I Know Where I’m Going! is a love story that is also a fable. Joan Webster thinks she knows exactly where she’s going: to marry the richest industrialist in Britain. But when the elements stop her from reaching a remote Scottish island where the wedding is due to take place, she gradually realizes that fate—and a young navy officer on leave—are trying to tell her something.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had sprung to fame among Britain’s World War II filmmakers with such original contributions to the war effort as 49th Parallel, “. . .one of our aircraft is missing”, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. With the war’s end in sight, they had turned to more personal and speculative themes in A Canterbury Tale. This, they felt, was the first salvo in a “crusade against materialism”—an attempt to remind their war-weary audience what it had been fighting for.
Next they were due to tackle a big film about the rocky state of Anglo-American relations (which would eventually become A Matter of Life and Death), but in late 1944 there was no Technicolor stock available. What could be made quickly and in black and white? Powell asked Pressburger. The answer was something about a girl who can’t reach an island, and by the time she can, she no longer wants to go. Why can’t she go? demanded Powell. “Let’s make the film and find out,” was Pressburger’s response.
Pressburger recalled that the script for I Know Where I’m Going! seemed almost to write itself. It included many elements close to the filmmakers’ hearts: Pressburger’sconcern for the fate that shapes individual lives and his belief that “kindness rules the world, not money,” combined with Powell’s deep love for the Scottish islands and his technical virtuosity, here required to combine location filming and studio special effects for a spectacular whirlpool sequence which brings together all the film’s themes—moral, mythic and elemental—in a thrilling climax.
There was also a more personal reason for Pressburger to look into the future that awaited a young woman on the threshold of postwar life, and for the snapshot prologue showing Joan’s determination from a very early age. His daughter Angela had been born in 1941. For Powell, it was a chance to return to his beloved Scotland, and to fall in love with Pamela Brown during the filming. The Archers, as their company was called, had long wanted to work with one of the leading young actresses of the time, Wendy Hiller. Now she was perfect for the headstrong careerist Joan, who must learn to follow her heart rather than her head.
It was a topical theme, perhaps even more than the Archers could have realized in late 1944. For after nearly six years of war, Britain was stirring with new idealism. Countless men and women in uniform and in the war industries dreamed of a fairer world after victory. When party politics returned in mid-1945 after the wartime National Coalition, Churchill made clear his opposition to more of the social reforms that had already been introduced during the war. The result of the “khaki election” was a resounding vote for socialism and a rejection of Churchill’s paternalism.
Powell and Pressburger were no revolutionaries, but they were in tune with the times. No other British film of the period captures so well the widespread hostility towards those who had profited from the war and the determination to create a new world based on equality and honesty. Torquil (Roger Livesey) is the traditional “Laird” of the island, who has been fighting for his country, yet forced by poverty to rent his birthright to “the rich man.” His re-education of Joan is the turning of the British towards a “New Jerusalem.”
But the Archers wanted to move rather than moralize. Even more effectively than A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going! succeeds in spinning a web of myth and evocative symbolism around its central search for self-discovery. Scenes like the traditional Céilidh, where Torquil translates a Gaelic song to Joan which first puts into words what neither of them has admitted, and the eerily-lit bedroom where Joan first admits her doubts about the marriage to Sir Robert, have a rare cinematic intensity.
Powell and Pressburger had yet to launch into the glorious expressionism that would lead to The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, but they were already reaching far beyond commercial realism. From Joan’s “Tartan dream” as she travels north to Scotland, to the epic drama of the Corryvreckan whirlpool (inspired by Cecil B. DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments), I Know Where I’m Going! boldly defies the sober style of much World War II cinema.
It is this that makes it distinctively modern. Martin Scorsese recalls first seeing it just before he started shooting Raging Bull and being “overwhelmed by its illustration of love laced with mysticism.” Modern, yet also timeless. At the end, Joan and Torquil emerge purified from the tests they have undergone, like the lovers of a latter-day Magic Flute.
Ian Christie is the author and editor of several books on Powell and Pressburger (including Arrows of Desire) and Eisenstein and Russian cinema, as well as the editor of books on Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam. He is Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College, University of London.