I Know Where I’m Going (1945) gets under people’s skins. It’s not exactly a GWTW– or Star Wars-type blockbuster. But some of its fans are so passionate that they follow its heroine’s path to the western isles of Scotland to visit the sites they know so well from the movie. I Know Where I’m Going—IKWIG to its makers and devotees, is on its surface a pleasant romance in an exotic setting, nothing more. But that little romance is a Trojan horse (in IKWIG, people and things are not quite what they seem), and beneath its surface is a passion, a wildness both terrifying and liberating. For the 70 years since it was made people have been moved and shaken by it, seen it as somehow their own story or as a cue to examine where they’re going.
What is it about this rather modest black-and-white British wartime entertainment that still speaks to people across the oceans and a sea of time? Most people have never heard of the movie, its stars, or its directors. So what gives?
Here’s the story: Joan Webster (the goddess Wendy Hiller) excitedly sets out for Kiloran, an island in the Scottish Western Isles where her fabulously wealthy fiancé (roughly her father’s age) will upon her arrival marry her—the goal she has single-mindedly pursued for as long as she can remember. She takes the 1:10am Scotch Express from Manchester to Glasgow, transfers to another train, then a boat further north to Tobermory, then a car through the hills to a village with a pier, where Sir Robert Bellenger (the rich guy) is to retrieve her. She’s so close!—only half an hour by boat to Kiloran. She can see it from the pier. But the Hebrides’ unruly weather has other ideas: First a fog, then a gale, prevent her making the passage, and in those few days of delay she meets and falls hard for Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a navy lieutenant and the real Laird of Kiloran (to Joan’s chagrin Bellenger is merely Kiloran’s tenant). As her certainty unravels in the heat of her chemistry with Torquil—her desire for security melting in her desire for him—she becomes increasingly desperate to get to the island and escape both him and her feelings. She ignores all warnings and common sense and buys off a young boatman to take her across. Torquil is furious, but when he realizes she’s running away from him, he goes, too, and a good thing—his skills and imperturbability are their only hope of escaping the huge whirlpool, Corryvreckan.
Simple enough. But England’s singular writing-producing-directing team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aka The Archers, use this little tale as a scaffolding for a rich mixture of images and special effects, narrative, closely observed characters and local legends and traditions (as well as a made-up “ancient” curse) all elegantly woven together so fluently that if you’re not watching with intent, they pass unnoticed.
Corryvreckan is real. Powell found it and other lore, legends, locations, and characters to draw on when he and his wife traveled to the Western Isles while Pressburger stayed in London working on IKWIG’s script. The whirlpool instantly reminded Powell of Edgar Allen Poe’s story “Descent into the Maelstrom,” in which the hero lashes himself to the mast to avoid being swept overboard. Powell was so enamored of Corryvreckan that he claims in his memoir to have returned a number of times with his Eyemo camera to shoot footage of the whirlpool from perilously close. Meanwhile, Pressburger only visited the shoot a few times, immaculately clad in his suit and hat while Powell had gone native in a kilt and fisherman’s sweater. Both of them carried their script in shoulder bags in which they also toted a bottle of “some sort of firewater” and a salami. Colorful characters who made colorful, personal films.
Powell and Pressburger were introduced in the late ‘30s by producer Alexander Korda, like Pressburger a Hungarian émigré, after Korda was impressed by Powell’s 1937 movie The Edge of the World (like IKWIG, set in the Western Isles). Powell had come up through the ranks in the late silent era, and had since the early ’30s been grinding out “quota quickies,” low-budget movies made to satisfy government regulations stipulating that 20 percent of films shown in the U.K. had to be produced there.
Like all great partnerships it was both unlikely and seemingly inevitable. Pressburger, who was rather formal in dress and manner, observed Englishness with the acute eye of the outsider, and Powell was an English eccentric who loved roughing it on land and water. They shared a playfulness, a willingness to combine and subvert genres, and to straddle the border between realism and fantasy. Together they made 24 movies between 1939 and 1972, including such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and A Matter of Life and Death.
Powell writes in his memoir A Life in Movies (a fantastic tale of his extraordinary career, which began in the late 1920s) that he and Pressburger were sitting in his car one day talking about IKWIG and feeling their way back to the message they wanted to deliver to their audience. The end of the war was imminent and a postwar future loomed, bright and fast and materialistic. There would be no room in that world for eccentric villagers who live as their ancestors have for centuries. IKWIG was to be a reconciliation between the beautiful traditions and terrible curses of the past and the hope for connection between people in the future. How would they word the message? They sat silently for a few moments, then Pressburger said, “Kindness rules the world. Not money.”
IKWIG could never have been made in Hollywood, nor could any of the Archers’ films. Actually, the Archers partnership could never have existed in the American studio system. As we know from so many examples, among the most famous Orson Welles and Erich von Stroheim, it took a certain type of temperament to work successfully in Hollywood, whether behind or in front of the camera. Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood challenged their bosses for more control over their careers and lost (Bette Davis, James Cagney). Others not so big tried the same thing and got cut off at the knees (Ann Dvorak). Directors were with few exceptions (Howard Hawks) just employees like actors, and like actors they mostly made the movies they were assigned.
The Archers, on the other hand, had a high degree of autonomy. Here, from a letter Emeric Pressburger wrote Wendy Hiller in 1942, is “The Archers’ Manifesto”:
- 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 judgment.
- 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.
The more I know about The Archers and what went into making their films the more I appreciate them.
Joan’s dream on the train: In the clip, Joan sets off on her journey and falls asleep to the train’s urgent rhythm (“Everything’s arranged, everything’s arranged”), dreaming of the life that awaits her as Lady Bellenger. Her fantasies of wealth and the power it brings are a little girl’s, not a woman’s, and on some level even she knows it’s not life she’s rushing toward—her dream image of herself as Lady Bellenger, chicly coiffed and made up, looks more embalmed than newly alive. Powell and Pressburger let us know that Joan has crossed the first threshold when the gentle Scottish voice speaking over a child’s image of the hills in tartan murmurs “You’re over the border now.”
A few words about the stock crew The Archers had assembled by the time they made IKWIG:
The brilliant visuals of The Red Shoes are impossible to miss, but if IKWIG’s black-and-white cinematography is less showy it’s not less gorgeous. Cinematographer Erwin Hillier worked on several films with Powell, and the influence of Expressionist photography that was so prominent in England in the ‘30s and ‘40s is on full show in IKWIG’s rich blacks, shadows, and silhouettes.
The score, by Allan Gray (another émigré, he chose his last name from Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray”), is on cursory listen fairly standard stuff, but again a closer listen reveals the score’s complex and clever sequences, which blend sound effects and various musical motifs and styles seamlessly. Like Hillier, Gray also worked on several films for The Archers.
Production designer Alfred Junge, yet another émigré, created for IKWIG interiors that evoke a palpable sense of place, from the opening scene’s expensive nightclub in Manchester to the tiny radio transmitter office in the village to the cozy, crowded old manse where Joan and Torquil stay during the storm.
The action scene, when Joan’s willfulness leads her and Torquil to the brink of annihilation in Corryvreckan, is splendidly done. In addition to real footage of the whirlpool, the filmmakers built a huge tank at the studio outside London. The tank had machinery to toss the water and the boat the actors were in, and it’s pretty convincing. The special effects team also used a technique for simulating the whirlpool with gelatin—they borrowed it from Cecil B. DeMille, who had used it in The Ten Commandments (1923).
The production made generous use of back-projection, much better quality that in many Hollywood movies. And doubles were used extensively, most famously for Roger Livesey, who is never actually seen in any of the location exteriors. He was doing a play in London and couldn’t make the trip, so a double was hired and taught to walk like him. Once you know it you notice, not because it’s obvious but because you know. The transitions between long exterior shots and close reaction shots of Livesey are utterly seamless. Powell took extraordinary care with all these technical issues. It’s the kind of virtuosity that doesn’t call attention to itself. Powell relished the problem-solving elements of filmmaking. Pressburger generally came up with the initial story premise, then fleshed it out into a sort of treatment. Then Powell would take a crack at it and pass that back to Pressburger. There might be as few as two or as many as 20 volleys before they agreed on the final shooting script.
And a note on IKWIG’s stars:
Wendy Hiller, our heroine, had a long, storied career on the stage that took off in the mid-‘30s when she was spotted and mentored by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw insisted she play Eliza Doolittle in the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, and in all she appeared in 24 films, the first in 1937 and the last 50 years later. She is very English, and it’s much more than her accent. I can’t imagine her in Hollywood and am grateful she never felt the need to pursue movie stardom; the studios wouldn’t have known what to do with her. Wendy Hiller is unforgettable; she doesn’t look or sound like anyone else (that voice!). I can see why Shaw was so taken with her—she has a sharp intelligence that always grabs me in an actor. Hiller was born to play Joan Webster, the young woman so sure she has life right where she wants it, who fights almost to the death against the fates to hold on to her rather unimaginative dream of marrying into wealth. The role was supposed to go to Deborah Kerr, and of course that wouldn’t have been bad, but Hiller’s crisp, no-nonsense personality was the perfect Trojan horse for a romanticism and adventurousness that come as a shock to Joan—she didn’t know she had it in her—and upset her best-laid plans.
Roger Livesey (pronounced liv-see) is best remembered today for the three films he made for The Archers in the 1940s. He had recently appeared in the title role of another Archers production, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, in 1943, and in 1946, the year after IKWIG, he costarred with David Niven and Kim Hunter in their Technicolor epic A Matter of Life and Death. Livesey had to prove himself the right man to play opposite Hiller—Powell and Pressburger had been set on James Mason, who dropped out of IKWIG a few weeks before shooting began, and they were sure Livesey was a few years and more than a few pounds past believably playing Torquil MacNeil, the laird of Kiloran, who is in his early 30s (Livesey was 39 at the time). But Livesey showed them: He dyed his hair blond and dropped 20 pounds, restoring his aquiline profile, and made himself a credible romantic lead. Like Wendy Hiller, Livesey had an illustrious career on stage and screen without going to Hollywood. His sexy, slightly gruff voice was a fine complement to Hiller’s vibrant contralto, and Torquil’s easygoing demeanor also conceals unsuspected qualities—an ardent intensity and an extraordinary grace under pressure.
The western Isles of Scotland and their people, with their proud Highland traditions, were much beloved of Michael Powell, and he was pleased to have a story that so naturally lent itself to the setting. The dramatic landscapes of mountains, seas, and ever-changing skies, and the people, with their distinctive way of speaking and their ancient traditions, offered Powell glorious possibilities for visuals, vivid characters, and memorable dialogue, like this Gaelic proverb:
“Well…” Torquil says to Joan when she tells him of her impending nuptials, “may your pulse beat as your heart would wish,”
A pivotal scene in the middle of the movie is set at a ceilidh (kay-lee), a celebration, in this case of Mr. and Mrs. Campbell’s diamond wedding anniversary. It gives Powell an opportunity to pull Joan (and us) into the pulse of the community. At the beginning of the scene there’s a wonderful floor-level shot, the feet of the dancers and the floorboards bouncing rhythmically under their weight. A few songs later Torquil, who has been calmly biding his time (it has after all only been 48 hours since he and Joan met), declares himself. Torquil the hunter has Joan treed, as it were. Well, up a ladder, anyway, watching the ceilidh from outside. Nothing so flat as a declaration, though—he does it by translating the lyrics of a Gaelic song:
Torquil: [casually, looking inside at the ceilidh] That’s a fine song, “Nut-Brown Maiden,” you know it? It goes,
Horo, my nut-brown maiden
Hiri, my nut-brown maiden
Horo, ro ro maiden
[he pauses, then his eyes dart to Joan’s, sharp as can be]
You’re the maid for me
The bagpipes swell. Joan looks at him, sad and defeated, then casts her eyes down, the music of the pipes swirling like her thoughts. Her beautifully planned future just collapsed like the house of cards it always was.
Joan is lost in confusion. What should be one of her life’s most memorable moments—a declaration from the man she loves—is a swoon for the audience. It is for me, every time I see it. Simple, really… Torquil doesn’t build up to it, he gives her no time to escape. He goes from a polite if obviously flirtatious conversation to that eagle-eyed confession in a New York minute and catches her completely off-guard. And the pipes are suddenly loud, filling Joan’s and our ears as she gropes for anything to save her from falling.
It’s a trick artists use to make a serious point: lighten the tone, sweeten it, so you don’t turn off your audience. The Archers didn’t set out to make a heavy philosophical movie, but Powell and Pressburger took movies way too seriously to make even one that didn’t tell some kind of truth. They charted their course by their truths.
“Kindness rules the world. Not money.”
That’s the underlying spirit of IKWIG. And it’s part of its undiminished power. We live in a fast, bright world where we are in constant motion, where stillness is unknown and silence is a foreign language. Like Joan, we are too fixated on our urgent goals to listen to our hearts or even to our own pulse. That’s part of IKWIG‘s not-so-obvious appeal: It offers us a detour from our relentless busyness, an invitation to pause and pay attention to where we are instead of where we think we’re going.
“May your pulse beat as your heart would wish.”
This post was written for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the Classic Movie Bloggers Association 2015 Fall Blogathon. It also appears in slightly different form in the ebook Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Classic Films on the Move, available at Amazon and Smashwords. All profits will be donated to the National Film Preservation Foundation.