Have You Written to Mother?

This is a propaganda short directed by Michael Powell in 1941. Kind of timely in the wake of Remembrance Sunday. The text, read by John Gielgud, comes from a genuine letter, we are told, written by an English airman to his mother to be delivered in the event of his death.

It’s of great historic interest, but of cinematic interest too, not only for the filmmaking contained therein, but for the obvious influence this piece had on the opening of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. As with that feature, the dog-loving Powell stars his own spaniel in the piece (or so I assume — those are certainly Powell’s dogs playing Roger Livesey’s pets in AMOLAD). And the voice introducing the letter is Powell’s own distinctive nasal twang.

16 Responses to “Have You Written to Mother?”

  1. I recently revisited I Know Where I’m Going, a film I found hard to get into. I loved it this time and Powell’s dogs make another cameo in that. They also appear in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp when Clive and Barbara(the Second Deborah Kerr) are about to enter their new home and she makes him promise “never to change as long as the house is standing and this is a lake.”

  2. Hitch and Powell were both dog men, but Powell favoured a more athletic breed, suitable for the long walks he loved so much.

  3. Good man! I have never cared for having pets so I can’t relate but I find it cute. Scorsese is also a dog lover, he never parts ways from his pet Zoe.

  4. Note the picture of T.E. Lawrence featured in one shot.

  5. Yes, under a line about “those who sacrificed.”

  6. Christopher Says:

    Excellent!

  7. Made a year before Powell & Pressburger’s feature-length propaganda film 49TH PARALLEL, a star-studded contribution (Olivier, Leslie Howard, Eric Portman, Raymond Massey) to the war effort that I rather like, although I have yet to catch it in its entirety. I told a friend about it a few years back, and afterward he acquired it, then complained to me about it being propaganda. I’m like, yeah , so? Cuban-born Leo had an odd and singular take on things, we didn’t always see eye-to-eye.
    Not the first time I’ve heard Powell’s voice, but the first time I’ve heard it so clearly. His commentaries used by Criterion, recorded toward the end of his life, have him sounding very feeble, and sometimes hard to catch the gist of.

  8. You can also hear Powell, and see him, at the start of Edge of the World, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, and at the end of Peeping Tom, where he plays the serial killer’s monstrous father.

    Yes, Powell was fading fast by the time those commentaries had been done. And critic Derek Malcolm interviewed him near the end of his life on the radio, and said it was hard work: “I had to ask him about his films, and he couldn’t remember them.” Very sad. But he was incredibly vigorous and youthful through most of what we’d normally call old age, it was just the last few years that got him. They say having a younger wife helps!

    P&P’s propaganda often ends up going radically off-message — the sympathetic German characters in 49th Parallel and Blimp are surprising, and AMOLAD, made to promote Anglo-American cooperation, features a surprising amount about how the British are justifiably resented in every nation on earth! All this under a very conservative propaganda ministry, who objected to Coward and Lean’s In Which we Serve on the grounds that it showed a British ship being sunk — “bad propaganda”!

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    The Airman, alas, won’t be giving her grandchildren–he seems to have existed in a purely homosocial/homosexual world from his schools directly to military barracks and hangars. Nothing in the decor of his room suggests any relationship with a woman other than Mummy and, possibly, Matron at school. TE Lawrence, lovingly depicted, is the apotheosis of this type of English character.

    “Play up, play up! . . .”

  10. Of course the fellow may have a rambunctious love life going on with one sex or another, but simply not be in touch with his mother about it. But it is an interesting defining absence in the film, and atypical in Powell’s work for sure.

  11. I don’t recall the Nazis in 49TH PARALLEL being that sympathetic, at least not Portman’s character as the leader. But then of course there’s Conrad Veidt in THE SPY IN BLACK, he plays a very sympathetic character who nonetheless perishes in the end. Hard to imagine an actor who could’ve pulled it off as effectively as Veidt.

  12. I don’t think Powell-Pressburger’s wartime films really classify as “propaganda” under the label we use it. Blimp isn’t propaganda, neither is AMOLAD(which among other things shows rows of soldiers in the afterlife who are Punjabis and who served and died in the colonial army, I can’t think of any film that showed that amount of clarity and honesty in that time or after). ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT might be a propaganda except it’s unusual in that it’s a war film where no character dies! 49th Parallel is really, really weird as a film. Very violent and brutal in parts and lyrical in other scenes. Then THE SMALL BACK ROOM returned to the propaganda world with a moodier, subversive air and it’s a post-war film that doesn’t use victory as a crutch for solving the characters issues. It basically converts the wartime British propaganda movie into film noir.

    Their wartime movies are more like contemporary records about the state. Colonel Blimp is about the Death of the British Empire and AMOLAD touches on that even more forcefully. Even the non-genre movies like IKWIG! touches on class issues during wartime, like the way Wendy Hillier comes face to face in that bus ride with the way the locals regard her fiance, a rich industrialist who loaned out a Scottish island during wartime. What Godard did for France in the 60s, Fassbinder did for BDR the whole of his life, Powell did for England.

  13. One or two of 49th Parallel’s Nazis are more sympathetic, and we also meet a community of German-Canadians, making the point that not all Germans are Nazis (a subtle distinction in wartime).

    P&P films were commissioned as propaganda, but end up somewhere else. In the same way that Spirit of the Beehive was commissioned as a cheap Frankenstein rip-off but Erice somehow got away with something totally other.

    “Think of India, Dr Reeves, think of India.” With that line, AMOLAD moves beyond celebrating the Punjabis (and including them as British sixty years before the UK govt recognised the Gurkhas) and into tacitly condemning the British Imperial tradition…

  14. AMOLAD was made at the time when the public were going in the direction of Clement Atlee and away from Churchill(who for all his great leadership was a total Empireman). I don’t know what Powell’s personal politics were but his films certainly seem to accept that things have changed for good. But at the same time he finds time to have a joke at Americans represented so impressively by Raymond Massey(who so powerfully booms, “In the whole universe, there is nothing stronger than the law.”) by pointing out that America is a land of immigrants and minorities. And of course Raymond Massey is actually a Canadian(the only time he played a Canuck was the end of 49th Parallel), nice bit of Brechtian irony there. Still there’s also a moving defence of England offered by Roger Livesey, it’s critical of Britain but full of love for it.

  15. As Niven says, “Conservative by inclination, Labour by experience.” Powell was in many ways High Tory, but the film industry had been tipped off that Change was coming, and people like Humphrey Jennings and Michael Balcon were charged with preparing the nation for the coming of the welfare state etc.

    Only a few rightwing cranks got upset by AMOLAD and wrote angry letters to The Times about it — most seemed to take it with good humour, which is indeed the way the film presents itself. It’s been pointed out that we see no Germans in Heaven, but the trial scene is open only to Brits and Yanks, and the scene in the lobby is ambiguous: maybe there’s a separate entrance for the Axis.

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