Powell and Pressburger

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Powell and Pressburger
The Archers
IndustryFilm production company
1943 (as "The Archers")
FatePartnership amicably ended
HeadquartersUnited Kingdom
Key people
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger

The British film-making partnership of Michael Powell (1905–1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902–1988)—together often known as The Archers, the name of their production company—made a series of influential films in the 1940s and 1950s. Their collaborations—24 films between 1939 and 1972—were mainly derived from original stories by Pressburger with the script written by both Pressburger and Powell. Powell did most of the directing while Pressburger did most of the work of the producer and also assisted with the editing, especially the way the music was used. Unusually, the pair shared a writer-director-producer credit for most of their films. The best-known of these are 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 (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

In 1981, Powell and Pressburger were recognised for their contributions to British cinema with the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, the most prestigious award given by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.


Early films[edit]

Powell was already an experienced director, having worked his way up from making silent films to the First World War drama The Spy in Black (1939), his first film for Hungarian émigré producer Alexander Korda. Pressburger, who had come from Hungary in 1935, already worked for Korda, and was asked to do some rewrites for the film.[1] This collaboration was the first of 19, most over the next 18 years.

After Powell had made two further films for Korda, he reunited with Pressburger in 1940 for Contraband, the first in a run of Powell and Pressburger films set during the Second World War. The second was 49th Parallel (1941), which won Pressburger an Academy Award for Best Story. Both are Hitchcock-like thrillers made as anti-Nazi propaganda.

Birth of The Archers[edit]

The pair adopted a joint writer-producer-director credit for their next film, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and made reference to "The Archers" in the credits. In 1943 they incorporated their own production company, Archers Film Productions, and adopted a distinctive archery target logo which began each film. The joint credit "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger" indicates their joint responsibility for their own work and that they weren't beholden to any studio or other producers.[2]

In a letter to Wendy Hiller in 1942, asking her to appear in Colonel Blimp, Pressburger explicitly set out 'The Archers' Manifesto'. Its five points express the pair's intentions:[3]

  1. We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.
  2. Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
  3. When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
  4. No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.
  5. At any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.

They began to form a group of regular cast and crew members who worked with them on many films over the next 12 years. Hardly any of these people were ever under contract to The Archers—they were hired film by film—but Powell and Pressburger soon learnt whom they worked well with and who enjoyed working with them.[4] When Raymond Massey was offered the part of the Prosecuting Attorney in A Matter of Life and Death his cabled reply was "For The Archers anytime, this world or the next."[5][page needed]

He knows what I am going to say even before I say it—maybe even before I have thought it—and that is very rare. You are lucky if you meet someone like that once in your life.

— Pressburger on Powell, [6]

He'd stood the story on its head, he'd turned a man into a woman and a woman into a man, he'd altered the suspense, he'd rewritten the end... I was rejoicing that I was going to be working with someone like this.

— Powell on first meeting Pressburger, [1]

Powell and Pressburger also co-produced a few films by other directors under The Archers' banner: The Silver Fleet (1943), written and directed by Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley, based on a story by Pressburger,[7] and The End of the River (1947), directed by Derek N. Twist, to which both Powell and Pressburger contributed uncredited writing.[8] Both Sewell and Twist had worked with Powell & Pressburger previously on other films and were being given their first chance as directors.

Over the remainder of the war and afterwards, they released a series of acclaimed films:

The collaboration[edit]

Generally, Pressburger created the original story (for all their films from 1940–1946) and wrote the first draft of the script. They then passed the script back and forth a few times—they could never work on it together in the same room. For the dialogue, Pressburger knew what he wanted the characters to say but Powell would often supply some of the actual words.

They both acted as producers, perhaps Pressburger slightly more than Powell, since he could soothe the feathers ruffled by Powell's forthright manner. They became their own producers mainly to stop anyone else from interfering, since they had a considerable degree of freedom, especially under Rank, to make just about any film they wanted.

The direction was nearly all done by Powell, but even so The Archers generally worked as a team, with the cast and crew often making suggestions. Pressburger was always on hand, usually on the studio floor, to make sure that these late changes fit seamlessly into the story.

Once the filming was finished, Powell usually went off for a walk in the hills of Scotland to clear his head, but Pressburger was often closely involved in the editing, especially in the way the music was used. Pressburger was a musician himself and had played the violin in an orchestra in Hungary.

When the film was finally ready and Powell was back from the Highlands, he was usually "the front man" in any promotional work, such as interviews for the trade papers or fan magazines.

Because collaborative efforts such as Powell and Pressburger's were, and continue to be, unusual in the film industry, and because of the influence of the auteur theory, which elevates the director as a film's primary creator, Pressburger has sometimes been dismissed as "Michael Powell's scriptwriter", but Powell himself was the first to say, in many interviews, that he couldn't have done most of what he did without Pressburger.

Post-war success and decline[edit]

End of the partnership[edit]

In the early 1950s Powell and Pressburger began to produce fewer films, with notably less success. The Archers' productions officially came to an end in 1957, and the pair separated to pursue their individual careers. The separation was amicable, and they remained devoted friends for the rest of their lives.[6]

Later collaboration[edit]

The pair reunited for two films:

Regular cast and crew[edit]

Powell and Pressburger re-used actors and crew members in a number of films. Actors who were part of The Archers' "stock company" include:

Notable crew members include:

Critical opinions[edit]

Michael Powell's gift was that he saw things with terrible clarity. Perhaps his films have been waiting for DVD all along.

— Entertainment Weekly
11 January 2002[10]

There is not a British director, working in Britain, with as many worthwhile films to his credit as Michael Powell.

— A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema
by David Thomson, 1975[11]

British film critics gave the films of Powell and Pressburger a mixed reaction at the time, acknowledging their creativity, but sometimes questioning their motivations and taste. For better or worse, The Archers were always out of step with mainstream British cinema.[12][13][14][15]

From the 1970s onwards, British critical opinion began to revise this lukewarm assessment, with their first BFI retrospective in 1970 and another in 1978. They are now seen as playing a key part in the history of British film, and have become influential and iconic for many film-makers of later generations, such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George A. Romero, among others.[16]


Awards, nominations and honours[edit]

Four of their films are among the Top 50 British films of the 20th century according to the British Film Institute, with The Red Shoes placing in the top 10.

Year Film Award Powell Pressburger Others
1937 The Edge of the World Presented at the Venice Film Festival Yes
1943 49th Parallel Oscar nominated for Best Picture Yes
Oscar winner for Best Writing, Original Story Yes
Oscar nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay Yes Rodney Ackland
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing Oscar nominated for Best Writing, Original Screenplay Yes Yes
Oscar nominated for Best Effects, Special Effects Ronald Neame
(photographic) and
C.C. Stevens (sound)
1946 A Matter of Life and Death First ever Royal Film Performance Yes Yes
1948 Winner Danish Bodil Award for Best European Film Yes Yes
Black Narcissus Oscar winner for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color Alfred Junge
Oscar winner for Best Cinematography, Color Jack Cardiff
The Red Shoes Nominated for Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Yes Yes
1949 Oscar winner for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color Hein Heckroth and
Arthur Lawson
Oscar winner for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Brian Easdale
Oscar nominated for Best Picture Yes Yes
Oscar nominated for Best Writing, Original Story Yes
Oscar nominated for Best Film Editing Yes Reginald Mills
1950 The Small Back Room BAFTA Award nominated for Best British Film Yes Yes
1951 The Tales of Hoffmann Oscar nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color Hein Heckroth
Oscar nominated for Best Costume Design, Color Hein Heckroth
Cannes Film Festival nominated for Grand Prize of the Festival Yes Yes
Winner Silver Berlin Bear from Berlin International Film Festival as Best Musical Yes Yes
1956 The Battle of the River Plate Selected for the Royal Film Performance Yes Yes
1957 BAFTA Award nominated for Best British Film Yes Yes
BAFTA Award nominated for Best British Screenplay Yes Yes
BAFTA Award nominated for Best Film from any Source Yes Yes
1959 Luna de Miel Cannes Film Festival nominated for Golden Palm Yes
1970 Partial retrospective of their films at the National Film Theatre Yes Yes
1972 The Boy Who Turned Yellow Children's Film Foundation winner of the 'Chiffy' award for the best film Yes
1978 Made Hon DLitt, University of East Anglia Yes
1978 Made Hon DLitt, University of Kent Yes
1978 Retrospective of their extant works at the National Film Theatre Yes Yes
1980 Dartmouth Film Award Yes
1981 BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award Yes Yes
1982 Awarded Career Gold Lion from the Venice Film Festival Yes
1983 Made Fellows of the British Film Institute (BFI) Yes Yes
1987 Awarded Hon Doctorate, Royal College of Art Yes
1987 Akira Kurosawa Award from San Francisco International Film Festival Yes

Powell and Pressburger, the people and their films have been the subject of many documentaries and books as well as doctoral research.[17][18][19]

An English Heritage blue plaque to commemorate Powell and Pressburger was unveiled on 17 February 2014 by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker at Dorset House, Gloucester Place, London, where The Archers had their offices from 1942–47.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Powell 1986, pp 302–303
  2. ^ Powell 1986, pp 386–387
  3. ^ Macdonald, 1994. pp 189–190
  4. ^ Powell, 1986. p. 579. David Farrar was the only person ever given a multi-film contract by The Archers
  5. ^ Powell, 1986
  6. ^ a b BBC Arena documentary, A Pretty British Affair (1981)
  7. ^ The Silver Fleet at IMDb
  8. ^ The End of the River at IMDb
  9. ^ Powell, 1992. p. 81
  10. ^ "Entertainment Weekly 11th January 2002". www.powell-pressburger.org.
  11. ^ "Powell's finding of Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema"". www.powell-pressburger.org.
  12. ^ "Contemporary Reviews of "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)"". www.powell-pressburger.org.
  13. ^ "Contemporary reviews of "A Canterbury Tale (1944)"". www.powell-pressburger.org.
  14. ^ "Contemporary Reviews of "I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)"". www.powell-pressburger.org.
  15. ^ "Contemporary Reviews of "A Matter of Life and Death (1946)"". www.powell-pressburger.org.
  16. ^ Mirasol, M. (5 March 2010). ""Black Narcissus," which electrified Scorsese". Chicago Sun-Times. suntimes.com. Archived from the original on 4 January 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2010.
  17. ^ "Pilgrims in Print". British Film Institute. BFI.org. Archived from the original on 9 October 2010. Retrieved 11 December 2010.
  18. ^ "Powell and Pressburger: Books". Amazon. Amazon.com. Retrieved 11 December 2010.
  19. ^ Thiéry, Natacha (2003). "Photogénie du désir: les films de Michael Powell et Emeric Pressburger, 1945–1950" (PhD thesis) (in French). Paris: Université de la Sorbonne nouvelle. URL may only take you to an index page, from which the thesis can be searched for {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  20. ^ "POWELL & PRESSBURGER". English Heritage. Retrieved 10 January 2016.

External links[edit]