The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare;
Caolte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.

-William Butler Yeats, “The Hosting of the Sidhe”

In British and European folk legend, the ubiquitous Wild Hunt myth concerns a group of supernatural huntsmen – alternately described as ghosts, fairies, gods, or even demonically possessed men – who furiously pursue animals, but often humans. Perceived as heralds of war, plague, and death, the Hunt’s witnesses and victims generally did not survive the experience and were torn to pieces by dogs, dragged into the underworld, or had their spirits pulled from their bodies and were conscripted to join the Hunt. The myth itself adapted over the years, transitioning from pagan to Christian themes; for example, in some later British interpretations, devilish huntsmen and their hellhounds pursued sinners. This tension between pagan and Christian beliefs – found in a life-giving and life-taking natural world – is a major component of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950), where a gypsy girl is caught between a huntsman and a Christian pastor. The film actually opens with a hunt: a group of squires and their dogs chase a fox into a hole in the ground and a hunter yells, “Gone to earth,” foreshadowing the tragic events to come.

One of Powell and Pressburger’s more overlooked efforts, Gone to Earth was produced towards the final years of the directors’ fruitful collaboration and, perhaps not coincidentally, unites some of the common themes of their career together. It serves as their final statement on the kind of romantic English countryside themes found in earlier films like A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1944) and ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1945), while also exploring the threatening landscapes of Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1947) and The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948), where a woman’s irrepressible sexuality becomes a destructive force in the world around her; no thanks to the influence of a domineering male influence and often a love triangle. Gone to Earth’s protagonist, Hazel (Jennifer Jones), has a seemingly supernatural connection to her homeland and the film can also be seen as forming a bridge between earlier Gothic literature and the later British folk horror films of the 1970s.

Despite the film’s supernatural elements, Gone to Earth is more of a precursor to the folk horror films to come rather than an actual part of that genre. In 1950, both the US and UK were in the midst of the atomic terror craze. It was still several years before a number of important genre milestones: Hammer Horror’s boom didn’t begin until 1957; Powell’s didn’t release his bleak opus, Peeping Tom, until 1960; restrained supernatural horror films like The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) didn’t really emerge for another decade; and it was still well before the neglected rural English folk horror film Eye of the Devil (J. Lee Thompson, 1967) that ushered in a wave of British folk horror tales, many of which had a satanic flavor. In a sense, Gone to Earth falls closer to the handful of non-horror genre witchcraft dramas and romances like American films such as I Married a Witch (René Clair, 1942), The Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes, 1945), or the later Bell, Book, and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958), but if these titles had been directed by Douglas Sirk. Gone to Earth also borrows far more from the Gothic novel, itself the literary grandfather of the horror genre.

Based on Mary Webb’s 1917 novel, Gone to Earth mines popular Victorian art and literary themes of witchcraft and Gypsies. Hazel has an uncanny relationship with the animals around her, a pet fox in particular, and uses her late mother’s handwritten book of spells. Powell and Pressburger make allusions to her fate being inextricably bound up with the earth and the struggle two men  –  a wealthy squire, John Reddin (David Farrar), and a local minister, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack) –  undergo for her body concerns far more than the pleasures of the flesh. After the womanizing Reddin nearly runs her down one night on the road from town back to the country, he tries to seduce her, but is rebuffed by his groundskeeper, Vessons (Hugh Griffith), and by Hazel herself. She is intrigued by him, but wary, insisting she can sense the blood on his hands, a permanent stain from the hunt. In something of a bet with her wayward father (Esmond Knight), she vows to marry the first man who asks her, which happens to be Marston, whose love for her is more spiritual than carnal. But Reddin has only just begun to pursue what he sees as rightfully his.

In the period between 1944’s A Canterbury Tale and Gone to Earth in 1950, the majority of Powell and Pressburger’s films (with the exception of two war-themed efforts, 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death and 1949’s The Small Back Room) focused on female protagonists caught up in romantic and/or sexual conflicts, often in settings rich with symbolic meaning. These women were generally refracted through a lens of ecstasy  –  religious (Black Narcissus), artistic (The Red Shoes), romantic (‘I Know Where I’m Going!’), moral (A Canterbury Tale), and sexual (Gone to Earth) –  which played out in appropriately stylised landscapes.

These romantic and sexual impulses tied up with a significant, often natural setting had their origins in the strange drama A Canterbury Tale, which effectively acts as an early thesis on how Powell and Pressburger would approach natural locations, namely the English countryside. The film follows a small band of travellers, including a young woman (Sheila Sim), driven to a town in Kent by the British involvement in WWII, along the old pilgrim’s road walked by Chaucer’s characters. They stumble across a series of mysterious crimes: at night, a “glue man” pours the sticky substance into the hair of local girls out on dates with soldiers. Misunderstood on its release, Tison Pugh describes Powell and Pressburger’s approach here as “penumbral pastoralism” and there is something gloomy and foreboding about the characters’ relationship to the land, its history, and the connection of both to English identity.1

Powell and Pressburger

Like Gone to Earth, A Canterbury Tale has an odd relationship to romantic love and sexuality; one which the “glue man” views as an obvious obstacle and like many of Powell and Pressburger’s male characters, he seeks to dominate and impose his particular brand of morality on the surrounding countryside. The mysterious antagonist is eventually revealed to be a leading local citizen, Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), a surprisingly sympathetic character throughout, who idealizes the pilgrims of the past. Pugh claims the film “exposes pastoralism’s inherent perversity.”2 He argues

The sexuality unleashed throughout its storyline projects England as both idyllic and menacing. The crux of A Canterbury Tale arises in its melancholic longing for a pastoral past that never existed, and in this manner melancholia fractures national fantasies of historical and contemporary identity. In its vision of an edenic world of relaxed labor and bucolic virtue, the pastoral is as fantastic a genre as fairy tale or science fiction because this vision depends on the unattainability of — indeed, the impossibility of — this past in the present.3

Gone to Earth’s Marston has a similar sense of moral conflict and effectively sets in motion the tragedy of the film because of this. As the local pastor, he seems to want to create a utopia of holy love, purity, and equality. He views Hazel as an innocent creature of the earth, not as a sexualized being, and vows to God that he won’t ask anything of her, and will only protect and cherish her. They sleep in separate bedrooms, even on their wedding night, to Hazel’s obvious dismay and confusion. This is not the romanticized pastoralism of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” which declares,

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

The only union Marston seems to seek with Hazel is a spiritual one; a later term of endearment she uses for him is “my soul,” which he cherishes even with the knowledge that her body belongs to another. As Pugh wrote of A Canterbury Tale, “Colpeper’s pastoralism depends upon sexuality’s absence, in which neither men nor women copulate so that they may spend their days contemplating the past.”4

This theme is perhaps nowhere more dramatically expressed than in Black Narcissus, where a group of English nuns travel to the Himalayas to convert an isolated palace into a hospital and school, but the lush mountain and internal tensions among them results result in hysteria. Priya Jaikumar suggests of Black Narcissus, “The place arouses several dormant desires and memories in the Sisters, who slowly plunge into despair and insanity.”5.Though they are trying to change the locale — to civilize it and bring Christianity to its inhabitants  –  it winds up changing them far more profoundly. Like Hazel’s countryside in Gone to Earth, the mountainside setting of Black Narcissus has an otherworldly, even supernatural quality. Jaikumar wrote, “As a colourful spectacle, the place is more closely aligned to fantasy than to reality.”6 And like Gone to Earth, and even the idealized pastoral world of A Canterbury Tale, the lush landscape of Black Narcissus is a fundamentally fertile, even sexual world, and resists all civilizing attempts on behalf of the nuns.

While the natural world serves as an agonizing reminder of the nuns’ own femininity, sexuality, and reproductive capability, the English countryside of Gone to Earth acts as an extension of Hazel herself. There are several scenes when her own fear or anxiety affects the natural world: the wind howls, the clouds churn in the sky, and animals in the forest scatter. Unlike the nuns of Black Narcissus or even the restrained characters of A Canterbury Tale, Hazel is not determined to control or repress her sexuality, and her character is defined by a sort of natural innocence; deeply superstitious, she acts based on instinct and guidance from her mother’s spellbook. Kristie Blair wrote that Hazel is “half-gypsy and the archetypal child of nature, brought up in an isolated valley, musical, animal-loving, and wholly innocent of society’s rules. […] Her attitude to nature is mystical, and she practices witchcraft.”7 She makes solemn oaths on the trees and the local mountain, known as God’s Little Mountain, and tries to do the right thing, but is caught between the equally compelling, equally flawed worlds of hedonistic paganism and Christian spirituality.

She is not quite a witch  –  though she performs magic from her mother’s book, Spells and Charms  –  and in Mary Webb’s novel, is described as a gypsy, a popular theme for later Gothic fiction. Blair claims “Gypsies represent liberation, excitement, danger, and the free expression of sexuality. […] The decades between 1910 and 1930 were marked by an explosion of writings on gypsies — anthropological studies, popular fiction, poetry, travel writing, folktales, and linguistic studies — that placed the gypsy at the center of commentaries on exoticism, primitivism, nature, sexuality, and savagery.”8 Hazel certainly has exotic and primitive qualities: she rarely wears shoes, seems to have no formal education and little understanding of social rituals, her knowledge of religion is passing at best, and she roams the woods and the hills without any supervision.

The conflict between Reddin and Marston is less about who will win Hazel and more about what she will choose: Reddin’s potentially liberating ethos of sex, violence, and heathen hedonism, or Marston’s Christian philosophy of peace, acceptance, and spiritual love. Blair wrote that Webb’s Gone to Earth, Rosamund Napier’s The Heart of a Gypsy (1909), and Arthur Compton-Rickett’s Gypsy Blood (1929) were examples of how:

Literary interest in gypsies was spurred by this nostalgic vision of them as pastoral figures, among the last to evade the spread of cities, who must either be integrated — and lose the characteristics that made them exceptional — or die. This strand of thought is particularly evident in popular fiction that depicts gypsy-identified women marrying ‘civilized’ men.9

Powell and Pressburger
This connects Hazel back to the nostalgic, melancholic pastoralism of A Canterbury Tale, but while Colpeper sought a potentially supernatural connection to pilgrims of the past, Hazel’s only true foundation is her naive connection to the earth itself. While a number of Powell and Pressburger films flirt with mystical themes and symbolism, this is their most overtly occult, at least in terms of feature-length collaborations; Powell alone directed the 1955 ballet short, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Ballets The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1951) also explored fantastic and supernatural themes.

In addition to Hazel’s occasional spellcasting from her mother’s book, she has a vulpine companion, Foxy, who serves as something of a familiar. It is less that Foxy does Hazel’s bidding, but more that the animal is representative of Hazel’s soul itself. There is the implication that if the fox dies, so will the woman. Hazel tells the animal, “If you’re lost, I’m lost,” and several key events are set in motion because she goes running after Foxy regardless of the cost.

Notably, the animal in question is a fox and not a cat, as the traditional witches’ familiar is depicted. Throughout world mythology, foxes are commonly interpreted as trickster spirits, magicians, and shapeshifters. There are several variations of the “Fox Wife” or “Fox Woman” myth in Native American, Inuit, Japanese, and Korean folktales, where a man would conveniently stumble across a beautiful woman  –  albeit one with some unusual qualities  –  that he would ask to become his wife. Soon, she would reveal her true form and shapeshift back into a fox; her motivation was generally to steal the man’s sexual potency and convert it into power for herself, a misguided attempt to become human, or simple a trick to entertain the fox and cause chaos in the man’s life.

In the context of Gone to Earth, the fox is, of course, also a more suitable victim for the Wild Hunt, a more believable sacrificial figure. But in terms of the Wild Hunt and animals in mythology, the fox is not the only figure rich with symbolism: Reddin’s hounds provide an important contrast to the fox. Philippe Walter wrote of the dog-headed St. Christopher and his connections to cynocephalic deities like Anubis who were guardians of the underworld, describing Christopher as “a boatman or ferryman psychopomp.” Walter states,

This figure, especially as represented by the figure of the dog, goes back to myths of the descent into hell. The dog is also associated with the Beyond in Celtic folklore. In Brittany it is believed that a black dog, Yeun Ellez, will meet those on the road through the swamps of hell. Moreover, meeting this dog is an omen predicting an imminent tempest or catastrophe, and it is most often considered one of the aspects of the devil who seeks his prey among sinners. This dog figure is commingled with the club-wielding giant of the Mesnie Hellequin, who leads the Wild Hunt. In his mythical persona, then, Saint Christopher combines both the giant and the dog of this hunt.10

In Gone to Earth, Powell and Pressburger make this allusion explicit through the figure of Reddin as the owner of the pack of dogs and the leader of the hunt. He can be seen as a pagan lord of the Wild Hunt, while Edward is a Christian civilizer. A ritual from her mother’s magic book drove her to Reddin, even though she professed not to want to go, and in the concluding scenes of the film he takes on a hellish aspect. When Marston comes to Reddin’s lodge to confront Hazel, after she has fled from her marital home, it is dusk and Reddin’s house is filled with red light. Hazel is playing an eerie, aimless tune on the piano, as Marston is dwarfed by a menacing-looking wall hung with decorative antlers. When Reddin later enters the room, he’s shot through the flames in his own fireplace, sealing his symbolic link to sex, fire, and death, just as Marston is repeatedly connected to purity, water, and rebirth, namely through a key sequence after their wedding when he baptizes Hazel in a river.

The characters of Reddin and Marston also evoke male character types found in the Gothic novel and their antagonistic threesome with Hazel bears much in common with a classic Gothic work like Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), where a headstrong, seemingly uncivilized young woman must choose between a gentle, loving aristocrat and a passionate, violent man of no fortune. Neither Wuthering Heights nor Gone to Earth provides an obvious moral choice. While Brönte’s Cathy is charismatic and full of life, she’s also selfish and greedy; she wants both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton and is unable to choose between the two. Hazel is more innocent, but her ignorance and reliance on superstition do not prepare her for a happy married life. She reports that her mother’s only advice to her, on the subject of marriage, was “always keep yourself to yourself,” while her father does no more than dare her that no suitor will ever come along.

The nature of her relationships with Reddin and Marston are unusual; as with Cathy of Wuthering Heights, she finds spiritual purity and even agape with Marston, while Reddin loves her passionately and sexually. And both men, in turn, buck convention. Marston is meek and remote, sometimes even cold with Hazel, effectively driving her away by his inaction and lack of affection. Reddin, on the other hand, can be cruel, but seems to genuinely love her. Powell and Pressburger present the mutual sexual desire between Hazel and Reddin seemingly without judgment. Carol Siegel also discussed this as a function of more unusual Victorian novels: “Reciprocal lust does not make an aperture in the fabric of wholesomeness through which evil enters the world, but instead provides a little secret breathing space for bodies oppressed by the almost unbearable overlay of social reading of their desires.”11

Powell and Pressburger

But in Wuthering Heights and Gone to Earth, as with many other Gothic novels, this breathing space for oppressed bodies dissipates with the sense that male protagonists seek to change their female counterparts to something fundamentally other; in many of these novels, there is a pronounced conflict between order and desire. Powell and Pressburger’s films are littered with these domineering, controlling, and often sexually menacing characters: Colpeper, the “glue man” in A Canterbury Tale, the ballet company head (Anton Walbrook) in The Red Shoes, and the stern, reluctantly romantic naval officer (Roger Livesy) in ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’.

These characters seek to possess a wild, untameable (or at least headstrong) woman, and through the alchemical ritual of marriage, to transform her from desired object into wife. Siegel argues,

All enslavement is sexualized; fear of sex and fear of entrapment feed upon each other… Not only is male desire represented as equating differences of race, gender, and ‘even’ species, it is also transformative in intent. Woolf imagines male desire as an impulse simultaneously to possess and change its alien object into someone familiar, part of the group that gives identity to the self. […] And in such a longing to make the other into the wife/mother, there is a hint of masochism, since the angel in the house is always potentially the avenging angel, the angel of death.12.

The “angel of the house,” a Victorian trope, ultimately transforms Cathy of Wuthering Heights from free spirit to wife, and in doing so, kills her. She returns as a ghost to haunt Heathcliffe. Powell and Pressburger give Hazel a similarly odd sense of agency, in that she makes a choice (Marston, who in turn chooses her over his family, parishioners, community, and respectability), but is ultimately not forced to live with one and without the other, as she becomes the prey pursued by the hunt and is swallowed up by the earth.

Gone to Earth suffered in part because it was re-edited by producer David O. Selznick, longtime partner (and eventual husband) of actress Jennifer Jones, because it felt it was not an appropriate vehicle to display the actress’s talents. He added a prologue and several other scenes, as well as many close-up shots, but trimmed key plot moments, and released this new film two years later under the title The Wild Heart. Jones’ profound effect was certainly not limited to Selznick himself and it is her charisma that gives Hazel a witchy, rather than ridiculously primitive quality. Miriam Bale wrote, “Her gender role is formless, pure floating femininity — ungraspable, sometimes inadvertently smothering, but also prone to reverie, and teasing us with the possibility of transcendence… The extreme physicality with which she achieves this mystic state, as disorienting as it is intense… Both earthy and otherworldly.”13

As many of Powell and Pressburger’s female protagonists end in death — including several instances of a character jumping off of or into something — Bale wrote, “Jones’s most memorable characters are destroyed: by suicide or an epic special-effects storm, killed in a Technicolor S&M shootout with her true love, or chased by hunters until she falls down a hole to the center of the earth. It’s as if her uniquely feminine sexuality is too much, which is probably why it was so frequently literalized.”14 After a showdown between Marston and Reddin, Foxy escapes while the hunt is in full force and Hazel runs after the animal. She catches up with her, but is driven by the pack of frenzied hunting dogs towards a great chasm in the earth, which swallows her up as a distraught Marston and Reddin look on powerless and an unseen squire’s booming voice calls, “Gone to earth,” echoing the film’s opening scene.

Despite the downbeat ending, Hazel is able to find a curious measure of freedom, a liberation in death. Carol Siegel wrote, “Gone to Earth ends with its untamed heroine’s death as the only possible escape from the two men fighting to experience pleasurable suffering through control of her body.”15 As she runs from the pack of dogs with Foxy in her arms, both Reddin and Marston rush desperately towards her, but she instinctively chooses the fox  –  a stand in for herself  –  over either man. As Marston tells Hazel, when he finds that she has gone to Reddin because the of “fairy music” omen she heard on God’s Little Mountain after her divination ritual, “You went to the end of your undertaking and there were no tears in it.”

Endnotes

  1. Tison Pugh, “Perverse Pastoralism and Medieval Melancholia in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Canterbury Tale,’ Arthuriana, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2009), p. 97
  2. Tison Pugh, “Perverse Pastoralism and Medieval Melancholia in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Canterbury Tale,’ Arthuriana, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2009), p. 97
  3. Tison Pugh, “Perverse Pastoralism and Medieval Melancholia in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Canterbury Tale,’ Arthuriana, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2009), p. 98
  4. Tison Pugh, “Perverse Pastoralism and Medieval Melancholia in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Canterbury Tale,’ Arthuriana, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2009), p. 110
  5. Priya Jaikumar, “‘Place’ and the Modernist Redemption of Empire in ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947),” Cinema Journal, Vol 40, No 2 (Winter 2001), p. 57
  6. Priya Jaikumar, “‘Place’ and the Modernist Redemption of Empire in ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947),” Cinema Journal, Vol 40, No 2 (Winter 2001), p. 59
  7. Kristie Blair, “Gypsies and Lesbian Desire: Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefuis, and Virginia Woolf,” Twentieth Century Literature, 50.2 (Summer 2004), p. 147
  8. Kristie Blair, “Gypsies and Lesbian Desire: Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefuis, and Virginia Woolf,” Twentieth Century Literature, 50.2 (Summer 2004), pp. 141-142
  9. Kristie Blair, “Gypsies and Lesbian Desire: Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefuis, and Virginia Woolf,” Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 50, No 2 (Summer 2004), p. 196
  10. Philippe Walter, Christian Mythology: Revelations of Pagan Origins (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2014), p. 185
  11. Carol Siegel, “Male Masochism and the Colonialist Impulse: Mary Webb’s Return of the Native Tess,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 24.2 (Winter, 1991), p. 139
  12. Carol Siegel, “Male Masochism and the Colonialist Impulse: Mary Webb’s Return of the Native Tess,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol 24, No 2 (Winter, 1991), p. 133
  13. Miriam Bale, “The Force of Jennifer Jones’s Desire Overpowered Those Who Sought to Possess Her,” Film Comment, Vol 44, No 3 (May/June 2008), p. 40
  14. Miriam Bale, “The Force of Jennifer Jones’s Desire Overpowered Those Who Sought to Possess Her,” Film Comment, Vol 44, No 3 (May/June 2008), p. 40
  15. Carol Siegel, “Male Masochism and the Colonialist Impulse: Mary Webb’s Return of the Native Tess,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 24.2 (Winter, 1991), p. 138

About The Author

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. Her book on Fritz Lang’s M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing in 2018 and she’s the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin, due out this summer from Spectacular Optical.