Directors/Screenwriters: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
By Roderick Heath
Almost all of the famous films made by “The Archers” team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came in a blinding whirl of creativity in the 1940s, including The Thief of Baghdad (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1945), Black Narcissus (1946), and The Red Shoes (1948). By contrast, although the creative partnership continued until 1958 (and resumed again in 1966 for Powell’s Australian adventure They’re A Weird Mob), their output in the 1950s has little of the same reputation or visibility. Perhaps that was because of a shift in audience tastes and the narrowing of expressive options which characterised the period, and also perhaps because Powell and Pressburger’s shared vision, which seemed in the earlier decade informed by an almost messianic passion for sustaining the spirit of individualism and creative zest in the face of the glummest of epochs, began to turn inward and distinctly darker. Some of their works in this period, like the impressive but lumpy Tales of Hoffmann (1953), depict a drift toward total stylisation and fantasy that parts of The Red Shoes presaged. The duo tried to adapt to the moment after several bad flops, wielding their characteristic eccentricity and playful discursiveness, in The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1958) in catering to the appetite for tales of wartime heroism. Gone to Earth, on the other hand, channels the darker fairytale notes sounded in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, and anticipates elements of the psychosexual neurosis of Michael Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960). Powell’s fascination with obscure regional settings and their peculiarities, a recurring interest in his work since as far back as The Phantom Light (1935) and The Edge of the World (1937), is also revisited here.
Gone to Earth’s status as a secret treasure was enforced by the film’s poor box office, and then by its being released in the U.S. in a badly mutilated form, thanks to coproducer David Selznick. Gone to Earth has striking similarities with another film by a great British director losing his previously steady grip on moviegoers, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970), in depicting a wilful heroine caught up in an adulterous passion. The differences are as marked as you’d expect between The Archers and Lean, of course: Lean’s expansive pantheism and elemental expressionism is altogether distinct to Powell and Pressburger’s more overtly psycho-spiritual use of landscape. The rural Welsh borderlands of the later Victorian era that Powell creates is an ironic realm full of examples of human frailty and the limitations of reality. Yet it’s also a mystical world where the Green Man seems to lurk in the woodland shadows, fairies may hide in the leaves, and the mountains are primal temples reserved for mystic rites, whilst the valleys are the preserve of domesticated Christianity and stalked by the masculine Hunter who chases little foxes down. Jennifer Jones plays Hazel Woodus, a half-gypsy girl who lives with her father Abel (Esmond Knight, the Archers’ do-anything character actor) in a thatch-roofed yeoman house in a secluded corner of Shropshire. Hazel has a pet fox, Foxy, which she protects from the local hunters and keeps close to her so obsessively that it starts to resemble a familiar. In the film’s peculiar, sparse, menacing opening, Hazel plucks Foxy out of the grass as the hunters’ horns echo about the hills, and she runs back home where she sits before the fire with her faintly unhinged father tuning the harp from which he makes part of his living, with Hazel as his singer. A sign on the front gate lists his roster of services as “Beeman, Harping For Every Occasion, Wreaths, Coffins.”
Hazel, with her old dress falling apart, travels into the nearby town of Much Wenlock and buys a new, fancy replacement. She tantalises her already smitten cousin Albert (George Cole), but also invites the sniffy disdain of her Aunt Prowde (Beatrice Varley). Angered, Hazel storms out of their house after Albert had invited her to stay, and, walking home in the dark, she is first frightened on the road and almost run over by the carriage of Jack Reddin (David Farrar), a local squire and one of the local hunters. Reddin takes her back to his house, a practically medieval abode studded with the trophies of thousands of hunts and as much a relic of another, different England as her own house, with a general isolation and dilapidation that is eloquent of exhausted treasuries and fetid devolution. Nonetheless Hazel and Reddin’s status as people who seem slightly out of time and place in the placid, smug atmosphere of Victorian rural England blends nimbly with their identity as icons of Freudian gender warfare, the masculine hunter and the little fox. Reddin aggressively tries to seduce Hazel, but she flees, aided by Reddin’s old, sarcastic, ineffectually moral caretaker Andrew Vessons (Hugh Griffith), who gives her a quiet place to sleep for the night and takes her back to her father in the morning. Reddin remains fixated on her and gallops all around the countryside in an attempt to track her down. When Hazel and her father perform at a church gathering, she is introduced to the local pastor, Rev. Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), who, in his own seemingly serene, impassive fashion, is immediately besotted with her.
Mary Webb’s source novel, which was neglected on first release just after World War I but then became hugely popular in the late ’20s, reputedly inspired Stella Gibbons’ famous “something nasty in the woodshed” satire Cold Comfort Farm. The story has obvious thematic parallels with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (which the Archers might have made a hell of a movie out of) and lying within the same effervescent strand of high Anglican romanticism. Powell and Pressburger transform Webb’s book into the sort of film only they seemed to be able to make, blending an almost neorealist sense of precision toward locale and behaviour—the supporting cast was made up of many Shropshire locals, and even Jones gives herself up to the peculiar syntax and slang of the region—with dashes of wilful fantasy, a heady psychosomatic fairy tale with a solid, grounded heart. It makes a corner of rural England as exotic as the Hindu Kush of Black Narcissus, a constant and recurring theme in the Archers’ work, in the way backwaters become distorted mirrors to the values of mainstream cultures. The film’s driving motif of two men pursuing a woman clearly echoes the gentle iteration in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the fiercer variation in The Red Shoes, whilst the sustained note of sexuality bubbling beneath prim surfaces and drawn out by an aggressive male evokes Black Narcissus, but with a more emphatic sense of feminine desire. Hazel, unlike the mad Sister Ruth of that film, is swayed by desire but not destroyed by it, but rather by the hysterical response to that desire.
One of the most fascinating, tantalising, and often disquieting traits of the Powell and Pressburger oeuvre is their fascination with jarringly divergent impulses and systems of thought that grip characters and, by implication, sometimes whole cultures. Rather than try to resolve those tensions like more familiar kinds of drama do, the duo practically revelled in the breakdown of order, the surrender to wild impulse and glorious insanity. Gone to Earth is one of the more particularly infernal examples of this strand, as Hazel is caught between the varieties of masculinity, the milky Marston and the grasping Reddin. Yet within each man is more than a few shades of contradiction: when provoked, Marston reveals a surprisingly tough and sensually forceful man, whereas Reddin quickly collapses when faced with real resistance. Hazel’s bizarre father, in a fit of amused pique, goads her into promising to marry the first man who should ask her, and the first man proves to be Marston. Marston, gently courting Hazel in his peculiar yet equally unshakeable fashion, vows to God, whom he sees in the pastoral landscape about him as surely as Hazel sees spirits and elves, not to approach her sexually until she asks him to. This proves a major blunder, for the intuitive Hazel feels rather spurned and is unable to shake off the terrible, hypnotic force of Reddin and the constant thrumming of his horse on the roads, hunting her down inexorably. As usual, too, for the Archers, they skip with surprising skill around the limitations of censorship to get their point across.
The most immediate stumbling block of entering into Gone to Earth’s world is Jones’ constantly slipping accent, and yet soon enough one becomes infinitely more concerned with what she’s doing; her vulpine quality, let off the leash in Duel in the Sun (1947), is here exploited to the utmost in a marvellously intuitive performance. Whereas Farrar is fine in a less cagey, more entitled variation on his Black Narcissus role, Cusack is fascinatingly cast as Marston (perhaps the only time in his career he played a romantic lead), his visage and apparel calling to mind Robert Helpmann as the lover turned priest in the core ballet sequence of The Red Shoes. Indeed, the film as a whole has a quality of being an explication of that vignette. And yet the tone and method of Gone to Earth is far from the ebullient, supercharged artistry of the ’40s Archers films, being far more dominated by mysterious, intense quiet filled with unspoken tension and awareness, punctuated by strobing passages of extraordinary, yet restrained artistry: Hazel’s flight through the woods with eyes peering out from trees, or the moments when the sound of Reddin’s horse moving through the roads becomes a kind of demonic reminder of fate, and the sequence in which Hazel ascends to the top of a nearby mount to perform a piece of witchery and await the decision of the fairies about which of her men she will find her fate with, silhouetted against the twilight sky with a blanket that provides a map of colour in an otherwise grey and unearthly space. As ever, the Archers’ sense of colour is like visual music (though Christopher Challis had taken over as the team’s cinematographer from Jack Cardiff), down to the inevitable emotive reds flooding the screen at intervals throughout, when Reddin is on the hunt, and in the climactic confrontation between the central trio.
The deeply concerted rhythm and quietly composing elements that give Gone to Earth its hypnotic intensity is visible in one of the mostly unobtrusively brilliant scenes, that of the church picnic, where congregants listen to her singing, rhythmically switching between the momentarily uplifted faces of the parishioners with Hazel framed against the sky, an angel doomed to fall. The collective then settle down to mundane activities, from Marston’s haughty, secretly jealous mother (Sybil Thorndyke) cautioning him against girls not of his class, to the fatuous senior deacon Mr. James (Edward Chapman), having been kept from hoarding all of the pastries, mumbling irritably during Marston’s saying Grace, “I have not received tartlets…I am not thankful!” This fillip of amusing blasphemy and several other small gestures in the scene pay off in later, more volcanic moments. Powell and Pressburger stretch their symbolic acuity here to new limits, especially in their handling of Foxy as the emblem of Hazel’s sexuality, encapsulating the sex-is-death motif in a mordant scene where Hazel helps her father carry one of his coffins from their house, placing Foxy within the casket for the trip, a motif prefigured when Hazel first enters her own home in the film, plunging through the door to be visually entrapped by the frame for a coffin her father is making. Later, when she marries Marston, she keeps Foxy on a leash at her side through the ceremony, a decision others object to but that Marston acquiesces to with a well-aimed Biblical quote. Freudian analysts could have a field day with this film, particularly the vaginal chasm of a mine shaft that Hazel nearly stumbles into on her way to that fateful church picnic, and, gazing down into unknowable depths, becomes aware that one day she will die.
The world that the different characters and the forces they represent and channel is the same zone of oft-idyllic pastoral beauties—the low, sharply rolling hills, the woods in the hollows, and the fresh grassy peaks—yet is filled with multitudinous perspectives on the same thing. Even the mountain that dominates the locale is called “God’s Mountain” and yet is crowned by the “Devil’s Chair.” Hazel and Reddin trail associations of a faded English landscape of entitled lords and saucy wenches, the sort that made for jolly good yarns in then-recent British films like The Wicked Lady (1945) and Blanche Fury (1947). When Reddin first takes Hazel back to his house, he tries to get her changed out of muddied clothes and into one of the low-cut Regency dresses jammed in a trunk. He then literally chases her around and then over the kitchen table, finally actually catching her atop it and kissing her. Each is subsequently unable or unwilling to break out of an almost primal, Lawrentian game where the conscious self is entirely in thrall to basic drives and timeless patterns of behaviour. The virginal Vessons channels his feelings into carefully clipping a tree into the shape of a swan and furiously shooting birds when he’s mad at his master. Marston seems a pillar of Victorian bourgeois establishmentarianism, and his sternly critical mother has hooks of emotional vampirism in her son. Soon, however, he reveals himself to be a deeply contradictory figure who plainly hungers for what Hazel offers—contact with the flipside of his own, spiritual sense of the landscape. The first time Reddin and Marston meet, it comes literally at a crossroads, and Marston deflects Reddin for a time from his relentless search for Hazel.
Class tension, of course percolates, along with psychosexual strain and gender schisms, in this clash of realms, but again Hazel and Reddin represent extremes that somehow lie distinct and therefore unified apart from the Victorian town. As the drama unfolds, Marston amusingly reveals the degree to which he actually hates his environment. Marston seems in fact closer kin to Sister Ruth, dedicating himself selflessly and purely to his wife but slowly driven to lose his upright composure when confronted with her eventual infidelity. whilst castigating himself for spurning Hazel, he also seems to take permission from her infidelity to unleash both his own sensuality and his contempt for his world, tossing a dish of jam at the wall when his mother tries to talk him out of his depression, and not spurning Hazel but rather confronting, if only momentarily, the tacit permission he feels to treat her as a purely sexual object: “Never mind,” he snarls, “I’m not particular!” His peculiar equanimity of outlook is signalled throughout with his indulgence of Foxy at the wedding and his unruffled fascination with Hazel’s maternal inheritance, a notebook filled with obscure spells that encapsulate potent metaphors of feminine and outsider lore, especially the warning about keeping clear of the “black hunter” unless you want to “drop down dead.” Such lore is filled with meaning for a sensible mind, but Hazel’s is not a sensible mind; she takes things literally and ascends in the night to perform her atavistic rites on the Devil’s Chair. She hears the revelatory music that signals she should go to Reddin, but in a blackly witty cutaway, it’s revealed this music is actually her father playing his harp in the moonlit solitude of the woods.
The film’s slow burn pays off in the climactic moments, when Marston goes to reclaim Hazel from Reddin, who has snatched Foxy from his cage at Marston’s house, and drops him writhing in a sack at Hazel’s feet, viciously smug with his triumph, as Hazel wrestles with him and Marston tries to untie the bag. The married couple return home, only for Marston to have to reject his mother in order to keep Hazel: his mother moves out, as does the housekeeper, segueing into the telling sight of Hazel the next morning trying to arrange the breakfast into a paragon of bourgeois decorum. But the deacons barge in to confront Marston, demanding he put Hazel out, and James claims to speaking for the Lord. Hazel berates them for persecuting him, and Marston retorts by stating he’s leaving the ministry and delivers a memorable harangue: “How do you know it was Hazel’s fault?…It was mine…I’d like to flog you off the Mountain, James…But you rule this world, little smug pot-bellied gods!” Marston deflects the challenge for a moment and the couple have a moment of triumph. But then Hazel goes looking for Foxy, and finds him on the mountain just as Reddin and the others hunters have gotten his scent. Hazel tries to flee back to Marston with Foxy in her arms, chased down by the hounds and by Reddin trying desperately to snatch the animal from her arms to lead the animals away. This genuinely hair-raising ending caps a film that isn’t just an underrated work by some major filmmakers, but a true capstone for one of the most amazing runs of cinematic brilliance in the medium’s history.