The Queen's Guards

UK 1961, 110 mins
Director: Michael Powell

+ intro by actor Jess Conrad and Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator

As Britain’s most original and imaginative filmmaker, Michael Powell’s features have been extensively remastered, rereleased and pored over by academics and critics. But one or two titles have fallen between the cracks, most notably his last major British feature, The Queen’s Guards. Shot in 1960 and released in October 1961, the film has a rather poor reputation, seen as arrière-garde in stark contrast to his preceding feature Peeping Tom (1960), which British cinema was clearly not ready for. Powell was still dealing with censorship issues relating to Peeping Tom when he began pre-production on The Queen’s Guards. Securing funding from Twentieth Century-Fox, he set up Imperial Films with Sydney Streeter, who had worked on several Archers films in production roles, the choice of company name hinting at the film’s tone.

The Queen’s Guards was not a personal project but originated in an idea by Powell’s friend Simon Harcourt-Smith, author of rather esoteric books, including The Last of Uptake (1942), an ‘architectural fantasy’ illustrated by Rex Whistler. Finding himself outside Buckingham Palace one day, Harcourt-Smith mused on what secrets the guards’ poker-faces might conceal, and the story was born.

His treatment was expanded by Roger Milner, an actor/writer who was more comfortable with stage farce than film and whose screenplay ran to over 200 pages. Despite judicious cutting by Powell both on set and in the editing room, the first version was an unwieldy two and a half hours long. Further pruning reduced it to its eventual 110-minute running time, the main excision being a section depicting Mau Mau activity in Kenya.

The editing process was made trickier by Milner’s complex flashback structure, which portrays the progression of guardsman John Fellowes from cadet to a key role in the Queen’s birthday ceremony. Powell’s vision for the film is clear from his notes to editor Noreen Ackland: ‘Give me a picture where the parade… is the only thing that matters’ – and the film undoubtedly offers an impressive record of the Trooping of the Colour as staged on 11 June 1960. These sequences apparently required nine huge three-strip Technicolor cameras, strategically placed to capture events from all possible angles.

The opening credits lay out Powell’s stall, the slickly constructed montage of behind-the-scenes shots of preparations for the annual pageant kicking off the film in a suitably stirring manner. Powell was aware that it depended on the presentation of the ceremony for both its temporal structure and its visual impact and the CinemaScope footage emphasises the event’s sheer scale, while also revelling in its precise choreography.

From the broad sweep of the Trooping of the Colour, the film immerses us in the life and thoughts of John Fellowes, played by Daniel Massey, in his first leading role. He adeptly portrays Fellowes’s journey into manhood and emergence from the shadow of a heroic father and older brother to earn his own place in military history. As film historian Ian Christie has noted, the focus on the father and son relationship (reinforced by the casting of Raymond Massey as Fellowes Snr) echoes Powell’s exploration of the effects of parental behaviour in Peeping Tom.

As John’s rival-turned-friend Henry Wynne-Walton, Robert Stephens gives an equally compelling performance, while Ian Hunter’s turn as laconic haulage contractor Dobbie is one of the film’s highlights. Thanks to Powell’s careful casting, the actors largely manage to resist the script’s tendency to nudge characters into caricature, though Milner’s dialogue, littered with military jargon like ‘huzziff ’ and ‘jankers’, and pre-War attitudes to Empire impede identification. Watched today, the film is perplexing but fascinating. Publicity material tried to reconcile its various selling-points, ranging from HM The Queen in her first feature to ‘Guest star Jess Conrad’, adding pop tunes and sex appeal to what might have seemed a stuffy affair. The pressbook imagery contrasts the Guards’ ceremonial role with their battle activity – specifically, an extended North African sequence in which the barbarism of local warring factions is one of the film’s less palatable depictions. Meanwhile, Woman’s Own had a colour spread on Swiss couturier Mattli’s costumes, as worn by Elizabeth Shepherd and Judith Stott.

The reactions of the critics on the film’s release reflected their confusion. Some found it overly jingoistic, its glorification of war and ‘putting down the natives’ anachronistic. But most recognised that Powell had managed to rise above stodgy material to create something visually impressive, Alexander Walker waxing especially lyrical in his Evening Standard review: ‘As a pageant it is breath-taking. As a military ballet it knocks the Bolshoi into the wings. As tourist bait it is worth its weight in Fort Knox gold.’

Several reviewers took the opportunity to reflect on Powell’s career, the Times characterising him as ‘an individualist running riot in an art/industry inclined to imitation and conformity’, while Dilys Powell asserted that ‘the true filmmaker is still there, the man who understands what camera-plus-movement can do.’

Powell himself dismissed The Queen’s Guards as ‘the most inept piece of filmmaking that I have ever produced or directed’, conceding that ‘we should not have tried to compete with A.E.W. Mason’ – author of the much-filmed imperial adventure story The Four Feathers (1902). Having invested £280,000 in the film, Twentieth Century-Fox deemed it ‘unacceptable to American exhibitors’ – a seemingly perverse decision, given the affection of Americans for the British monarchy and its pomp. In 1964 Powell contemplated acquiring the rights to release it there himself, but was advised he was unlikely to profit from it.

The widely held view that Peeping Tom killed Powell’s career may be too simplistic: barely recouping its negative costs, this film’s failure cannot have enhanced his chances of further funding. Yet, while undoubtedly flawed and problematic, The Queen’s Guards deserves to be seen in its original widescreen Technicolor glory, so it can be reassessed and reintegrated into Powell’s filmography. Hopefully it will emerge from obscurity soon.
Jo Botting, Sight and Sound, November 2023

Directed by: Michael Powell
Production Company: Imperial
Presented by: Twentieth Century-Fox
Produced by: Michael Powell
Associate Producer: Simon Harcourt-Smith
Production Manager: John Wilcox
Production Supervisor: Sydney Streeter
Associate Director: Sydney Streeter
Continuity: Eileen Hildyard
Story and Screenplay by: Roger Milner
From an idea by: Simon Harcourt-Smith
Director of Photography: Gerald Turpin
Cameraman: Derek Browne, James Bawden, Austin Dempster, Robert Huke, Skeets Kelly, Robert Walker, Dudley Lovell, Norman Warwick
Camera Operator: Derek Browne
Editor: Noreen Ackland
Art Director: Wilfrid Shingleton
Ladies Costumes by: Mattli
Wardrobe Mistress: Bridget Sellers
Wardrobe Master: Duncan McPhee
Make-up: James Hydes
Hairdresser: Anne Box
Original Music Composed and Conducted by: Brian Easdale
Military Music Played by: Mounted Band of The Horse Guards (The Blues), The Massed Bands, Drums and Pipes of The Brigade of Guards
Sound Recordist: H.C. Pearson, Red Law
Sound Editor: James Shields
Studio: Shepperton Studios

Daniel Massey (John Fellowes)
Raymond Massey (Captain Fellowes)
Robert Stephens (Henry Wynne Walton)
Jack Watson (Sgt Johnson)
Peter Myers (Gordon Davidson)
Ursula Jeans (Mrs Fellowes)
Frank Lawton (Commander Hewson)
Anthony Bushell (Major Cole)
Cornel Lucas (photographer)
Jess Conrad (Dankworth)
Ian Hunter (Dobbie)
Duncan Lamont (Wilkes)
Elizabeth Shepherd (Susan)
Judith Stott (Ruth)
Jack Allen (Brigadier Cummings)
Laurence Payne (Farinda)
Eileen Peel (Mrs Wynne-Walton)
William Fox (Mr Walters)
Patrick Connor (Brewer)
William Young (Williams)
Jack Watling (Captain Shergold)
Andrew Crawford (Biggs)
Nigel Green (Abu Sibdar)
René Cutforth (commentator)

UK 1961
110 mins

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Farewell (Abschied)
Tue 17 Oct 18:40 (+ intro by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald); Wed 1 Nov 20:40
His Lordship
Tue 17 Oct 20:50; Sat 4 Nov 12:20
The Fire Raisers
Wed 18 Oct 18:40; Sat 11 Nov 12:30
Black Narcissus
Wed 18 Oct 20:50; Sun 22 Oct 18:30; Wed 8 Nov 18:15; Sun 12 Nov 18:50; Thu 16 Nov 20:50; Sat 18 Nov 20:50; Mon 20 Nov 20:45 (+ intro by author Mahesh Rao)
The Edge of the World + Return to the Edge of the World
Fri 20 Oct 18:20; Wed 8 Nov 20:30; Wed 15 Nov 20:50
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (aka The Thief of Bagdad)
Fri 20 Oct 20:30; Tue 24 Oct 14:40; Sat 28 Oct 15:00; Sun 26 Nov 12:00
The Spy in Black + Smith
Sat 21 Oct 15:30; Sun 29 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow + Heavenly Puss
Sun 22 Oct 12:00
49th Parallel
Sun 22 Oct 12:20; Mon 6 Nov 20:30
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing!
Sun 22 Oct 15:10; Tue 31 Oct 20:40 (+ intro by film historian Ian Christie)
Mon 23 Oct 17:50 (+ intro by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead); Mon 30 Oct 20:30
Red Ensign + The Night of the Party
Tue 24 Oct 20:30; Sun 5 Nov 14:40
A Canterbury Tale
Wed 25 Oct 20:20 (+ intro by academic Thirza Wakefield); Sat 11 Nov 14:50; Fri 24 Nov 20:35
Library Talk: The interior life of an archive: an evening with the Michael Powell Collection
Mon 27 Nov 18:00
The Elusive Pimpernel
Sat 28 Oct 12:20; Mon 13 Nov 18:00 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
Gone to Earth
Sat 28 Oct 18:20; Wed 22 Nov 20:45; Sat 25 Nov 17:50
Silent Cinema: The Magician + The Riviera Revels + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator
Sun 29 Oct 15:00
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sun 29 Oct 17:20 (+ intro by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald); Sun 5 Nov 17:45; Thu 23 Nov 17:45; Sun 26 Nov 14:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Stephen Fry)
Paths to Partnership: Powell + Pressburger before The Archers
Tue 31 Oct 18:30
Projecting the Archive: The Queen’s Guards + intro by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator
Thu 2 Nov 18:20
Twice upon a Time
Mon 6 Nov 18:10 + extended intro by James Bell, BFI National Archive Senior Curator
Talk: Philosophical Screens: A Matter of Life and Death
Tue 7 Nov 20:20
Talk: Centre Stage: The Leading Women of Powell + Pressburger
Thu 16 Nov 18:20
Ill Met by Moonlight
Fri 17 Nov 20:40; Sat 25 Nov 12:40
The Battle of the River Plate
Sat 18 Nov 18:20; Mon 27 Nov 20:30
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Sun 19 Nov 11:50 Wed 22 Nov 17:50
The Wild Heart
Sun 19 Nov 15:10
Miracle in Soho
Mon 20 Nov 18:10; Sun 26 Nov 18:30

Course: The Magic of Powell + Pressburger
Wed 25 Oct to Wed 22 Nov 18:30

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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