A weakness for dragons: Michael Powell and the cinema of fantasy

From The Thief of Bagdad and A Matter of Life and Death to unrealised attempts to film Ursula K. Le Guin and J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Powell was the great seer and magician of British cinema – an innovator who opened the door to fantastical worlds.

6 November 2023

By Ian Christie

Robert Helpmann as Dr Miracle in Powell and Pressburger’s film of Jacques Offenbach’s opéra fantastique The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) © Bert Cann/StudioCanal

Was it the scandal of Peeping Tom’s critical reception that put an end to Michael Powell’s career as a major filmmaker? Judging by how often this is repeated, it’s widely believed as a convenient explanation for why one of Britain’s great filmmakers produced so little of substance after 1960, while his near contemporary, and former editor, David Lean was reaching the climax of his career. But to pin the blame on Peeping Tom is to misunderstand what Powell had been trying to do for a decade before 1960. Now we have more evidence of what this was, and of the many imaginative projects he continued to hatch for nearly 30 more years.

As he wrote in Million Dollar Movie, his second volume of memoir, “for every one film I made there were ten that got away”. Disenchanted with the film industry after the bruising experience he and Pressburger had when working for David Selznick on Gone to Earth and Sam Goldwyn on The Elusive Pimpernel (both 1950), Powell conceived an idea which he was sure the new medium of television would love – a series of films involving some of the greatest contemporary artists working in different genres and lengths.

The idea had crystallised around 1950 when talking to the poet Dylan Thomas: “every story has to have its own length”. And the menu drawn up for ‘Powell’s Tales’ is still tantalising. What if he had managed to bring together Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas to make an episode from The Odyssey, or Graham Sutherland to work on a detective story by Georges Simenon, or Léonide Massine and Henri Matisse to collaborate on tales from the Arabian Nights, among other audacious ideas?

Bluebeard’s Castle (1963)
© Sibylle Nabel-Foster/Restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with Ashbrittle Film Foundation

Sadly, none of these would happen, although Thelma Schoonmaker, the film editor and Powell’s widow, evokes one of them, The Lotus of the Moon, in her contribution to the new BFI book, The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger. But we do now have Powell’s late film that came closest to the idea of the Tales. Bluebeard’s Castle is a one-act 1918 opera by Béla Bartók that had rarely been performed in Britain when Powell was invited to direct a version for German television by his old collaborator, the designer Hein Heckroth.

Working on a tight schedule, with limited resources, Powell and Heckroth managed to create an eerily effective setting for this Symbolist work. The Duke arrives at his castle with his latest wife, Judit, who insists that he explain what happened to his previous wives. One by one, their fates are revealed, as Bluebeard and Judit move from a torture chamber to the treasury and into a garden, with its pool of tears. In his memoir, Powell would recall it as one of the best experiences of his life in movies, with the dedicated crew improvising “like complete amateurs”.

The Magician (1926)
© Directed by Rex Ingram/Metro Goldwyn Corporation

Seeing it today, handsomely restored, vindicates Powell’s original vision for his Tales. Bluebeard is a wounded figure, more victim than monster, goaded to add Judit to his grisly collection of wives, like a figure from Edgar Allan Poe’s lurid imagination or the Byronic hero of Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s play Axël. This is a dramatically simplified world, but recognisably from the creators of The Red Shoes’ phantasmagoric ballet, filtered through the more updated guignol of Peeping Tom.

It also recalls a thread that had run through Powell’s work from the very beginning, even before he was able to create fantasy worlds. Serving his apprenticeship with Rex Ingram’s Metro company in Nice, Powell took part in the making of The Magician (1926), a fantasy inspired by the Satanist Aleister Crowley, with scenes of woodland debauchery which he would then parody in comedy short Fauny Business (1927), now viewable in the BFI National Archive’s recent restoration.

Stairways to heaven

Building a career in the hardscrabble British industry of the 1930s offered little opportunity to create fantasies, until Powell found himself catapulted into working as one of the three credited directors on producer Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940) on the eve of the Second World War. Not only was this his first chance to work with Technicolor but also to play with fantasies of scale – the giant genie who emerges from a bottle, Sabu’s quest inside the giant cobwebbed temple… But even as the demands of wartime morale-boosting pushed Powell and Pressburger towards realism, they remained open to the persuasive potential of fantasy. 

The crystal ball, the all-seeing eye and the giant genie from The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Directed by: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan/Alexander Korda Film Productions.
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan/Alexander Korda Film Productions

Both A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), although firmly rooted in wartime Britain, provided opportunities to remind audiences of other times – Chaucer’s pilgrims and the legends swirling around Mull, as sensible Joan and romantic Torquil are drawn together. Then, with A Matter of Life and Death (1946), their delayed call to Anglo-American unity, they were finally able to mount a Technicolor fantasy even more impressive than The Thief of Bagdad. Here, the masterstroke was to show heaven in monochrome, and earth as a sensuously tactile garden of delights, a knowing reversal of The Wizard of Oz (1939). The most spectacular effects are in fact what link these two realms: the giant stairway that takes the form both of an outside London Underground escalator, and of a celestial body that might have been imagined by Georges Méliès.

Alfred Junge’s production designs for the stairway to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Estate of Alfred Junge/BFI National Archive/ITV Studios Global Entertainment/Park Circus.
Design for the stairway to heaven from A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Estate of Ivor Beddoes
Unrealised designs for the stairway by Hein Heckroth. © Estate of Hein Heckroth/BFI National Archive.
Design for the stairway to heaven from A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Estate of Ivor Beddoes

Along the way, Powell had evolved his own rules of fantasy, requiring that it be grounded in something recognisably real, wherever it might later go. Hence the heavenly stairway reaches earth in a realistic neurosurgical operating theatre; and the climactic frenzy of Black Narcissus (1947), although inspired by Disney, is built upon settings that seem structurally credible.

The Red Shoes (1948)
© Baron/ITV Studios Global Entertainment/Park Circus

Powell would change his designer from the architectural Alfred Junge to the painter Heckroth for The Red Shoes (1948), but his central demand was to have a real dancer, Moira Shearer, who would link the bustling backstage world of ballet with its filmic elaboration as her subjective fantasy. As Vicky dances the ballet created for her, she enters one of the most extraordinary creations in cinema: a succession of tableaux that transport her and us into a magical world, alternately whimsical and terrifying. Little wonder that so many later filmmakers have acknowledged its inspiration, from the fantasy ballet in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) up to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017).

Worlds of artifice

The Red Shoes may have exasperated its producers, the Rank Organisation, but it brought Powell and Pressburger close to the conductor and impresario Sir Thomas Beecham, who suggested that they apply similar tactics to one of his favourite operas, Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. The result was another daring move beyond conventional stage realism, giving Powell the freedom of shooting to playback from a prior recording. The fantasy of the three tales – the magic spectacles that bring Olympia to life, the Venetian seductress Giulietta, and Antonia’s tragic sacrifice, set on Arnold Böcklin’s atmospheric painting The Isle of the Dead – gave Powell and his collaborators, especially Heckroth, a rare opportunity to create a series of wholly artificial worlds with stylised movement provided by a cast of dancers.

Martin Scorsese has recalled the indelible impression The Tales of Hoffmann made when he saw it on television as a youngster, relating it to his own stylised treatment of boxing in Raging Bull (1980). And among other, perhaps unexpected admirers, were Cecil B. DeMille, who hailed it for realising an opera “as it existed until now only in the minds of those who created it”, and the horror maestro George Romero, of Night of the Living Dead (1968) fame, whose favourite film it was.

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
© StudioCanal

Like The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann was more appreciated in the United States than at home, despite being linked with the 1951 Festival of Britain. Powell would come to regard it as probably the best thing he had ever done, speaking at the Midnight Sun festival in Finland in 1987, and describing it in Million Dollar Movie as “the perfect composed film, the film I had always dreamt about”. But this was not what British producers wanted in the 1950s: “fantasy had fled and the kitchen sink stood squarely in the academy frame”. The Archers tried an updated version of Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus, retitled Oh…Rosalinda!!! (1955), with Vienna reimagined in surreal modern décor, but the result fell awkwardly between stools, despite the fact that another updated Fledermaus, produced by Max Reinhardt, had been a roaring success a decade earlier.

Poster for Honeymoon (1959)
© Author unknown/Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Ballet still seemed to offer the best opportunities for Powell to follow his instincts, which led to another compromised project, Luna de miel (Honeymoon, 1959). The framing story was in effect a travelogue, as a newly married couple travel on honeymoon to Spain, but the attraction for Powell was to realise two interpolated ballets, El amor brujo by Manuel de Falla and a new work by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, The Lovers of Teruel. Both of these were imaginatively filmed, with Ludmilla Tchérina accompanied by Massine in The Lovers and by Rosita Segovia and the flamenco star Antonio in El amor brujo. But the blandness of the framing story denied these a chance to impress as much as they might.

Brave new worlds

The project that would preoccupy Powell for over 15 years was to film Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, which he described as sounding like a mixture of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Wallace’s King Kong – “and they all borrowed from it, as did Daniel Defoe for Robinson Crusoe”. This seems to have started when Powell was making his second film in Australia, Age of Consent (1969) with James Mason. Mason was receptive to the idea of playing Prospero, the Duke of Milan exiled to a remote island by political rivals. In the script Powell soon brought to show him, we start in Milan, under a starry sky, with Prospero and Galileo at a telescope, before troops break in to arrest them, sending Prospero into exile with his daughter Miranda. 

According to Million Dollar Movie, Mason asked “That scene with Galileo, is it Shakespeare?” “I said, ‘No, it’s Powell’, and read on.” As the project grew, and a succession of famous names were attached – Mia Farrow as Ariel, Topol as Caliban, Michael York as Ferdinand – different locations and producers were mooted. But the key idea was that “the style is completely un-naturalistic and everything is a studio set or a painting”. Judith Buchanan, a Shakespeare scholar who has studied the archive of Powell material on The Tempest, suggests it was influenced by Jan Kott’s newly fashionable view: “Prospero’s island has nothing in common with the happy isles of Renaissance utopias. It rather reminds us of … the late Gothics. Such worlds were painted by one of the greatest visionaries among painters… the mad Hieronymous Bosch.”

And indeed Bosch’s great triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights turns up as a design influence, along with Goya’s 1808 painting The Colossus. As well as Powell’s regular set designer Ivor Beddoes, at one time Gerald Scarfe was on board to design the truly magic island that Powell envisaged, with a giant skull serving as Prospero’s “command and control centre”.

Ivor Beddoes’ production designs for Prospero’s island and the storm sequence for Michael Powell’s unmade project to film The Tempest. © Estate of Ivor Beddoes/Preserved by the BFI National Archive.
Production design for Prospero’s island and its Greco-Roman fort by Ivor Beddoes for Michael Powell’s unrealised version of The Tempest (c.1971/72)
Estate of Ivor Beddoes/Michael Powell Collection/Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Was it this riot of invention that worried potential investors, unable to envisage what would emerge? There’s a poignant document in the archive, probably dating from 1972, that shows Powell reviewing potential titles for his Tempest, written on the back of a committee paper: Sense and Sensuality / The Stuff of Dreams / Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On / O Brave New World and others. The Magic Island seems to have been his favourite, as the project wound through a “catalogue of frustrations, of plans formed and cancelled, or agreements made and reneged on” (Buchanan) into the mid-1970s.

The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)
© Mark Dightam/Children's Media Foundation

However, that committee paper was for a meeting of the Children’s Film Foundation, where Powell represented the Producers Association. And even while he couldn’t secure backing for The Tempest, it was the CFF that produced his last completed feature, from a script by his old partner Pressburger. The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972) is a modest though full-blown fantasy about a boy in modern London who suddenly turns entirely yellow, makes contact with an electronic genie, and dreams of narrowly escaping execution at the Tower of London while searching for his pet mouse. The CFF was nervous, Powell recalled, but “at the end of the year the children of England voted for the best children’s film and we won first prize”.

The BFI’s full-scale retrospective of 1978 led to a series of programmes at cinematheques and festivals round the world, reviving interest in Powell and Pressburger. In America, Martin Scorsese backed a commercial re-issue of Peeping Tom to coincide with the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective in 1980, and that summer Powell was invited to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire as an artist in residence. After the wilderness years, he seized this opportunity to develop another fantasy project that had long interested him: the world of dragons and magicians in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. At Dartmouth he was able to make a short pilot with students, which included some sample staging of scenes and discussion with the students. Happily – if somewhat tantalisingly – the short film they made, Picture Business, is online, suggesting how Powell might have approached this kind of material, two decades before Peter Jackson would tackle Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, another cycle of fantasy novels that had piqued his interest.

In Picture Business, Powell admits to a great weakness for dragons – “I’m very fond of them” – and outlines the story of the young magician Ged’s quest for the half of a talisman that’s buried in the Tombs of Atuan (this is actually taken from the second of Le Guin’s Earthsea novels), where he falls in love with the high priestess Tenar. The writer David Thomson, then teaching at Dartmouth, explains why Powell would be an ideal director for such a project; and indeed after he contacted Le Guin, she and Powell wrote a full Earthsea script together called A Wizard of Earthsea. As letters held by the BFI National Archive show, in 1981 Powell wrote to George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic seeking their services in special effects and – as late as 1988 – to Clint Eastwood hoping to cast him as the magician Ged.

Powell’s unrealised screenplay for A Wizard of Earthsea, based on the novel of the same name by Ursula Le Guin. Michael Powell collection/BFI National Archive.
Powell’s bound script for A Wizard of Earthsea
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

As dreams are made on

Powell was now working on his memoir, the first volume of which, A Life in Movies, would appear to wide acclaim in 1986. But his increased profile meant that film projects started to reach him. In 1987, he was invited to consider an opera by Philip Glass, based on one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.

Later that year, a visit to the Midnight Sun festival in Finland allowed him to see a gothic mansion outside Helsinki, Hvitträsk, which immediately suggested a setting for Usher. He wrote to the proposed film’s producer, Chrisann Verges, about the idea of staging it “like an old silent film”, using both Hvitträsk and a model of it, “so you’re never sure if you’re in a real house or a doll’s house”. Referring back to the lesson of filming Bluebeard, he emphasised that “in a film there is no scale… people see everything in the scale that you wish to impose on them”.

Bluebeard’s Castle (1963)
© Sibylle Nabel-Foster/Restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with Ashbrittle Film Foundation

Glass’s opera would remain unfilmed, despite an agreement that Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola would be prepared to step in if he was unable to complete it. But Powell’s creative reflexes were still at work. When he read about Béla Bartók’s remains being returned from America, where he had died, for a state funeral in Hungary, Powell thought about Bluebeard. In a letter to me, he outlined the idea of a trilogy that would include a film of Bartók’s scandalously erotic pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, and a documentary about the arc of the composer’s life.

None of these late projects, or the second volume of his memoir, Million Dollar Movie, would have been possible without the devoted support of Thelma Schoonmaker, who was at the time working as editor on some of Martin Scorsese’s most demanding projects, including The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). After the decades when Powell might have been able to realise his vision of The Tempest, but could find no backers, the opportunities that came in his final decade were too late, even if they awakened his love of well-contrived fantasy.

One of his devout admirers among a new generation of British artist-filmmakers, Derek Jarman, made his version of The Tempest in 1979 and, despite having a very different premise from Powell’s vision, there is something of the same willingness to expand Shakespeare’s fantasy in his finale, when Prospero and Ariel create a modernised version of an Elizabethan masque, with dancing sailors and Elizabeth Welch singing ‘Stormy Weather’. 

Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979)
© Directed by Derek Jarman/Kendon Films Ltd

Jarman played a part in helping raise finance for the restoration of Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and often said that he felt he had in some way “inherited” Powell’s Tempest project. Another ‘inheritance’ was Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), based on Virginia Woolf’s time-travelling fantasia, which is dedicated to Powell, who had encouraged Potter and Tilda Swinton during their struggle to make the film.


When I first met Michael Powell in 1972, he argued passionately against the “cost of naturalism”. But the most surprising part of our interview was when he told me about a long-held wish to film Rudyard Kipling’s eerie story ‘They’. It’s a Sussex story, which I’d not read at that time, about a motorist who comes across an isolated house with a blind mother and some ghostly children. Although not at all obviously filmable, Michael seemed to think he had found a way of treating it.

I didn’t realise at the time that he was about to vacate the office he’d maintained in Albemarle Street, amid the galleries and print shops north of Piccadilly, before retreating to the cottage in Avening that he shared with Pamela Brown. But ‘They’ was so unexpected that it started me wondering about other fantastical projects he still had in mind – most, sadly, only to be discovered many years later. And some are only now becoming known, as Powell’s legacy is explored and displayed. At least Bluebeard’s Castle, in all its gothic splendour, should reveal what Powell’s Tales might have encompassed.

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).

Bluebeard’s Castle is released on BFI Blu-ray on 20 November and will be on BFI Player from 4 December.

The Red Shoes is back in cinemas from 8 December.


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