What is pink? or rather where? Do you come to Scotland for colour? Sunsets are fine and when the clouds clear the scenery is indeed braw, but February is not a good time for colour. It is a good time to come if your knowledge of Scotland derives from old black and white movies. Remember the scene in The 39 Steps when Robert Donat escapes from agents posing as police? The car is held up by a flock of sheep on a stony bridge and in the confusion, Hannay leaps out the car dragging Madeleine Carroll by the handcuff and they hide behind a waterfall in the fog. Hitchcock took great liberties with geography but on the weather, he was if anything a little conservative. The heightened romanticism of Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! is more accurate, where the story weaves through the weather.
The weather shapes Joan’s journey, physically and metaphysically. Stuck in Mull when her crossing to Kiloran Isle is delayed by a storm; the suspension of Joan’s corporeal journey allows a more spiritual journey to unfold. Joan encounters Catriona, Diana of the Western Isles. Catriona emerges from the mist, a sodden force of nature surrounded by howling dogs and Joan becomes acutely aware of the contrast to herself in her prim city suit.
John Laurie, whose early career as an accomplished Shakespearean actor was sublimated (at least in popular culture) by the archetypal Scotsman embodied in Private Frazer, links both films. In The 39 Steps he is on familiar ground as the stereotypically harsh, God-fearing crofter who tyrannises his young wife. In I Know Where I’m Going! he is Dionysus of the ceilidh. “Do you think you could dance the Scottish”, asks Roger Livesey as Torquil “I think so”, Joan clips. She is perhaps unaware that Torquil derives from Thor and therefore ignorant of the thunder in his soul. Laurie’s John Campbell is in uniform, as are many of the characters, magicked from the embers of central Europe to peripheral asylum on the ethereal West Coast. Kiloran is a substitute for Colonsay, though sandy Kiloran Bay on the Island is a tangible place. Kiloran is a psychological location at least as much as a physical one – a cell of song, a cult of dance, a church of poetry. At the dance, the music and song is unearthly, the dancing frenetic. The temporal-geographical world melts into an arcadian romp.
Joan (the fabulous Wendy Hiller) resists the primeval tug until the elements get the better of her and she is drained by the emergence of suppressed emotions. But Joan is a fighter and she braves the storm and conquers it by giving herself over to her own inimitable spirit. On the edge of the world, at the place where civilization meets wilderness and reason meets myth, Joan’s triumph is Nietzschean:
In the rapture ocean’s
in the fragrance waves’
in the world breath’s
to drown, to sink –
(Isolde’s swansong from the Birth of Tragedy; trans. Walter Kaufmann)