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The legendary filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aka “The Archers,” made Gone to Earth at the height of their popularity – they had just come off iconic films like The Red Shoes, and Black Narcissus – but its somewhat catastrophic reception would mark the beginning of their career decline. (Subsequent films, such as Oh, Rosalinda! and Battle of the River Plate, would not duplicate their earlier successes.) It didn’t help, of course, that the film never quite worked out production-wise: The project was a collaboration with the legendary producer David O. Selznick, who would later cut his own version of the film and release it in the US. (More on that later.) Any way you look at it, these troubles are a dispiriting legacy for such a beautiful and heart-wrenching film.
As he proved with Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun, Selznick had a fondness for stories about fierce, passionate females, and Gone to Earth, adapted from Mary Webb’s novel, may have provided him with the ultimate wild woman. It was also a perfect part for his lovely protégé/mistress Jennifer Jones, who had become a star in her own right with her Oscar-winning role in The Song of Bernadette.
In Gone to Earth, Jones plays Hazel, a naïve, passionate Welsh country girl living in the Shropshire countryside with her harp-playing father in the late 1800s. Close to the earth and extremely superstitious, Hazel feels at one with the natural world around her: Powell’s camera and his cutting often equate her with the animals that populate the countryside, and she herself has a particular fondness for the foxes regularly hunted by local squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar), a rich and powerful man’s man whom innocent Hazel knows instinctively to distrust. Trouble is, Reddin’s got his heart set on Hazel, in his own slimy way. He doesn’t even bother to woo her; he simply declares her to be his. Also smitten with the gorgeous girl is gentle, meek local parson Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), who loves her in more spiritual ways.
It’s a typical split between the noble soul and the dashing beast, and the choice would seem clear-cut, but Pressburger’s script (and Webb’s novel) complicates the situation somewhat: There is a definite pull between Hazel and Reddin, even as Hazel recognizes the personal superiority of Marston. She marries the parson, not so much because she loves him, but because of a dare with her father: As so often happens in fairy tales, an idle boast becomes a serious one, when the hotheaded Hazel vows to her father in an argument to marry the first person that asks. The parson, of course, is the first person that asks, and our heroine’s fate is sealed, entangling a good man in this complicated, messy web of human desire. The almost mystical, demonic attraction between Hazel and Reddin will, of course, lead to tragic consequences for this love triangle.
The story is classic melodrama, and, in its broad strokes, not a particularly distinguished one. That Gone to Earth the film works at all is something of a shock. In some senses, Hazel represents what I once crassly (and insensitively) called The Retard Rule – that is, a character naïve, “slow,” or otherwise so deprived that he or she can pretty much do anything irrational a plot contrivance requires and it will somehow be acceptable to the average viewer.
But the presence of such a character is not a problem in and of itself; execution and context matter. And Gone to Earth is pitched at the level of a fairy tale, with its simple heroine, its colorful milieu, its mystical overtones. It’s Wuthering Heights reimagined as an Aesop fable. Like so many of Powell and Pressburger’s films, it gives us a world where the magical and the mundane coexist – we can get an earthy depiction of a turn-of-the-century carnival one minute, and then hear the Faerie Music whispering in the trees the next. (This is, after all, the same filmmaking team that took an homage to Chaucer and set it during WWII.)
Selznick, unfortunately, was unable to grasp the artful dementia of Powell and Pressburger’s approach. To his eyes, Gone to Earth had too much texture, too many scenes of carnivals, too much earthly context. He actually sued the Archers for breach of contract, claiming that they hadn’t shot the script. This, of course, was nonsense; it was Pressburger’s script, and he and Powell had stuck scrupulously close to their text. Selznick lost his case, but he still exerted his influence. Since he held the North American rights to the film, he hired Rouben Mamoulian to hack away about 30 minutes of the film and shoot some additional dramatic scenes. He also added voiceover narration to glue these fragmentary bits back together into a film.
That abbreviated version, which wasn’t actually too bad (Selznick may have been crass and ruthless, but he had decent cinematic instincts, and Mamoulian ain’t exatly chopped liver either), was released two years later in the US as The Wild Heart. Even that studio-approved variation, however, was hard to see for many years, aside from the errant TV matinee, thanks to its failure at the box office. Indeed, Gone to Earth wound up being another step in Selznick’s slow, painful road to irrelevance. The Archers didn’t fare much better; their next film, The Elusive Pimpernel, also resulted in a post-production dispute with an American company, and aside from the opera-film Tales of Hoffmann, their greatest successes were now behind them.
Gone to Earth has since been restored to its full length, and is slowly becoming more and more available. A UK DVD was released years ago, and the stock of the Archers has been rising steadily over the past decade or so. Soon, hopefully, this magnificent, gorgeous film from the greatest filmmaking partnership of all time will find its rightful audience.