Not yet the eye-piercing target of subsequent films, the Archers’ freshly-minted emblem is here the enchanted stamp on a vast, elaborate tapestry. Britannia during the Blitz is a rubicund, slumbering walrus (Roger Livesey), outraged by the new generation’s ungallant aggressiveness; his bushy mustache hides a scar, he was also a reckless blade once, four decades and three wars flash before his eyes. In the Edwardian Belle Époque the fussy old general is a Boer War officer, young and impudent enough to turn a diplomatic affair into an affront to the German Army. The symphonic first movement climaxes with the camera craning away from a duel just as swords are crossed, then finding the protagonist and his Prussian opponent (Anton Walbrook) genially bandaged, chums for life. The next movement begins with a dissolve to the muddy no-man’s-land of World War I, follows Livesey along with affable American soldiers and then stops to raptly recognize Deborah Kerr amid the nurses in a convent, Powell and Pressburger’s Eternal Feminine. (She previously materialized as a headstrong suffragette, and will be reincarnated as a vivacious driver with a Hawksian male name.) The old guard’s "sporting club rules" and the new order’s "common sense and bad manners," a meditative satirical epic in which cozy surfaces promptly reveal a most dapper surrealism: brassy big-band sounds score a motorcade through a Technicolor country road, magical safari trophies visualize the passage of time, a London sauna is shot like a glimpse into the Thousand and One Nights palace. As characters try to remain staid while the universe quakes and shifts, a sentimental story like Goodbye, Mr. Chips mysteriously deepens into something like Sailing to Byzantium: "Now here is the lake, and I still haven’t changed..." The greatest British film, the greatest film about Britishness, a study of the Kabuki ritual of the stiff upper-lip, a wondrous snapshot of the creative romance between Powell and Pressburger. Lubitsch is concurrent with Heaven Can Wait, Ridley Scott holds up a cracked mirror in The Duellists. Cinematography by Georges Périnal. With Roland Culver, Harry Welchman, James McKechnie, Albert Lieven, Arthur Wontner, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, and John Laurie.
--- Fernando F. Croce