Thursday, December 01, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor, well met by moonlight

Although I had an inkling that the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor had something to do with the film Ill Met by Moonlight, I wasn't sure what, exactly. I assumed he had written it*. So I was somewhat surprised to find on the opening credits (above), Dirk Bogarde actually playing him.

And although there are many films about writers (see my top ten), it's rare to find a film about a writer which has nothing to do with them being a writer. Ill Met by Moonlight is one such film, concerning as it does the audacious yet true plan by two English officers to kidnap a German commander in German-occupied Crete in 1944. The two officers were Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain William Stanley Moss, who wrote about the event in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, published in 1950. Their mission – parachuting into Crete, kidnapping Heinrich Kreipe, Commander of the 22nd Air Landing Infantry Division, taking his car and driving him through 22 manned checkpoints, abandoning the car, being pursued on foot by German soldiers across countryside and mountains, and finally escaping via boat to Egypt – was, amazingly, a success.

The film, adapted from Moss's book, was one of the last films to be made by the director/producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Unfortunately it's a rather pedestrian affair, with lots of stiff upper lips, enlivened slightly by some sumptuous outdoor photography (actually of the Alps, not Crete) and rousing music. Powell and Pressburger's extraordinary series of films, including 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, all made between 1941-1951, would be in decline by the time of Ill Met by Moonlight, 1957. Just around the corner for Michael Powell was Peeping Tom (1960), the film which effectively sealed the end of his film career, certainly in the UK.

With the passing of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE, in June this year, aged 96, gone is a certain type of English adventurer and gentleman, which stretches back to Lord Byron and includes travel writers such as Wilfred Thesiger and Robert Byron (amazingly, Byron was only ten years older than Fermor, yet seems to belong to another epoch. However, I didn't realise he died so young: he was only 35**). A BBC journalist famously described Leigh Fermor as a 'cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond*** and Graham Greene'.

Though Leigh Fermor's travelling started when he was eighteen, having decided to walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, he wouldn't write about these formative travel years until many years later. A Time of Gifts, first published in 1977, details the first leg of his walk across Europe in 1933, a fascinating time with the continent on the brink of changing forever.

Leigh Fermor's prose is remarkably descriptive and florid, his flights of imagination immense, his references – to architecture, languages, literature, art, customs, geography, culture, history – enlightening and often baffling. It's the sort of book that quotes Latin without any translation. A Time of Gifts is a 284 page book which took me months to finish. I struggled with every single sentence. But it was worth it (I think).

The book is praised by most but has its detractors. Leigh Fermor lost some of his diaries written at the time of the voyage, so critics have pointed out that his remembering the amount of detail in the book over forty years later is extremely improbable. Yet to take the book at face value is perhaps a mistake. As his Telegraph obituary mentions, the book is 'a brilliantly sustained evocation of youthful exhilaration and joy, and perhaps the nearest equivalent in English to Alain-Fournier's masterpiece of nostalgia, Le Grand Meaulnes.'

Leigh Fermor arrived in Istanbul in 1935, then travelled around Greece. He joined the army and fought in Crete and Greece. In Crete he lived for over two years disguised as a shepherd in the mountains, before planning the abduction of General Kreipe. He wrote his first travel book in 1950 and spent much of his life in Greece. He married but had no children.

*He did write one screenplay, based on a novel: The Roots of Heaven (1958), an adventure yarn directed by John Huston and starring Errol Flynn, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles.
**Travel writers seem to die very young… or very old. Bruce Chatwin, who had his ashes scattered near Leigh Fermor's home in Greece, died of AIDS aged 49; whereas Thesiger was 93, Eric Newby was 86 and Rebecca West, 90.
***Leigh Fermor was in fact a close friend of Ian Fleming.

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