I Know Where I’m Going

Published May 6, 2024
I Know Where I'm Going.. Roger Livesey, Wendy Hillier and the weather

I Know Where I’m Going, made during the last year of World War Two, was a film between films. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had been working together since 1939, when the Hungarian emigré was asked to help with rewrites for Powell’s The Spy in Black. Four years and three films later, Pressburger would be sharing the director’s credit, and the duo would form their own production company, The Archers.

By 1944 they had completed work on A Canterbury Tale and were awaiting colour film stock for their ambitious new production, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Rather than sit around, they decided to make a short, sharp movie in the interim.

Pressburger, as usual, had an idea. Powell recounts in his autobiography, how his friend told him: “I’ve always wanted to make a a film about a girl who wants to get to an island. At the end of her journey she is so near that she can see the people clearly on the island, but a storm stops her from getting there, and by the time the storm has died down she no longer wants to go there because her life has changed quite suddenly in the way girls’ lives do.”

“Why does she want to go to the island in the first place?” Powell asked.

Pressburger replied, “Let’s make the film and find out!”

It’s an ironic beginning for a film titled, I Know Where I’m Going, but it’s almostexactly what happens in the finished product. Yet Pressburger’s germ of an idea, which sounds like a story by Franz Kafka, would emerge with all the atmosphere and local colour of the Scottish Hebrides, a region that held a special affection for Powell, who had already made two movies – The Spy in Black (1939) and The Edge of the World (1937) – in Scotland. Pressburger allegedly wrote the entire script in six days.

They wanted Deborah Kerr for the lead role, but she wasn’t available. Instead, they grabbed the experienced and popular Wendy Hillier. Kerr would be back for Black Narcissus the following year.

They wanted James Mason for the male lead, but he proved so difficult to satisfy that Powell sacked him and went with Welsh actor, Robert Livesey. Powell wouldn’t work with Mason until The Age of Consent (1969), a feature that helped kick-start the slumbering Australian film industry.

Hillier and Livesey would prove to be perfect for these roles. The final cast also features a range of interesting actors, including Finlay Currie and John Laurie, two genuine Scots in a film in which natives were in short supply. There’s Captain C.W.R. Knight, as Colonel Barnstaple, an eccentric bird trainer, who has misplaced his eagle. Watch also for a 13-year-old bluestocking with large spectacles. It’s Petula Clark, who would become a wellknown pop star in the 60s, (and is today, the sole surviving member of the cast). Most intriguing of all, is Pamela Brown, as local girl, Catriona. Powell found her wildly attractive. Pressburger, in Powell’s words, thought her “hideously ugly and hideously intelligent”.  Powell got his way with the casting and with Brown. Their affair would blossom into a permanent partnership that ended only with her death in 1975.

One should not, however, become distracted from the three main characters, Wendy Hillier as the headstrong, impulsive Joan Webster; Robert Livesey, as Torquil McNeil, the Laird of Kiloran, on eight days’ leave from the navy; and the British weather. In many ways, the weather is the star of this movie. It keeps the lead characters pinned down for roughly a week, it acts as the deus ex machinafor the entire plot, and it never stays off-screen or out-of-discussion for very long.

As fans of Powell and Pressburger’s films know, there is a powerful streak of fantasy in the way they frame their stories, most especially in the theatrical drama, The Red Shoes (1948), but no movie by the Archers is without its mythic or fairytale elements.

Joan Webster is a young woman on a quest. From the first scenes, which give us a quick overview of her life from infanthood to the present, Joan has been a completely self-possessed, goal-oriented personality, who will allow nothing to deflect her from a chosen course.

When she sits down with her bank manager fatherone evening, in a bar in Manchester, it’s not to ask his permission to marry, it’s to inform him that she is going to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, her boss, who just happens be one of richest men in Great Britain – and the same age as her dad. What’s more, she’s catching a train that very night for the Hebrides, where the wedding is due to take place the following day.

The father, who knows Joan too well, can only put up the most token resistance. He suggests she is really marrying Consolidated Chemical Industries, but Joan is not about to deny the fact. She has the same unstoppable energy we associate Katharine Hepburn in her great comic roles. The humour comes from the way she effortlessly steamrollers the male of the species.

On the sleeper to Scotland, there is a wonderful dream sequence. While the train passes through tartan covered hills, Joan’s father appears as a vicar, asking: “Do you Joan Webster, take Consolidated Chemical Industries to be your lawful wedded husband?” Watch for a visual pun, as a top hat becomes a smoking chimney.

All this occurs within the first few minutes, so I’m not giving anything away. By the time Joan arrives on the Isle of Mull, from where she can see her ultimate destination, the island of Kiloran, across a tantalising stretch of water, a storm is closing in, and the boats are not running. It’s at this point the story truly begins.

It’s a tale of transformation, as single-minded, materialistic Joan is made to realise that there are other things in life than being rich and powerful. On Mull, for the first time ever, she is no longer the pilot of her own destiny. The weather is now in control, obliging her to sit still and wait for a change of fortune. The week she spends on Mull will expose her to a group of people and an attitude towards life that forces her to reconsider all the values she has previously held with such complete certainty.

Torquil, it transpires, is the real Laird of Kiloran, having rented his house to Sir Robert, who has sought a suitably grand hiding place while the Germans bomb England. Torquil has been doing his bit for King and Country, while the wealthy industrialist rakes in profits from the war effort. He is thoroughly Scottish, and completely at home with the local people.

Part of the local colour is a kayley (AKA. Ceilidh) put on by John Laurie’s character, to celebrate his parents’ diamond wedding anniversary. Joan does her best to resist, but Torquil, who seems to be impinging ever more closely on her personal space, insists she join him in a dance, to a song called Nut-Brown Maiden. This hardly serves as a description of pale, haughty Joan, although Torquil is focussed on the line: “You’re the maid for me”.

There’s a castle, a curse, and a whirlpool, all with legends attached to them. Each of these motifs will play a role in Pressburger’s intricately constructed plot, but it’s only at the end of proceedings that we realise how precisely every detail fits into place. To adopt the old adage about a gun, if bagpipes appear in a film, those bagpipes will be used.

I Know Where I’m Going is a love letter to Scotland, shot with great flair by German-Jewish cinematographer, Erwin Hillier, who, like Pressburger, had come to England to escape the rise of the Nazis. One of Hillier’s best tricks is to make us believe Livesey is in the Hebrides for every moment of the film, when he never actually left London, being contracted to a play in the West End. All the outdoor scenes on the island were shot using a stand-in.

For Powell and Pressburger there was a greater purpose to this comedy-drama-romance, in that it sought to capture the spirit of Great Britain at the end of the war – the feeling of exuberance, of social solidarity, of new beginnings and great opportunities. There was a general repugnance for those who had stayed in the shadows and grown wealthy, like Sir Robert, while ordinary Britons gave everything to the war effort, both abroad and at home.

Torquil may be an aristocrat, in accordance with the logic of fairytales and popular romance, but he is also a man of the people who has fought for his country. He is the kind of nobleman for whom class does not equate to snobbery. Sir Robert, whom we only meet as a voice on the phone, is, by contrast, an outspoken snob who is openly disparaging about everyone on Mull, except a couple of his “top hole” friends, up from London.

The contrast is between new money and old tradition, between selfishness and consideration for others. When Joan comments on how poor the islanders are, she’s told, “not poor, they just haven’t got money.”

“Isn’t it the same thing? She asks.

“Oh no, it’s something quite different.”

It was Pressburger’s heartfelt belief that “kindness rules the world, not money.” I Know Where I’m Going represents the working out of this idealistic principle – which may be one reason the film is so adored, by so many people. In researching this introduction, I’ve been struck by the passionate enthusiasm the movie has inspired in its admirers. For a movie dashed off between more elaborate features, set inan obscure part of Scotland, I Know Where I’m Going has stood the test of time more gracefully than any number of Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a small film that has grown in stature over the years and may now be rightfully called a classic.



I Know Where I’m Going

Cinema Reborn 2024, Randwick Ritz,

4.15 pm. Sunday 5 May 2024