Pressburger was led in the UK by a group of film historians and theorists, but it was helped by the support offered by American fans, who included Francis Ford Coppola and, most importantly, Martin Scorsese. The National Film Archive restored several classic Powell and Pressburger films, including The Red Shoes and they have since become central to the revised conception of what constitutes British Cinema.

The Archers

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger met for the first time in 1938 under the auspices of Pressburger’s compatriot, the producer Alexander Korda. Powell had just become established as a major director after an early career as an assistant in silent cinema and as a director of short features, including ‘quota quickies’ made by American studios in Britain. He was a highly experienced and cineliterate 33 year-old. Pressburger was a Central European Jew escaping from the Nazis having developed a career as a scriptwriter in Germany and France. The two were put together by Korda to work on The Spy In Black. After the success of this film they worked together for the next eighteen years. In 1943 they formed their own production company The Archers, building up a team of cinematographers, designers and music composers as well as a stock company of actors.

The Archers worked as one of a group of independent producers under the umbrella of the Rank Organisation at Pinewood studios. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) was the seventh Powell and Pressburger collaboration and the first film of The Archers. It was followed by another four major films – A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947) – an unprecedented history of commercial and artistic achievement (even if not appreciated by many of the critics at the time). The Red Shoes was made by a team at the height of its powers and a company able to command a relatively large budget and the best facilities at a time of general austerity.

In the mid 1940s, the Rank Organisation consolidated its position as the major player in the British film industry, acquiring two of the three main cinema exhibition chains, the biggest distributor and the two largest studio facilities at Denham and Pinewood. The previous Archers films all opened in Leicester Square and A Matter of Life and Death became the first Royal Film Command Performance in 1946.

But perhaps more important than all these advantages was the prestige that The Archers had earned through their use of Technicolor. The full Technicolor process became available in the late 1930s and was a major feature in the success of Gone With the Wind in 1939. It was a relatively expensive process and few British films were able to use it (only six in 1948). Further problems were the close control that Technicolor’s own consultants exercised over filmmakers and the unwieldy ‘monster’ camera.

Powell (right) and Cardiff (second from left in front) on the set of The Red Shoes

Powell (right) and Cardiff (second from left in front) on the set of The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes set for the Covent Garden sequence.

The Red Shoes set for the Covent Garden sequence.

The Archers had used Technicolor successfully on Colonel Blimp, memorably on Life and Death with heaven rendered in monochrome Technicolor rather than black and white and on Black Narcissus – arguably the most beautiful British film ever made. It is no exaggeration to suggest that in 1947, The Archers knew more about using Technicolor in adventurous ways than any studio in Hollywood. Indeed when Jack Cardiff thought that the studio lights at Pinewood were not strong enough to illuminate the colour sets on The Red Shoes, the American suppliers sent over prototypes of new models, such was Cardiff’s reputation.

‘Messages and values’

The Archers present a fascinating case study in terms of the ‘messages and values’ of Britain in the 1940s. In a commercial sense they clearly made a number of films that drew large audiences and 49th Parallel, Blimp and Life and Death were box office winners. At the same time, they made films that surprised and contradicted some of the edicts of the wartime government and in 1948, The Archers were clearly out of step with the leading film reviewers and critics.

The degree of autonomy that The Archers achieved as independent producers means that it is legitimate to consider the company almost as an ‘authorial entity’. Powell and Pressburger worked together taking joint credits, ‘Written, Produced and Directed by . . . ’ and the whole creative team was involved in the production. It is important, therefore to establish the values and ideas of the team.

Michael Powell was an ‘English gentleman’ – a ‘Man of Kent’, the son of a middle class farmer. Although essentially English, he was not a ‘little Englander’ and benefited greatly from his early career abroad and his travels overseas. Emeric Pressburger, like many other European émigrés to England in the 1930s, became ‘more English than the English’ in some of his attitudes, but still retained his Central European cultural roots. The creative team included the Germans, Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth. During the 1930s, the impoverished British film industry was enriched by a constant stream of European refugees, many of whom had worked in the German theatre and film industries of the 1920s and 1930s. These highly skilled and professional craftsmen were engaged to train British technicians.

Led by the two strong personalities of Powell and Pressburger, The Archers became associated with certain types of films with very distinct qualities. Powell and Pressburger were passionate and romantic, individualist and internationalist. Their films burst with vitality and exuberance, both in the actions of the characters and in the aesthetics they employ (i.e. cinematography, set design, music etc.). This placed The Archers in opposition to the prevailing aesthetic of ‘realism’ which characterised wartime fictions and documentaries (see ‘The Critics’ below). It is true that popular British films also included the sensational melodramas produced by Gainsborough Studios, but The Archers films were targeted at more middle class audiences and carried much higher production values. A typical Archers theme was the triumph of ‘passion’ over ‘practicality’ so in I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Wendy Hiller plays a banker’s daughter who travels to the Hebrides to marry a rich industrialist. He has bought an island in this remote region, but his wealth is no match for the ‘spiritual’ wealth of the local laird and the heroine falls in love with the laird. In A Matter of Life and Death, a young airman is allowed to live because he has fallen in love with the American radio operator trying to guide home his ailing bomber – passion triumphs over death itself.

This belief in passion over practicality meant that The Archers were to some extent out of step with the dominant ideology of austerity Britain, in which the new idea of the Welfare State (Education, the National Health Service, National Insurance) emphasised working together to achieve minimum living standards for everyone. Indeed, The Archers’ Black Narcissus, in which a group of Anglican nuns attempt to take education and healthcare to an Indian princely state in the Himalayas, could be seen as a comment on the principles of the Welfare State. The nuns fail, primarily because they cannot respond to the spirituality of the alien environment – they must repress their passion.

Powell and Pressburger were essentially ‘High Tories’ (i.e. ‘cavalier’ and rather arrogant in the way of the landed gentry in the pre-industrial age), but their ideas were complex. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, they made one of the three central characters an old soldier like the Colonel Blimp invented by the left wing cartoonist David Low. They showed him to be anachronistic – out of touch with modern warfare – but they also showed him to be a man with a romantic past, a man who could love and be loved. More controversially, they explored his past friendship with a German officer (played by Anton Walbrook) and in one famous scene this character, as a refugee in London in 1939, gave a speech both praising and criticising Britain. This ‘evenhandeness’ did not go down well with the War Office and futile attempts were made to ban the film (see Ellis in Christie 1978).

This wasn’t the first time that Powell and Pressburger had created believable and rounded German characters. On their first film together, The Spy in Black (1939), the central character was a U-boat captain in the First World War. Their highly successful propaganda picture 49th Parallel (1941) followed the adventures of a U-boat crew fleeing across Canada in order to get to the (then neutral) United States.

Because of their prestige, The Archers were always asked to support the war effort in their choice of subjects, but both A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) presented very complex stories about the relationship between Britain and America as allies. None of The Archers films could be said to be a simple reflection of prevailing ideas. Their films were always personal in conception – often with the ‘English’ view coming from Pressburger and the ‘international’ perspective from Powell (although it is difficult to separate the two contributions).

The third aspect of The Archers work, which surfaces directly in The Red Shoes for the first time, is their interest in what might be termed the ‘art film’. This does not mean the ‘arthouse film’ as understood since the 1950s, but more the film associated directly with ‘high culture’. Such films were occasionally produced by the major studios and included biopics of classical composers as well as adaptations of opera and ballet. The Archers wanted to make a film about art and artist(e)s and Powell in particular wanted to make a film “as if it were an opera” – a ‘composed’ film, with the visuals constructed to fit the music. Black Narcissus, although not associated with ‘art’ was Powell’s first attempt at the composed film with a score that included original music and sound effects closely integrated with spectacular visual effects. The culmination of this dream was the 1951 opera film, The Tales of Hoffman. (This idea of Powell’s eventually resurfaced as the basic production procedure for music videos in the 1980s and also directly inspired Martin Scorsese’s collaboration with Bernard Herrman over the score for Taxi Driver (1976)).

One of Hein Heckroth's sketches for The Red Shoes ballet.

One of Hein Heckroth’s sketches for The Red Shoes ballet.

The conception of a colourful and spectacular film about ballet in the context of the austerity in Britain of the late 1940s raises interesting questions about ‘messages and values’. The Rank Organisation and their American partners were unsure about bankrolling the film, but The Archers were convinced that in those dreary days, crowds would flock to see something glamorous and uplifting. Geoffrey Macnab (1993) suggests that Rank’s policy of ‘quality’ and ‘prestige’ pictures was not popular with mass audiences who resented films that were deemed ‘educational’. Macnab quotes a letter from Picturegoer magazine in May 1947 complaining of “films made for a small group of long-hairs”. Powell himself in part two of his autobiography states that in America, “the film was classified as a British art movie and opened to brief notices to be read only by balletomanes, which meant about half the little girls in America”. In one small New York cinema the film went on to run non-stop for over two years. (The film was not given a wide release in America until 1951.) Across the world it became a ‘must see’ film for ballet fans. In the late 1940s there was far less competition for the patronage of arts lovers (i.e. no television) and Powell’s instincts were proved correct – except perhaps at home in Britain. It is difficult to discern the true box office returns for The Red Shoes in the UK because the film did not receive a proper release from a reluctant Rank Organisation. Powell suggests that returns were ‘only average’, but see the reference to the box office chart in the Audience section below. Certainly, the film survived in the British memory as a classic.

Reading The Red Shoes
The specific values associated with the film are only evident through a close reading. The Red Shoes is a film about ‘passion’ and ‘art’. It is a film about ballet and it includes an uninterrupted 17 minute ballet sequence. But it is primarily a melodrama in the true sense of a ‘drama with music’. It’s a romantic melodrama, but one in which sexual love is displaced by a love of art. Doty (2000) also suggests that it is a ‘queer’ film in which the love of art is transgressive because it is encouraged by the central gay character of Lermontov.

The key to the theme of the film is the early exchange between Vicky and Lermontov when he says: “Why do you want to dance?” She replies: “Why do you want to live?” Lermontov then replies: “I don’t really know – only that I must”. Later, after her success in ‘The Red Shoes’ he asks her again what she wants out of life – to live . . . ? She cuts in: “to dance”. Vicky chooses dancing over life and makes the ultimate sacrifice at the end of the story when like the heroine of Hans Andersen’s story, the shoes carry her to her fate. (In the original story the girl asks for her feet to be chopped off with an axe. She then survives with wooden feet and repents her sins. The tale is about the little girl’s vanity in wanting red shoes that lead her away from worship at her church).

This is a film which explores the old saw about art imitating life. The triangular relationship between the composer, the impresario and the dancer is mirrored in the real relationships which surrounded the making of the film. The Lermontov-Vicky relationship has been seen by some ballet followers as a reference to the power of the great impresario Diaghilev over the dancer Nijinsky. Played by Anton Walbrook, one of The Archers favourite actors, Lermontov was cited by the filmmakers as being based upon Alexander Korda. It was Korda who brought Powell and Pressburger together and to whom the script was first offered by Pressburger in 1937. Yet the reputation of Michael Powell vis-a-vis his leading ladies also suggests the power exerted by Lermontov over Vicky.

The parallel between the film’s production and its story go further. Powell and Pressburger were as committed to their art and to cinema as Lermontov was to ballet – “like a religion”. Moira Shearer, like Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine, was a leading ballet performer and rising star of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, challenging Margot Fonteyn for leading roles. She was initially reluctant to take on the film role. Powell claims he tricked her into accepting by pretending to take on an unknown American in order to make her jealous. The film was extremely hard work since the ballet was shot on the concrete floors of Pinewood stages rather than the sprung boards of a ballet school. Shearer risked serious injury and also developed an abscess which required surgery, delaying the shoot. Nevertheless she went on to dance in another Archers film, The Tales of Hoffman and to give up her career at the age of only 27 to become an actress. Her later career was not particularly successful, but by appearing in The Red Shoes she became probably the best known ballet dancer in the world during the second half of the twentieth century.

“I think that the real reason why The Red Shoes was such a success, was that we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and for that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art”
Michael Powell, A Life in Movies, 1986 p653

The war is never mentioned in The Red Shoes, which could be set at any time in the first half of the twentieth century or even the end of the nineteenth. What is intriguing is the company of men that becomes dependent on the magic of the single woman dancer. There are no significant other female roles in the film and the possibility that what is being presented is a struggle for Vicky’s talent/art as conducted by the gay company headed by Lermontov and the heterosexual world of convention represented by Craster. This is the reading offered by Alexander Doty and it is a reading very well supported by the evidence.

Anton Walbrook as Lermontov

Anton Walbrook as Lermontov

A ‘queer’ film?

Doty presents plenty of evidence to suggest some form of (repressed) queer sensibility in Powell and Pressburger’s working relationship. He points to the gay actor Anton Walbrook playing the gay Lermontov and to Andersen’s gay status and the creation of the shoemaker in the story as gay. He offers the evidence of specific scenes such as the one in which Vicky is summoned to Lermontov’s villa in Monte Carlo soon after they have arrived. She expects a dinner date and arrives suitably dressed, but Lermontov is with his male colleagues and he is dressed casually with sandals, open shirt and cravat. He desires to use her talent to dance rather than to pursue her sexually. Significantly, the ‘straight’ Craster is kept outside the circle of men, only invited in when Vicky has accepted the role. In the final confrontation in Vicky’s dressing room, Craster appears to believe that Lermontov is his rival in love, but Lermontov dismisses this by saying that it is something he, Craster, cannot understand. This refers both to Lermontov’s desire to create Vicky as a Diva, but also to his repressed homosexual desire.

The Red Shoes is a melodrama, using the term in its modern guise to mean a film that is essentially about feelings and relationships (it was once a very general label, applied to Hollywood action films). Central to the modern conception is the notion that whatever is unspoken or ‘repressed’ in a relationship will ‘erupt’ as a form of cinematic excess. Thus melodramas use colour, music and design to over emphasise. A good example of this is the appearance of Craster and Lermontov at the end of the film. Both are dressed excessively – Lermontov in his formal dress and Craster in a leather coat so glaringly out of place in the sunshine of Monte Carlo (it also makes him look like a Gestapo officer). Both have longish hair brushed back and held by grease or gel. When they get excited during the confrontation their hair becomes wild and disturbed – a sign of their inner turmoil. As Lermontov announces Vicky’s non-appearance, he is tremendously repressed, barely able to speak and completely unable to say that she is dead, only that she will never perform the role again.

What is unspoken is Lermontov’s sublimation of his sexual desire to an obsession to create Vicky as a star dancer. It is this desire that fuels the narrative and which erupts in the mise en scène at various points, such as his fondling of the phallic sculpture of a severed foot and ballet slipper during his description of ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet for Craster and his anguished self mutilation, pushing his fist into the mirror after Vicky has gone off with Craster.

Moira Shearer in the Jacques Fath dress

Everything about the film is a hymn to excess – made even more intense by the film’s appearance at a time of austerity. Vicky’s costumes are worth consideration, being specially designed by Jacques Fath of Paris, an important contemporary of Dior and Balmain. There is a website devoted to Fath’s designs for the film that features the dress worn by Moira Shearer when Vicky goes to Lermontov’s villa. She even wears a small crown in this scene – a nod towards the fairy tale princess of Hans Andersen tales? This dress is matched by the green suit and outrageous wide-brimmed hat that she wears when Lermontov (wearing striking dark glasses) intercepts her on the train at Cannes on her return to the Riviera.

A feminist response?

The reappraisal of Powell and Pressburger’s work coincided with the development of feminist writing on film. Some of Powell and Pressburger’s work interested feminists because of its adoption of melodrama narratives (e.g. Black Narcissus and Gone to Earth (1950) in particular). The Red Shoes appears at first sight to be a film in which the life of a young woman is ‘taken’ by an uncaring impresario. She appears to be an ‘object’ of beauty and talent, torn between two men and unable, or not allowed, to have a life of her own. In these terms the film is firmly within the concept of patriarchy, a world ruled by men and in which women have little power.

It could be argued that in terms of the return to ‘normality’ after the ‘liberation’ of women during the 1939-45 war, The Red Shoes conforms to the same regressive ideology found in American films noirs of the period when women with beauty, vitality and strength of character are eventually punished for trying to claim passion and sexual fulfilment as well. The ballet itself shows the girl being ‘led astray’ by the shoes, dancing with ‘rough men’ and ‘loose women’ and eventually to her death.

The Red Shoes was not a new venture for The Archers. Similar strong and beautiful women are the focus of attention in both the two preceding films, Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going and Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus.

Against this view it can be argued that for the audience of young women interested in ballet, Vicky was a passionate and romantic heroine who they overwhelmingly chose as a point of identification. Doty’s analysis also suggests that the relationship between Powell and Shearer was not always what it might have seemed. Moira Shearer may have ‘suffered for her art’ at the hands of a dictatorial director, but there is also evidence to suggest that Powell was in awe of Shearer, that her beauty and her talent cast a spell over him rather than vice versa – i.e. that she was the Lermontov figure. Doty argues that although Powell was ‘in charge’, he knew he was dependent on Shearer as the dancer, just as Vicky was dependent on Lermontov.

Audience and critics response

It is very difficult to collect any empirical evidence about British audience reaction to The Red Shoes on its initial release, even if we can state with some conviction that since its release it has gained acceptance as the most famous ballet film and has presumably developed enough commercial appeal to justify its restoration and re-issue by the National Film Archive and BFI Distribution as well as various video and now DVD releases. References to the film in Film Review for 1948 and 1949 are surprisingly low-key, especially since the previous Archers film, Black Narcissus won two Oscars (for colour cinematography and set design) in 1948. The Red Shoes is not featured in the round-up of major films released in 1948 but in 1949 it is reported that the film was Number 10 at the 1948 British box office (such listings were not as reliable in the 1940s as they are now) and that again the Archers won two Oscars (for set design and musical score). It is worth considering the kind of coverage that a production company registering this kind of Oscar success would merit in 2001. (But note, too that the best picture Oscar for 1948 went to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Olivier himself won best actor and the film also won best design (black and white)).

We can, with more confidence, comment on the critical response to the film in 1948 and discuss the broader context of British film criticism at this time. Macnab (1993) makes reference to the critics in his analysis of Rank’s distribution strategy. He points out that at the time of The Red Shoes production in 1947, at the highest point of British cinema attendance, there were splits in the audience and critical opinion about the worth of British cinema. ‘Popular’ audiences, which in the 1930s had largely preferred Hollywood films had in the early 1940s come to appreciate British films.

There were several reasons for this. One was that British films definitely improved in terms of scripts and, because the number of films in production fell, a greater concentration of available resources. A number of wartime films were particularly successful in both representing the realities of war and in sensitively meeting audience expectations, which in any case were more likely to be for British stories at this time. The increased attention to the mixing of social classes in documentary dramas was one example of a change in film narratives matching a change in social lives. Immediately after the war, there was a brief period when Hollywood films were in short supply as a result of restrictions on imports.

When the war ended, popular audiences flocked to Gainsborough melodramas and followed stars like Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Gainsborough was one of the small studios under Rank’s umbrella, but another aspect of Rank’s distribution strategy was the so-called ‘quality’ or ‘prestige’ productions financed by Rank but made by independent producers such as The Archers, Cineguild (David Lean and Ronald Neame) and Individual Pictures (Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat) etc. These were aimed partly at opening up the American market for British films. They were relatively expensive and narratively ambitious films. Some of them were seen as too highbrow for popular taste and eventually they split the critics.

The majority of British film reviewers and critics at this time favoured films that were ‘realist’ in aesthetics and humanist and ‘socially-concerned’ in theme. This meant that certain ‘quality films’ were highly praised, in particular those made by David Lean and Carol Reed (e.g. Lean’s Brief Encounter and Reed’s Odd Man Out). The Archers films fitted none of these criteria and A Matter of Life and Death and I Know Where I’m Going were both criticised for ‘whimsy’ and triviality and for being ‘tricksy’ (even when their undoubted technical proficiency was praised).

Film Review’s listings paragraph on The Red Shoes offers : “(the ballet) is technically one of the most brilliant pieces of filmcraft of the year. Otherwise the film is interesting, though long and sometimes thin in story”. (p 134). In this case the reviewer simply hasn’t ‘got’ the melodrama. More typical of the critical orthodoxy is the extensive review by one of the leading film writers of the period, Richard Winnington of the News Chronicle (an important middle-market newspaper supporting the Liberal Party). Here are some of the ‘highlights’ of his attack on The Archers:

“ . . . an ambitious attempt on a great filmic subject – the tragedy of Diaghilev and Nijinsky – that filters into trivial Technicolored magnificence.

. . . into the flurries, flounces, turmoils and sweat of that esoteric life behind the curtains of the ballet . . . Powell and Pressburger touch better cinematography and better realism than in any of their other films.

This ballet is certain to be acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece on the ground that it departs entirely from realism. But its escape is into the realms of Disney and the Hollywood dream sequence. Far from gaining from such licence it becomes blurred by Technicolor, overpowered by decor and confused by its own fantasy. The ‘Red Shoes’ ballet is an essay in complicated camera trickery for its own sake, assisted by some no more than adequate music and dancing.

And a long, exhausting and pretentious film ends morbidly and in bathos with anatomical close-up details in full colour of the cuts, bruises, lacerations and blood on the legs and body of Miss Moira Shearer, who it should be mentioned is an undeniably photogenic dancer with as much chance as any other girl of becoming a good screen actress if she wants to.”

(Original review, 27/7/48, collected in Winnington 1975, p53)

In retrospect, Winnington’s review says more about the obsessions of the reviewers of the time than about The Red Shoes. The important points to note are the praise for the ‘realism’ of the backstage scenes and the attack on the display of excess. The reviewer, who has seen many Powell and Pressburger films before, seems unwilling to accept the film for what it is and instead wants it to be something else. The closing comment about the lack of taste in showing Vicky’s injuries is also a familiar charge laid against The Archers. How, we might ask, does a reviewer seeking ‘realism’, especially in the violent world of the 1940s, manage to equate it with good taste?

There were critics who disagreed with Winnington about the ballet sequences. Affron and Affron (1995) quote C.A. Lejeune of the Observer and Dilys Powell of Golden Screen, both of whom heaped praise on Hein Heckroth. (Between 1946 and 1949, the independent producers working at Rank studios dominated the Hollywood Oscar awards for design).

But in other aspects, Winnington is generally representative of a majority of the leading reviewers, as revealed by John Ellis in his 1978 paper on ‘The Discourse of Art Cinema’. Ellis set out to try to define what was meant by the ‘quality British film’ in the late 1940s and he surveyed the work of all the leading film writers in the British press, looking for consistent terminology and approaches. What he found was indeed a consistency in the search for different aspects of realism (authenticity, documentary, the ‘spirit’ of reality), humanism and ‘unity’. Ellis quotes only one other review of The Red Shoes (as well as Winnington’s). Joan Lestor in Reynolds News comments on “the mixture of styles . . . opening with acid realism, developing into fantasy and finishing on a note of melodrama . . . ”

The other term that we might expect to find in critical writing at this time is ‘restraint’, that very English companion to ‘good taste’ and something else that Powell and Pressburger clearly ignored. The general critical response to The Red Shoes was one of misunderstanding – they simply couldn’t see what The Archers were up to and it has taken forty years or more for British film culture to properly appreciate them. To illustrate this, here is a comment by John Russell Taylor writing in the 1970s before the full critical acceptance of Powell and Pressburger:

“Powell is a figure who seems to have strayed into the modern cinema out of the 1890s: one could imagine The Red Shoes, with its exclusivist view of the artist’s dedication to his art (life for art’s sake) . . . finding an immediate echo in the symbolist and decadent aesthetics of the Romantic Agony. Where (his films) fit into the sober British cinema of the 40s and 50s is another matter. But fortunately if the films are good enough, they don’t need to fit.”

(From the entry on Michael Powell in Roud (ed) 1980)

Many commentators have tried to make parallels between the ‘excesses’ of the 1890s in British cultural life and the ‘sensations’ of the 1990s, so perhaps Taylor is right. What is certainly true is that The Red Shoes has survived as a cinematic tour de force when many of the films praised by critics in the late 1940s lie neglected in the archives. In response to the AS Film Studies question, The Red Shoes clearly did not reflect the views of the contemporary (British) critics, but it certainly did appeal to audiences worldwide.

Selecting a sequence to study

The AS Film Studies specifications for the ‘Close Study’ require evidence to be selected from a particular sequence. This is quite difficult in the case of The Red Shoes, since the readings suggested above refer to the film as a whole. One possibility may be to take the sequence starting with Vicky’s invitation to Lermontov’s villa in Monte Carlo (the sequence analysed above with the Jacques Fath dress) and carrying on through to the rehearsals for ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet and Sergei’s acceptance of the bet by Lermontov that the audience will clap half way through Vicky’s performance.

This ten minute sequence is pivotal for the narrative. It demonstrates Lermontov’s decision to make Vicky a star – to invite her to become the expression of the troupe’s desire. It also acts like many of Hitchcock’s best narrative sequences as a ‘marker’ for what will come later. Vicky and Julian meet on the balcony as the train rushes through below – just as it does when Vicky hurls herself from the same balcony at the end of the film. And as Vicky walks away, a newspaper blows against her leg, as it will do in the ballet, but this paper neatly shows Vicky and Julian pictured alongside each other, heading an interview with Lermontov.

The image then cuts to the choice of the red shoes to be used in the ballet. We see only the walking sticks of two men. One stick selects a shoe and hammers the ground to emphasise its choice. The other hesitates, but follows. We assume the first stick is Lermontov’s and the second Grischa’s (he plays the role of the shoemaker in the ballet). As well as the decisiveness of Lermontov, this helps to emphasise the close parallel between Lermontov and Vicky and the shoemaker and the girl in the story.

Finally, the sequence moves into the ‘realism’ of the backstage world where the rehearsal shows two young people at odds over their art, but capable of falling in love, while they are being watched by the impresario who is uninterested in love – “I know nothing about her charms and I care less.”

Other approaches

Little has been said in these notes about the ballet itself and how it has been constructed as an unbroken sequence. The AS questions concentrate more upon ‘messages and values’ than on technique. Suffice to say here that the innovations of The Archers team were closely monitored within the industry and that Hollywood built upon them in dance sequences that appeared in musicals during the next few years, particularly in the two Vincente Minnelli films An American in Paris (1951) and The Band Wagon (1953) (in which Cyd Charisse plays a ballet dancer who dons red shoes to dance as a femme fatale with Fred Astaire). The fast cranking and variable camera speeds adopted by Jack Cardiff and Chris Challis were also later copied and a detailed account of the cinematography on the film is available ‘online’ from American Cinematographer.


Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron (1995) Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative, Rutgers University Press

Ian Christie (ed) (1978) Powell, Pressburger and Others, BFI

Ian Christie (1985) Arrows of Desire, Waterstone

Alexander Doty (2000) Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon, Routledge

John Ellis (1975) ‘The Discourse of Art Cinema’ Screen Vol 19 No 3

Geoffrey Macnab (1993) J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry, Routledge

Michael Powell (1986 and 1992) My Life in the Movies (part 2 is titled Million-Dollar Movie), Faber and Faber

F. Maurice Speed (ed) (1948 and 1949) Film Review, Macdonald

John Russell Taylor (1980) ‘Michael Powell’ in Richard Roud (ed) Critical Dictionary of the Cinema vol 2, Martin Secker & Warburg

George Turner (1998) ‘ The Red Shoes, A Ballet for the Camera’ American Cinematographer, February. (Was also available on http://www.cinematographer.com/magazine/feb98/shoes)

All text in these notes © 2001 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated.