Powell and Pressburger and the Dynamic Potential of the Blockbuster

The term “blockbuster” was coined to explain the commercial circumstances, rather than the content, of certain films. By this metric, anything could be a blockbuster, were it to prove itself lucrative, but the blockbuster has come to be less widely applicable, more specific and abstract in its definition. Now blockbusters aren’t just films to leave a cultural dent, but ones that feel big and expensive—films with a high percentage of CGI and sequences that feel propulsive or action-packed. It is a title that has transcended the figures which once prompted the term in the 1940s. 

Despite its more expansive, less statistical framing, it has come to incorporate a kind of film that remains uninspiring in its stasis. Blockbusters are only made by companies of a certain tax bracket, capable of sustaining such production amidst a competitive filmic landscape (with roughly 13 times more movies being released into American cinemas on a monthly basis than were being shown 80 years ago). Every few years we are subject to a new wave of Star Wars and Marvel films – with the occasional Mad Max thrown in to reorient the space. There are seemingly fewer and fewer ways to genuinely stop cinema-goers in their tracks, offering people a new perspective on size and scope.

In the last year, the British Film Institute (BFI) hosted a Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger films series. All of the duo’s films were screened (with a variety of specialised introductions and panels) alongside an exhibition for The Red Shoes. This all preceded a new documentary on “The Archers” (the pair’s nickname), entitled Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger narrated by their long-time admirer Martin Scorsese. This combined effort by cinematic institutions has re-platformed their directorial offerings, casting a lot of contemporary blockbusters in their complex shadow. 

I went to a number of these BFI screenings, fascinated by the newly restored quality of these images and the details of their painstaking research and creative process. As someone who was raised outside of Britain, my summers were decorated with short, sharp visits back to England bursting with family time. All of the action was interrupted with traversing the sunny countryside, shades of green stretching endlessly, broken by a concrete-free sky. It was unfamiliarly beautiful, and untinged with the complicated, ugly politics of a country I had yet to really know. Powell and Pressburger’s rendering of England felt closest to these early, untreated memories–moments that were equally beholden to the mystery of the hills and valleys, more dangerous than purely romantic.

Crucially, these films embody the definitions of “epics” and “blockbusters”; not just functioning as tentpole films in the money making sense, but adhering to the more technical constraints of the epic. If epics are defined as a “body of legend or tradition” illuminating the lives of single, indefinable people, all of the directors’ work could be described as “epic”, ranging from the more traditional examples (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) to the atypically condensed versions (A Canterbury Tale). Powell and Pressburger embrace a variety of tones in their filmmaking, ranging from the fantastical to the historical to the romantic. The common theme that binds them is obsession. All of their epics are basically about people and the paths they walk, lit solely by the flare of obsession. Sometimes these preoccupations cover decades of a character’s life, sometimes we are only granted insight into a handful of days or weeks, but there are few consistent tools that elevate it above films that merely gesture towards this size through expensive tactics. 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is structured like a museum exhibit, its acts and scenes functioning as instalments in the whole. Dramatic moments fade in and out with little connecting them chronologically, forming the dips and grooves of this particular “body of legend”. At times John Seabourne Sr. ‘s editing is purposely engineered to avoid the action of the story, side-stepping the events of Clive Wynne-Candy’s (Roger Livesey) life. When Theo (Anton Walbrook) and Clive initiate their duel, the camera floats above them, watching them push and pull like magnets spinning before fading into the snowy night sky. Somehow Powell and Pressburger make stories that capture the spirit of adventure without succumbing to any traditional beats. Similarly, the first scene of A Matter of Life and Death upends any ideas of a wartime drama. All of the airborne battle plays out in flashing colours colliding against our protagonists’ pained expressions. The camera never tips back, holding both Peter (David Niven) and June’s (Kim Hunter) in a steady, unbroken closeup. This is typical for Powell and Pressburger: action plays out on the fringes, leaving space for the intangible emotions to reform the scene. 

Rather than the literal expression of action, with each fight building to the strongest man delivering the deadliest blow (until there is a stronger man introduced), or the couple reuniting to kiss in the climactic moments, Powell and Pressburger play with something less literal and more emotional. There are always multiple things ongoing in every frame, actors balancing the central conceit of the scene with unexpected movement in the foreground and background. When Joan (Wendy Hiller) attends a late night dance midway through I Know Where I’m Going!, there are people milling along the edges, galloping around the middle, balanced on the rafters, all of it colliding in the viewer’s gaze. None of it is explicitly moving the plot forward, but still making a case for character’s and their space. 

Powell and Pressburger films are epic in their willingness to allow interpretation, committed to offering new ways of responding to stories. These films were not set across galaxies or in alien planets, but their expansive capturing of the British landscape made for big films alive with dream-like potential. With Made in England we are reminded that not so long ago, directors and audiences collaborated to redefine the scope of the blockbuster. 

“Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger” is out now in limited release. Photos courtesy of Cohen Media.

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