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Very professional amateurs
A region 2 DVD review of ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT from the Powell and Pressburger Box Set by Camus
"A dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness."
The King's School, Canterbury's Housemaster's
reasons for kicking out Patrick Leigh Fermor,
after a series of misadventures.


Misadventures. It seems as if the real Fermor was born to be misadventurous. His greatest misadventure was a daring plan to demoralise and humiliate the German army during World War 2 by kidnapping its Crete based general in charge of Nazi troops on the Grecian island and taking him off to northern Africa. It was an insane idea (worthy of being kicked out of school for) but one which would do more for Allied morale than any other action if he managed to pull it off. Ill Met By Moonlight is the movie version of his particular piece of derring-do and as illustrated by the Archers, Fermor pulled it off with a surfeit of aplomb.

Undercover operatives, in whatever context, always seem to shine brightly from my large roster of those to respect during wartime. The risk they run by simply living their daily lives (and not just attempting a specific mission) is one that only suits a certain ice cold, abnormally brave and determined temperament. Imagine it. Everyday you get up in the morning knowing that the smallest slip could result in torture and death (preferably not in that order). I even look to BBC correspondents (such as John Simpson) with some awe wondering what might have happened if an enthusiastic and security conscious Taliban sympathiser decided to look up his Burka… It doesn't bear thinking about.

So Fermor (or to give him his adopted Cretan name, Philidem) comes up with the plan, recruits a number of partisans (supportive Cretans and yes, I'm glad that 'a' is there too) and puts into action what the trailer calls "…the most audacious adventure of all time." It's certainly audacious. The only other British officer in on the plan is Capt. Billy Moss (David Oxley in full 'what ho' mode) and it's the relationship between the two men that is the spine of the tale. It's a curious bond and not without reams of subtext (if one went in for that sort of reading). Both in a small bed (Dirk's head to David's foot arrangement), they talk about the mission and after Dirk says something David is particularly happy about, he soundly kisses Dirk's fully booted foot. It struck me as a memorably intimate moment between the two men so loaded with subtext that for the purposes of this review, I think I'll turn and aim the barrel in another less homoerotic direction.

Christopher Lee (early in his career, an Archers recurring favourite) plays the first German officer to be suspicious of Fermor (undercover as a Cretan undergoing dental treatment). To flesh out his character, we learn that this obviously brave and resourceful man is scared stiff of the dentist. But not that scared. Lee, in trying to reveal suspicious behaviour (speaking fluent German, one of his many languages) literally uncovers the means of his own demise. This establishes Fermor as a ruthless and practical fighter willing to do whatever necessary to achieve his goals. Played by the unerringly pretty Dirk Bogarde, Fermor is a calm but complex character (according to this portrayal), understanding what needs to be done (however violent and drastic), revelling in his accepted hero status among the local populace (he swallows the region's local delicacy – sheep's eyes – with relish) and yet curiously, he has quite a stiff upper lip. He's also a stickler for the British way of doing things. Shoot a man in the belly by all means but observe the rules or in this case, the Geneva Convention. For all its fair play bluster, the Geneva Convention strikes me as giving madness a structure. Kill, shoot, maim and blow up (no worries) but if you do kidnap a general in wartime, he/she is entitled to behaviour befitting his/her rank. Jesus. Someone actually sat down and made rules for warfare? Isn't it just 'kill for political reasons, 'kill for profit' and 'kill for land'? What have I missed? Oil? See reason number one.

Again, like The Battle of the River Plate, Powell is somewhat hamstrung by the truth (such an inconvenience) but tells Fermor's remarkable story with restraint. If the film has a weakness, it's in the true story. Everything seems to happen too easily, coincidences (which really happened) smack the story around a little (how dare life be actually like this?) but the real sparkle of the film is in the characters, particularly once old Marius Goring gets sat on. Playing the bluff old German major general, Karl Kreipe, Goring is clearly having fun with his non-fictional character. He teases his captors, tests their resolve and in a final attempt to outwit them uses a child's jealousy and desire for footwear to bring about his rescue. But again the movie overflows with great respect for both sides. At the end of the movie Bogarde assures Goring that he's not a professional soldier and admiringly Goring assures him that he is.

coda – having reached the ninth and last DVD in this damn fine box set...

It's this universal respect towards both warring sides that sets Powell and Pressburger's war based movies apart. You never get the impression that the film makers are resorting to anything other than their idiosyncratic take on the human condition, one which incorporates so called good and evil. And it's that Archers' perspective that provides the glue of this good and solid box set, adhering a few very different movies together with a remarkably diverse but ultimately positive take on the human spirit.

sound and vision

Transferred in Black and White 1.85:1 anamorphic, Ill Met By Moonlight is almost as sharp as the undoubtedly more colourful Battle of the River Plate. There is very little damage and dust but what there is, is entirely comforting. After all, we are approaching the age of a fluff free digital cinema. That may give George Lucas a buzz but it signals the end of another era to me, one that I rather enjoyed. Again, the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack recreates the mono final mix and there is never any issues regarding the sound's fidelity.

extra features

The trailer is filthy but that's OK. We like dirt and at least it's the right trailer and not a corporate spot. But alas, there are no more extras.

Ill Met By Moonlight
The Powell and Pressburger Collection

UK 1957
104 mins
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Dirk Bogarde
Marius Goring
David Oxley
Dimitri Andreas
Cyril Cusack
Laurence Payne
Wolfe Morris

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby mono 2.0
English for the hard of hearing

review posted
18 November 2005

The Powell & Pressburger Collection
A Matter of Life and Death
The Red Shoes
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
I Know Where I'm Going
A Canterbury Tale
They're a Weird Mob
49th Parallel
Battle of the River Plate

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Black Narcissus
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See all of Camus's reviews