Rediscovering Michael Powell’s The Queen’s Guards

We here at Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second are really excited to introduce a new contributor to our ranks. Yusef Sayed takes a rare look at Michael Powell’s until-recently-thought-lost The Queen’s Guards, the filmmaker’s follow-up to Peeping Tom. For Hope Lies the relationship between this particular film and the site goes back some way, and now we are finally able to cover it in great detail.

In January, the BFI screened Michael Powell’s rarely seen film The Queen’s Guards (1961). Shot following the completion of the notorious, and now lauded, Peeping Tom (1960) Powell was given privileged access to the Queen’s Brigade of Guards, and filmed the Trooping the Colour ceremony in June 1960. However, then as now, the film provoked little interest and was once famously criticised by Powell himself.

The commonly held view among Powell fans, concerning the film’s reception, is that Peeping Tom had effectively ended Powell’s career by the time of the film’s release. But the production of the film, its initial reception and Powell’s own feelings toward it are not so clear cut, and the mixed sense of pride and frustration, the latter arising in large part from the hiccups that reportedly permeated the film’s production, seems to underscore its narrative.

Looking at the chronology, The Queen’s Guards was in production before the media outcry and industry backlash against Peeping Tom had fully developed. Powell was given permission to film the Horse Guards and he was evidently proud of this association, as well as his own past in the armed forces. In the autobiographical book, Million Dollar Movie, Powell writes: ‘I will never let it be forgotten that I was an honorary sergeant, attached to the First Sussex Yeomanry, in the 1914 War.’ At the outset, then, Powell was hardly out of favour – the fallout from Peeping Tom would follow later – or disinterested in the subject matter. In a thought-provoking write-up for a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1980, William K Everson judges that the film mourns the passing of tradition, at a time when other British films were actively rebelling against such tradition [1]. Others saw it more simply, considering the film to be outdated even at the time of its release.

In his introduction to the BFI screening Ian Christie referred to The Queen’s Guards as one of the first post-Suez films. Drawing on Everson’s notes, he commented that the film had an imperial melancholy. The mood evoked by the film was also likened, after Everson, to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), an imaginative leap to make since the film seems incontrovertibly British, but one which becomes somewhat logical when bearing in mind the portrait of Tom Doniphon that is guarded by Ransom Stoddard in a manner reminiscent of David Fellowes’ reputation in Powell’s film. The film is visually reminiscent of Ford’s The Long Gray Line (1955) [2], a film of life in the military also told in flashbacks, but which is closer to Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) in its warming, familial spirit, than it is to The Queen’s Guards. Ford’s film frames the military recruits similarly – in their uniform, geometric splendour – but it actually seems closer to Powell’s earlier The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); the focus on the aging of their protagonists and their place in society superseding the uncertainties about the honour of a life in the forces.

The photography of the film has given rise to some confusion; it was reported in the press as being shot in Technirama (and there are production photographs that clearly show special cameras being used) though the film was ultimately released as a CinemaScope picture. The recollections of at least one member of the crew, third assistant director Michael Klaw, suggests that the film was shot in Super Technirama 35mm in its entirety. In an online forum thread regarding the film, Klaw comments:

Most important-the film was entirely shot in Super Technirama but using 35mm stock.-THAT IS A FACT-I was there!” [3]

It is worthwhile to read Klaw’s full recollections of this production, for the insights it provides concerning the Super Technirama process, and the issues with casting, equipment and the weather, particularly during a shoot in Rye, during the film’s production. Interestingly, Klaw points out that even he has not seen the film, which was shown on television once in 1974 in a pan-and-scan version. In any case, the colour photography is thick and rich, dazzling in parts, even when perfectly capturing a grey, rain-soaked morning in London. Klaw also recalls that there were endless script amendments that he feels served only to confuse the final work:

The film was a mess for the simple reason that the script was virtually re-written EVERY DAY!! It started off as normal script – albeit much thicker (about 1 inch) than the film scripts I was used to working with.Then as the days went by the script changes & amendments started to appear – each one colour coded – pink, blue, green etc & at the end my script had more than over doubled in size! Each morning there was a meeting on the stage at Shepperton to decide what we were shooing that day – bits of the original, bits of the pink pages, ditto for the other colours – often we had no idea what the hell we were shooting!!! And that is why, in the film there are lots of loose ends etc!” [4]

Powell referred to the film in his memoirs as the most inept piece of filmmaking that he had ever produced or directed, but we should also be aware that during the increased critical interest shown towards Powell and Pressburger’s work beginning in 1970, helped by a retrospective in London recounted by Ian Christie before the screening in January, the pair were sceptical of the quality of what is now considered some of their finest work. Just as uncertainty regarding the direction a film should take, or the message it might want to deliver, can cause a film to be confused, it can also lend a sense of ambiguity that is perfectly suited to the film’s themes. This is one of the aspects that makes The Queen’s Guards interesting today.

The idea for the film was Simon Harcourt-Smith’s and Powell was quickly taken by it. The story focuses on the Fellowes family. Captain Fellowes (Raymond Massey) and Mrs Fellowes (Ursula Jeans) have lost their son David, a soldier in the Guards, in an overseas operation. David’s younger brother John (Daniel Massey) feels that he must honour the family tradition and follow in his late brother’s footsteps, by joining the Guards. However, each member of the family is riven by conflicting emotions. John is uncertain whether he wants to walk in his brother’s shoes, but realises that he is under pressure to please his father. Captain Fellowes is outwardly proud of David’s service and seems to show little regard for John, yet he is troubled by the knowledge that David died dishonourably, after having killed an unarmed prisoner. Mrs Fellowes deludes herself that David is still alive and only ‘missing’. Raymond Massey and Daniel Massey were not overly keen on playing father and son onscreen. Indeed, there is a blurring of documentary and fictional elements throughout the whole film, which this real-life family relationship adds to.

The film begins on the morning of the Trooping the Colour parade, during which John Fellowes’s story of joining the Guards and serving with them, as well as his familial conflicts, is recounted in a series of flashbacks. The film is full of playful banter and fisticuffs among the young soldiers, the type of behaviour typically found in any boarding school drama. Enemies to begin with, in the barracks and on the romantic playing field, John eventually befriends Henry Wynne-Walton (Robert Stevens, playing a character who is presumably part of the extended family tree of the Wynne family, along with Roger Livesey’s Clive Wynne-Candy, from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and the two serve together in North Africa, in a mission to rescue kidnapped leader, Abu Sidbar from rebel leader Farinda.

Several contemporary critics, writing at the time of the film’s release seem to think the film somewhat off the mark, expressly with respect to what they saw as its supposed intentions: to show the Guards in all their glory, whether honouring a tradition for Her Majesty at home, or fighting in her name in tough conflicts abroad. While the action abroad may have been intended to show the soldiers at their best, the central significance that it plays seems to be twofold: to try to resolve a conflict within John Fellowes and to draw out a central metaphor – that of actions being directed, and of being governed by external demands. John’s visit to a military cemetery abroad at the end of the film also affords a crucial mirror image to a shot that opens the film, a shot of the parade ground seen through an arch, on the other side of which a memorial is visible. Rather than unravel a rousing tribute to the Guards, the film reflects the way in which traditions direct and constrain our action; while we feel it is important to honour traditions, both familial and national, we often mask the sense of failure, as well as the losses of individual conscience that result.

The emphasis given to the Captain’s bizarre, overhead trolley rail system, which he uses to move around his house, uncomfortably, in place of a wheelchair, also suggests an eerie comment on a person’s actions being determined by external barriers and guidelines, or at least stubbornness to appear upright and proud in the face of any setback. The image of the Captain ascending the stairs to David and John’s room, from where he hopes he will see the parade, is unnerving. John, too, is obviously troubled by the feeling that he needs to fulfil a role and stick to a tradition, stay within set codes of conduct – leading to the uncertain feelings about following in his brother’s footsteps, which culminates in letting an unarmed prisoner go at the end of the film. A recurring image of the soldier as a doll, or figurine, seems to fit in with this negation of individuality, freedom and conscience. While it has been typical to refer to the Guards lovingly as ‘toy soldiers’, the image of a doll is always suited to convey dehumanisation or automatism. It suggests the ‘only a pawn in their game’ criticism of the soldier.

This connects with the more general idea of an individual being identified only by their role in society, whether as a soldier or a gentleman (there is a scene in which a great deal is made of Henry and John dressing up in suits and bowler hats to take two girls – they eventually end up at a beat club, in what is a fairly pointless scene). You are what you appear to be, what role you take. The importance of outward appearance is also emphasised in the scenes with the father of John’s girlfriend, Ruth, who has little desire to change his outward, working class outfits to impress John. Indeed the class tension is evident during these scenes and it is handled well – another opportunity to dig into Her Majesty’s troops while also lending the opportunity to level the ground between the classes. Interestingly, there is also a scene in which John tries to guide Ruth’s father while he is backing up his truck, causing him to strike a post, thus bringing this theme of unhelpful guidance and sticking within boundaries into play again. This echoes the way in which Captain Fellowes directs his sons, and extends the comparison drawn out between John and his father throughout the film (both suffer from back pain, for instance). And as we are shown repeated overhead shots of battle plans and the trooping of the colour throughout the film, the emphasis on direction and order is drilled in.

What is particularly intriguing is that this work, made by one of the UK’s most esteemed directors, could have completely vanished from film culture, given scant attention at the time of its release and almost never mentioned in subsequent years. There is evidently no problem with the condition of the print in the BFI archive and, though outwardly old-fashioned in some respects, it draws out the conflict between adhering to tradition and the losses that this inevitably brings about, as well as the constraints it places upon personal volition, a theme that is certainly still relevant.

But time has already vindicated Peeping Tom and will surely do the same for The Queen’s Guards.” [5]

Yusef Sayed is a freelance writer and proofreader, based in Lincoln. He has contributed articles to The Wire, Little White Lies and Film International and programmed community film screenings. Current research interests include intertextuality and the films of Mai Zetterling.

[1] This program note can be found online:
[2] I am thankful to Brad Stevens for drawing my attention to this.
[3] Michael Klaw’s comments taken from:
[4] Klaw, ibid.
[5] Everson, ibid.


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