I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING—–indeed: that would be ‘Kiloran’ and the Isle of Mull. Discovering this wonderful 1945 British gem is like finding a hidden door that has some long-lost valuable heirloom behind it. The communities used as filming locations for the famous The Quiet Man and the well-known Local Hero have what amounts to literal cottage industries spawned by movie fans trekking to the sites. Upon watching, you’ll see why there is likewise a trickle of spell-dusted romantics who pilgrimage to the distant and special Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s west coast, smitten by the simple and gentle humanity and elemental natural glory displayed in this less-celebrated, more intimate, equally winning fable.
Opening scenes show that ‘Joan Webster’ (Wendy Hiller) has never lacked for confidence. She’s off from staid wartime Manchester to marry a rich industrialist at his island retreat in northern Scotland. Weather delays her from crossing a hazardous bay, and during several days wait on the Isle of Mull, she is introduced to a wide sample of the local folk, guided by ‘Torquil McNeil’ (Roger Livesey), on leave from the Royal Navy and also bound for the same beckoning but daunting Kiloran where her betrothed awaits.
Detailing plot points for something this fragile is vandalism; suffice to say that, like the determined but naive Joan, you may think you know where it’s going, but enough suspense accumulates to keep you happily wondering for the brief but packed 91 minutes. That the tale has kismet attached can be traced to its cause & effect birth. *
Beautifully written & directed by the crown sterling duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, gloriously lensed in black & white by Erwin Hillier, using natural light, it effortlessly blends budding romance, low-keyed natural-circumstance humor, daring and foolhardy adventure, honored localized mythology, deft social comment tasking outdated and spurious class divisions, a hint of mysticism and a rack of disarming traditional folklore. When “The Campbell’s Are Coming” fills the bagpipes in the party sequence, the latent Scotsman in your soul will warm a weary heart like a toast-raised dram of Highland malt in the company of friends.
JOAN: “People around here are very poor, I suppose.” TORQUIL: “Not poor, they just haven’t got money.” JOAN: “It’s the same thing.” TORQUIL: “Oh no, it’s something quite different.”
Along with the calming, unforced civility of Hiller and Livesey, the feast is adorned with rich character bits, tickling and touching, headed by the great Pamela Brown, whose earthy, forthright ‘Catriona’ has a truly classic introduction with a brace of huge wolfhounds. The unusual and dynamic 27-year old bewitched Michael Powell and they ended up living together for many years until her death in 1975: he once offered “She was a witch. Women adored her, men feared her, and for the same reason – she fascinated them.”
Others include the inimitable Finlay Currie and a wise-looking 12-year old, already a star, Petula Clark. With George Carney, Nancy Price, Catherine Lacey, Jean Cadell, John Laurie, C.R.W. Knight (the heartily opinionated falconer), Murdo Morrison and Margot Fitzsimons (kid sis to Maureen O’Hara).
The wild Corryvreckan Whirlpool sequence was a clever pastiche combining shots in the studio tank with actual footage of the real thing—the world’s third largest whirlpool– some of it taken by Powell, with a hand- held camera, in a small boat, tied to the mast.
Well received in Britain, it did nicely in the US when it reached there two years later, but for one reason or another fell off the radar until with the passage of years it eventually was recognized as a treasure. Open that door and you’ll see why.
* As the war approached its conclusion, relations between the American and British allies were strained. Powell & Pressberger had notably contributed several times and wanted to do a big-scale Technicolor picture to help ease the tension, but wartime film stock restrictions prevented it. Nudged to make something with what they could manage, Pressberger mused about a girl who wanted to get to an island and couldn’t. With no answer to “Why?” beyond “Let’s find out”, they wrote the story in five days, the script in three weeks. The project was turned out for €200,000, inflation adjustment making it around $10,000,000 in 2017—an indie, as it were. The need that provided an idea that was frustrated led to a hunch about a whim that became a classic.