After recently finishing Helen Macdonald’s excellent book, H Is For Hawk, a number of connections and synchronicities emerged that all seemed in some way to tie in to its various chapters and ideas. Whilst many of these were of a more personal, emotional nature, the chief connection of interest lay in the presence of hawks in Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film, A Canterbury Tale. This sparked off a number of tangential thoughts though the two initial ideas consisted of actual surprise at firstly forgetting the presence of the hawk in A Canterbury Tale whilst the other was the surprise that Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going was not the go-to film by the pair for the presence of hawks. Research into this provided a remarkably rich tapestry of connections of coincidences.
In Macdonald’s book, the following passage stood out:
Falconry’s medieval glamour played its part, too, and soon hawks and aeroplanes were deeply entangled in visions of war and national defence. There’s an extraordinary moment of this in Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale. In the opening scenes a party of Chaucerian pilgrims crosses the downs on the way to Canterbury. A knight unhoods a falcon and casts it into the air. The camera lingers on its flickering wings – a quick cut – and the falcon’s silhouette becomes a diving spitfire. (2014, p.191).
The scene described is indeed extraordinary and is an early, brilliant example of the match cut – the type of editing form that matches object and movement to create a jump in time, most famous in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Here, the shot of the bird cut into the shot of the plane jumps 600 years rather than millions of years. The main connection, however, that spurred the ideas of this article on, were not simply the actual use of falconry in the films but also who was behind the actual logistics.
The man in charge of the falconry in A Canterbury Tale is Captain Charles William Robert Knight, known to his friends as “Chas”. It is here where several pleasing connections occur. Knight was friends with Michael Powell in particular, his family website suggesting: “… the only thing he’d ever been scared of was Michael Powell!” (link) and it is this connection that provides several links between falconry and Powell and Pressburger’s films. Eleven years before A Canterbury Tale, Knight had provided falcons for the Alexander Korda production, The Private Life Of Henry The VIII (1933). It was not until Canterbury, and towards the end of the Second World War, where Knight’s falconry skills would be set to popular cinematic use again.
In Macdonald’s book, one of the refreshing aspects is how she distances herself from the more typical image of falconry; that of the many-barrelled named English gentry, the archetype that would harass T.W. White with inferiority complexes. Yet, for all these images and descriptions, Knight is the absolute epitome of this mould of falconer. If proof be needed, his next film role would go to heighten this to great comedic and also surprisingly warm effect.
In Powell And Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945), a prominent falconer character is present in the form of Colonel Barnstaple. He is played by none other than Knight himself, playing a (perhaps only slightly) heightened version of his own character; eccentric, loyal to his bird and passionate about its abilities. In the film, it is one of the many aspects that seem to be put there to unsettle Wendy Hiller’s character, Joan Webster. She is a city girl, marrying into money in spite of it meaning having to come and live far out in the Hebrides on the isle of Kiloran. At first glance, the bird of prey may seem inconsequential to the main story; that of Joan not being able to genuinely see what’s in front of her because of some tunnel-visioned determinism (“I know where I’m going!”). But Knight and the bird stick out and linger in the mind long after the film has finished; their presence again hints towards the “…myth of an essential Britishness unchanged through the ages…” (2013, p.191) as Macdonald calls it.
In a side plot of the film, the eagle, Torquil (named in that way that Macdonald highlights earlier in her book as being rather silly), is accused of attacking other animals and then escapes. It seems a little too much of a coincidence that the name of the eagle is also the name of Joan’s clear lover-to-be (played by Roger Livesey). In spite of Joan’s stubbornness, resulting in a dangerous, failed attempt to get to Kiloran during a storm where her husband-to-be is waiting, it seems that the eagle’s return marks a final nail in the coffin of her journey; the wildness and attractive loyalty of the man is ultimately enforced by the loyalty of the bird. She, of course, stays with Torquil on Mull, while Torquil the eagle even captures the fox that had given it a bad name; the “myth” of “essential Britishness unchanged” is firing on full throttle in I Know Where I’m Going.
This would not be the last film that Knight would help Powell and Pressburger with. He would also supply the hawks for their troubled film, Gone To Earth (1950), later re-released as The Wild Heart at the insistence of David O. Selznick. The eagle used in I Know Where I’m Going was Knight’s true friend (named Mr. Ramshaw) and was later seen in Frank Launder’s Wee Geordie (1955) as well as several documentaries. However, the partnership had to separate when an ill Knight left for Kenya. He survived his eagle by a mere four months.
What is most interesting about all of these connections is the idea of the ancient and the national; one coalescing with the other to create tradition. Powell and Pressburger’s films are littered with people like Knight alongside obsessive outlets such as falconry. The dancing in The Red Shoes, the filmmaking in Peeping Tom (1960); they all seem to capture a sense of Albion turning on its head as it tries to wade through to the other side of some trauma. Perhaps this is why H Is For Hawk clicked so well into reading Powell and Pressburger’s films; whilst modern Britain is far from wide-scale traumas such as a world war, it is when engulfed in our own personal traumas with which we seek to find again our identity through myth and its various traditions. Like Joan, we want to know where we are going and the best way to look for it is to see where we have been.