Generous Orthodoxy  

My growing library of Criterion Collection films has just yielded up a real treasure—A movie I had never heard of, from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (of Red Shoes fame). I never liked Red Shoes all that much, but I Know Where I’m Going (called IKWIG by fans) knocked me out. It’s remembered now largely by film buffs, but in its day it brought joy and hope to many thousands. It was filmed in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in the last year of World War II, as Britain was beginning to look forward to a better future for the first time since the early 1930s.

I recommend this movie highly for three reasons:

1)  For lovers of Scotland, it’s simply irresistible. Michael Powell loved the Isles and the culture of the rugged inhabitants. His film boasts authentic settings, real Scottish people, and a goodly dose of Gaelic. The depiction of the céilidh (celebration with music, singing, and dancing) is said to be entirely authentic, and certainly looks it. A particular highlight is a scene with the octogenarian telephone operator saying, “Come in, Killoran,” in her beguiling Highland lilt. In fact, the entire depiction of 1940s telephoning in the remote Hebrides is priceless.

One of the most memorable scenes reveals an unsuspected side of a reserved, even dour, Scottish dowager who, at dinner, begins to talk about the glorious games and dances that her island offers. She first describes the women in their finery and then, becoming almost girlish as the scene takes hold in her mind’s eye, she evokes the men in their velvets and tartans, “even more resplendent than the women,” and you can see that this is a woman who has been in love and is full of pride in her native traditions.

2)  The “message” of the movie, which endeared it to Britons of the 1940s, is that family, home, land, culture, community, and honest work are more important than inherited wealth and display. The rough-hewn islanders are depicted with respect and affection as well as humor. Britain was about to vote Churchill out of office—a terribly shocking turn of events for Americans who did not understand the “khaki election” and the turning away of the working and middle classes from traditional paternalism to a more equal, fair society. Pressburger and Powell, in this movie, take their side. The ambitious, obstinate, self-centered heroine’s eyes are opened to an entirely new way of understanding human relationships.  At the beginning, she knows where she’s going—to an island to marry a rich man—but suddenly finds herself up against a different man, a different island, and a different way of looking at life. This is all encapsulated in four lines of dialogue:

“The people here are poor, aren’t they?”

“No, they aren’t poor—they just don’t have money.”

“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not the same thing at all.”

3) And finally, this movie has one of the best kisses in film history…

The Criterion Collection version of IKWIG includes a lot of extra material about the making of the film and people’s reactions to it. Included are interviews with an elderly, delightful Dame Wendy Hiller (who plays the main character) and a middle-aged Petula Clark (who has a bit part as a precocious ten-year-old). Highly recommended.