Director Michael Powell and Zionist Leader Chaim Weizmann

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger were responsible for some of the finest, most distinctive movies made in Britain from the late 30s to the late 40s: The Spy in Black (1939), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Stairway to Heaven ((1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948).

Of course, like all of us who work in the movie business, Powell labored over numerous beloved projects that were, for one reason or another, never produced.

In his luminous biography Million Dollar Movie, Powell writes of his passion to make a movie about the great Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, who went on to become Israel’s first President.

Chaim Weizmann

Who would have thought that Powell, an Englishman, a pillar of both church and state, a scholar of Cantrbury, who knows King James’s Bible by heart, would be able to persuade Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew, and Simon Marks and Israel Sieff, his partner in Marks and Spencer, and Arthur Krim of United Artists that there was a magnificent film in Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography, “Trial and Error.” (But I am forgetting to mention my greatest supporter, Meyer Weisgal, fund-raiser extraordinary to the Zionist movement, who not only talked but thought zillions, and who was our host in Israel, together with his daughter, Helen, and saw nothing extraordinary in the sight of an Englishman Protestant trying to persuade four convinced Zionists that the life of Weizmann would be a smash hit in England and the U.S.A.) This in 1953, when Israel was facing enemies on all sides, when the best-informed commentators wouldn’t have given even money on her survival. This was a time, I argued, to make the film. Even Frankie [Powell’s wife] was incredulous: “You’re a Welsh Jew. I always knew it.”

The point is that I did convince them and they all put up £10,000 for a location trip to Israel, plus a shooting script. But all that came out of it was my diary, illustrated by [Production Designer] Hein [Heckworth] and called Journey Through Israel, May – July 1953, and a film that I shot in 16mm Kodachrome that has a historical interest and that I gave to the Weizmann Institute at Rehovot.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted February 24, 2018 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    One of the best times I ever spent in a movie theatre was back in the ’90s, when the cinematheque here organized a retrospective of Powell & Pressburger films. Went almost every night – learned a lot. The revelation: A Canterbury Tale.
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  2. Calek
    Posted February 21, 2018 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Your list is missing Powell and Pressburger’s “Tales of Hoffman” a great version of the opera, in English, with striking visuals.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 21, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Confession: I have never seen “Tales of Hoffman.”

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