Herakles on Chesil Bank: The Archers, Disavowable Classics, and The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room (written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949) is the war-time tale of an injured and embittered back-room scientist, recruited to help combat a new kind of explosive device. The film is based on Nigel Balchin’s 1943 novel, but significantly adapts the story’s climactic sequence so that the wounded Sammy Rice successfully disarms the device, and in so doing is symbolically healed. In the process, a downbeat source-text is transformed into a mutedly redemptive narrative of loyalty, friendship, and unconventional heroism, echoing the ancient myth of Philoctetes.
This chapter analyses the strategies by which Powell and Pressburger infuse a recurring sense of quasi-mythic male friendship and potential miraculous healing into a work most often understood as one of their rare excursions into filmic realism. It also formulates a new approach to reading Powell and Pressburger’s classical reception during the later 1940s, focusing on the pair’s cultivation of deliberately ambiguous scenes and images whose ancient influences are always teasingly disavowable. This aspect of The Small Back Room is analysed through the figure of Captain Dick Stuart, the officer who plays Herakles to Sammy Rice’s Philoctetes, and whose presence repeatedly cues the film’s understated negotiation between realist and mythic registers.