Skip to main content

Do you think that we Hollanders who threw the sea out of our country will let the Germans have it? Better the sea.


One of Our Aircraft is Missing
(1942)

Noel Coward went on to employ most of the crew from this Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film, following a set visit that mightily impressed him (including editor David Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame). He’d have been better to just ask Powell to direct In Which We Serve, which is both stagey and mannered; it hasn’t aged nearly as well as Aircraft, the first production from P&P’s The Archers production company.

The Archers was formed as a result of a bet between Powell and cinema mogul Arthur Rank, who informed the director that the idea was defeatist and wouldn’t sell tickets. Powell believed it would be big success and he and Pressburger went ahead and made it under the banner of The Archers. Of course, Powell proved to be right. And, to his credit, Rank was forthcoming in admitting his error.

As with Coward’s film, Aircraft was made in consort with the Ministry of Information - the British Government’s wartime propaganda department. While it is unabashedly patriotic, Powell is far too sensitive and intelligent a filmmaker to resort wanton jingoism or nationalistic fervour. As with the previous year’s 49th Parallel (which won Pressburger an Oscar for its screenplay; Aircraft had to make do with a nomination), Powell follows a downed crew behind enemy lines. But whereas his earlier effort placed German submariners in Canada (a bid to encourage America to join the war), here a British aircrew bails out of their stricken bomber (B for Bertie) over the Netherlands.

There’s a straightforward, matter-of-fact approach to the subject matter, rendering it distinct from earlier P&P collaborations. Powell’s aim was for “complete naturalism”, so there is no music score. They would not utilise a documentary style, rather a “detached narrative, told from the inside, of what it is like to be a pawn in the game of war”. The director employs devices such as the bomber crew introducing themselves directly to camera, conscious that this would be the first time most of the audience would encounter the interior of a Wellington.

Which isn’t to say the result is not as dramatically compelling as any of their previous fictional films. But they are not aiming to replicate the heightened atmosphere of, say, The Spy in Black. While Neame’s black and white photography is often stunning to look at, Powell is intent on suggesting a realistic tone. He treats the story as an actual event, introducing the film with title cards informing the viewer of reprisals taken by the German army against Dutch civilians who helped British airmen escape back to England. The action of the crew moving from place to place is punctuated by the sight of German documentation granting permission to the Dutch to engage in every day activities.

Powell thought that the opening, with the bomber hitting power lines and exploding, would be an instant audience-grabber. What sticks out about it now is that it’s one of the few moments where you are conscious of the limitations of the model work; in contrast, the extended sequence of B for Bertie bombing Stuttgart remains impressive 70 years later.

It would be a mistake to see the film simply as a tale of plucky Brits engaging in derring-do to escape the fascist aggressors. Aside from some fisticuffs towards the climax, the British are a largely passive presence; it is the bravery of the Dutch underground that is continually in focus. And their representatives are chiefly women (played by Pamela Brown and Googie Withers, both delivering winning performances). The crew are played by Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman (who was one of the German U-boat crew in 49th Parallel ), Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles (whom Coward would nab for In Which We Serve), Hugh Burden (playing the pilot and Dutch speaker), and Emrys Jones, spend a fair bit of time debating who should be the leader on the ground. But when it comes down to it Tearle’s WWI veteran volunteers that Withers is their leader.

Tearle’s character of Sir George Corbett was inspired by Sir Arnold Wilson, an MP who joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 51; he was killed in action in 1940. It was Powell’s intention that the story should see the crew unite under the pressure of their situation (in contrast to the crew in 49th Parallel), ultimately risking all to save the old codger who had initially been dismissed as a pain in the neck. I’m not sure how strongly this theme comes across; it is certainly much less distinct than the message concerning the efforts of the occupied Dutch.

Of course, there are a number of speeches during the proceedings that announce the mettle of those who would resist the occupying forces and underline the importance of allied co-operation (the Dutch do not have much to eat, but still, “We can think, hope, fight”). This is, quite intentionally, a mutual appreciation society. But Powell is not interested in presenting the Germans as inhuman, although for most of the film they are purposefully present only on the outskirts of the narrative. He makes a point of having Miles reminisce about a German girlfriend during the flight out. Later, Googie shows she is not without empathy, despite being as hard as nails.

Jo de Vries: They’re an unhappy people. I would rather be a Dutchman here than any German soldier. They want to believe that somebody is their friend. And that’s the trick.

When we see some German soldiers up-close, they are the cheerfully unthreatening occupants of the rescue buoy that the airmen have commandeered. The use of a buoy was arrived at when P&P were puzzling how to furnish the crew with a believable escape route; they would surely be shot to pieces on the open sea.  While there are some tense scenes during their escape, it’s also a remarkably smooth-running process that has the knock-on effect of suggesting this sort of thing isn’t all that hard (they hide from the Germans almost in plain sight, make short work of the few who threaten them, and then just need to have a good hard row to ensure rescue from the British Navy). While Powell’s tone may suggest the factual, you’re nevertheless conscious of how genteel and civil all the exchanges are (the closest to frostiness is from Brown, suspecting that the crew may be Germans, positioned to entrap the Dutch).

Powell’s such a fine director that even a film made under the auspices of the war effort appears more insightful and balanced than much of the fare made during subsequent decades. The following year, P&P would hit a stride of greatness that would continue for nearly a decade, beginning with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It was a film that would incur Churchill’s disapproval and would take as its central theme the friendship between a German and a British army officer over the course of three conflicts. Made at the height of the Second World War.

Aircraft was the first film role for the positively skinny Peter Ustinov, who plays a priest. Also appearing is the strikingly featured Robert Hepmann as German collaborator. A ballet dancer, he would go on to star in both The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman for Powell. But he’s probably most recognisable for causing many a youngster nightmares as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

**** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…