The Queen’s Guards (Michael Powell, UK, 1961)
I recently attended a 50th anniversary screening of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) in London, accompanied by a few friends. During the discussion that followed, I claimed that, due to the film’s scandalous reception, Powell had never been permitted to make another feature in the UK. I later realized that this was incorrect.Indeed, the year after Peeping Tom, Powell directed The Queen’s Guards, a film which seems to have almost completely vanished.
Of the few people who have seen The Queen’s Guards, which was made for 20th Century-Fox, none seems to think much of it: Ian Christie, in his book Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Waterstone, 1985) suggests it was « almost like an act of contrition » for his previous fillm, and Powell himself called it « the most inept piece of filmmaking that I have ever produced or directed ». Yet descriptions of the narrative structure – which apparently involves a Guards officer (Daniel Massey) recalling his cadet training and combat experience in a series of flashbacks – suggests a possible connection with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and there would seem to be some echoes of Peeping Tom in the protagonist’s attempt to both imitate and rebel against his obsessively traditional father (intriguingly played by Massey’s own father). It’s also worth noting that this was the last of Powell’s three attempts to work in a widescreen ratio: his other widescreen features, Oh…Rosalinda!! (1955) and Luna de Miel/Honeymoon (1959) almost qualify as invisible works themselves (I have only been able to see the latter in a panned-and-scanned television transfer).
The Queen’s Guards has not played on British television since 1974, and, as far as I can make out, has not been screened theatrically since it was shown as part of a Powell retrospective at the San Sebastián festival in 2002. The film may well be as awful as those who have seen it insist, but the available stills suggest that Powell was at least being characteristically attentive to the emotional possibilities of colour cinematography. As a late work by Britain’s finest filmmaker (I except Hitchcock, who made his most important films in America), it would be a great shame if it were allowed to languish in obscurity.