Powell and Pressburger: History, Magic and Cinema

Charlie Ritchie

PowellMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were the most original filmmaking team in the history of British Cinema. The films that they made together under the name of their production company ‘The Archers’ include some of the most critically celebrated and best loved films made in Britain. This course will investigate and celebrate the strategies they developed – aesthetic, technical and ideological – to transform the language of popular cinema within a period of social and political change. We will concentrate on their work from the 40s, including some of: ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘A Canterbury Tale’, ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Black Narcissus’, ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘A Small Back Room’.

Martin Scorsese called ‘The Archers’ “the most successful experimental film-makers in the world” and we will be exploring their embrace of fantasy, magic and stylistic innovation in a wartime context to which the dominant cinematic responses were variations on sombre documentary realism. We will consider the technical developments in colour, sound and design which contributed to their unique aesthetic, and the role of other key players in the Archers’ team, like actors, art directors and cinematographers. Their financial backer J. Arthur Rank dreamt of creating a British cinema that could compete with Hollywood on the world stage, and Powell and Pressburger’s ability to give global themes a local habitation and a name is one of the more compelling and challenging features of their legacy. Quintessentially British and startlingly European, these films respond to some of the key propaganda impulses of the time with passion, humour, and humanity. We will assess their treatment of themes like exile, eroticism and nostalgia, their changing representations of male and female identity, and their interventions in the national construction of a ‘people’s war“. A mischievous questioning of the Anglo-American relationship underpins ‘A Canterbury Tale” and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, and has provoked some memorable class discussion. Our focus throughout will be on the pleasures, magic and beauties of this unique body of work, as well as the kind of vision it offers of the world.

There will be at least one full length evening screening each week and classes will encourage discussion and audio-visual presentation work from the participants. Term assignments can take the form of a research paper or a creative screenplay submission.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: This course assumes no specific prior background and functions as a stand-alone introduction to film studies.

Transferrable Skills: Taking this course will help students develop a range of skills, including those of reasoning, argument, critical analysis, creative response, research and communication. In particular writing papers will enable students to undertake self-directed learning and research, critically read and evaluate evidence, and produce well-written and intelligently supported arguments. The screenwriting option will develop creative and critical understanding of film language

Core Reading

  • Powell & Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces ; Andrew Moor,( I.B.Tauris, 2005)
  • The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker ; edited by Ian Christie and Andrew Moor ( BFI 2005)


Final Essay or Creative/Critical Screenplay submission:50%

Final Exam: 50%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)