Film 2020: One of our Aircraft is Missing

Even an eleven-disc DVD boxset of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films can’t encompass all the good ones (though it could if they dropped They’re a Weird Mob for this). One of our Aircraft is Missing was an official Propaganda film, created on behalf of the Ministry of Information, made and released in 1942. Because it was made by The Archers (naming themselves as such for their fourth film as a team) it stands out as a masterful piece of realistic film-making, a determinedly naturalistic piece that represents to perfection the attitude to the War.

One of our Aircraft is Missing took its title from a phrase that regularly appeared on BBC radio news broadcasts (where it was more usually “…has failed to return”, which was thought to be too downbeat). It appeared between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and can be seen a part of a spectrum running between the three films.

The film reverses the scenario of 49th Parallel, which depicted the German survivors of a submarine trying to get across and out of Canada, arguing among themselves and gradually losing crew members at each stage. Powell and Pressburger apply the same structure to the six-man crew of a British bomber, shot down over Holland whilst returning from a successful bombing raid on Stuttgart: the Brits stick together as a team and are aided by the Dutch to evade the Germans and return to England.

The film was made in black and white, and whilst its production standards are generally high, those scenes shot in darkness have a grainy, rough look to them that helps blur the aerial shots, and especially those of the raid which are of table-top models, and integrate these into the story. It’s an entirely low-key affair, without a music score, which takes its own good time in developing its story and eschews melodrama and violence until the very end, where there is first a fist-fight in a cellar, and then – the only direct gunfire – a sentry on a swing-bridge firing a fusillade of shots at the sextet paddling a rowing boat furiously out to sea.

Needless to say, the six airmen are a mixture of types. Pilot John Glyn Haggard (Hugh Burden) is an ex-diplomat and the only Dutch-speaker in the crew, second pilot Tom Earnshaw (Eric Portman) is a sheep farmer from Halifax, navigator Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) is an actor, wireless operator Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones) is a professional footballer, forward gunner Geoff Hickman (Bernard Miles) never explains his civvy street profession and rear gunner George Corbett (Godfrey Tearle), the oldest of the crew by some ditance, is a baronet and is actually Sir George, though the crew usually only refer to him as George and whereas, in the plane on the mission, the hierarchy is by military rank and role, on the ground the six men are equals, with Sir George’s seniority, and his army experience in the First War placing him in a leading role.

A film like this is necessarily very masculine, but Powell and Pressburger were encouraged to write strong female roles among the Dutch resistance. Pamela Brown plays Else Meertens, an English-speaking schoolteacher who is the crew’s first point of contact, and a sternly suspicious one at that, deterined not to be taken in by German spies seeking to infiltrate the Underground: there has been no report of a crashed plane in the Netherlands that night.

This much is true. In a slightly contrived manner the film introduces itself by B for Bertie, due home at 04.26, flying along empty and crashing to its destruction in collision with an electric pylon at 04.31. The film then rolls back to cover the mission from the start. B for Bertie delivers its bombs on target but is hit by an anti-aircraft shell, knocking out its port engine – not on the model, mind you. When the starboard engine packs up, everyone bails out, only for it to pick up again and get the plane, without its crew, back to England. all to set-up this nevertheless invaluable scene.

Else sets the wheels in motion to get the five airmen (Bob Ashley is missing but is found playing football) across country to the coast, via a series of passes for travel, each for different circumstances, getting the airmen closer to a route of escape. First to attend church – Catholic, much to the bruised feelings of Earnshaw and Hickman, who are both Chapel – then to a bethrothal party, to the football match where Bob is reunited (including a neat little passive Resistance stunt of which Gandhi would have been proud) and lastly hiding in a provisions truck taking them to Jo de Vries (Googie Withers in an untypical role).

Mrs de Vries is another Resistance leader, hiding in plain sight as a Nazi supporter, bitterly hating the British for killing her husband in an air-raid – he is alive and broadcasting from London as an announcer on Radio Oranj. Jo (pronounced Yo) is a determined, capable, highly-organised figure in the underground network that gets stranded British airmen back to Blighty, and both she and Else are figureheads for Holland, under duress but never conceding. Both get mini-speeches of defiant determination that their country will not suffer rule indefinitely. We threw the sea out of Holland, Else angrily proclaims. Do you think we will suffer the Germans?

It’s only now, so close to the end, that the Archers allow physical danger to intrude. Before this, the Germans are a tense background presence, an ever-present but only potential danger: an officer stalks into a silent church during Sunday Mass, says nothing, looks round, retreats. Now the escape is threatened by three Germans who have discovered Jo’s wine cellar, and its wine, and who have to be overcome in a brief fist-fight if the rowing boat is to be allowed to leave. The final punch is a glorious left cross, swung by, of all people, Sir George. And where everbody gets a handshake from Jo, he gets a hug, about which he grumbles that that’s one of the disadvantages of age, as that’s the only reason he was so favoured!

Ah yes. I spoke before of Aircraft being on a spectrum between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Whilst the parallels with its predecessor are obvious, the connection to Blimp lies in a line of dialogue cut from the film, a brief conversation between George, the eldest, and Bob, the youngest, in which George tells Bob that he is what the Baronet was when he was younger, whilst he is what Bob will be when he is older. There’s an entire film in that line, commented the editor who cut it out, David Lean. That film was Blimp.

The rowing boat escapes the river, though not without shots being fired, during which George, at the tiller, is shot. It’s done with magnificent underplaying, a stiffening, a stifled grunt and a determination to stick to his task. Nevertheless George is seriously wounded, enough so that he can’t be moved from the German rescue buoy in the North Sea where the crew take shelter (a war innovation only dislosed during film causing a re-write for which Ministry permission was necessary). So the Navy tow the whole shooting match back home!

At this point a caption announces that this was the end of the story but the Actors – a quick credit list – and the Technicians – another list – wanted to know what happened afterwards. So we jump three months. Recovered Corbett reports for duty and joins his crew, who are glad to have him back. The six are reunited, to fly another, more modern, roomier bomber, this time on a raid on Berlin.

There are other Archers films out there but, with one possible exception, the ones I’ve seen don’t match up to the body of work in the boxset, plus Aircraft, and the ones I haven’t seen don’t look to be appetising. This, however, deserves to be ranked among the second level of Powell and Pressburger’s ouevre. It’s a propaganda film but, so far as such  thing may be possible, it’s an honest one. It even allows Jo de Vries to cast the Germans in a more human light, as an unhappy people who want others to like them, unable to understand why, in the midst of all their parading as the masters of the world, they cannot find friends.

And incidentally, in a small role as the Priest, it gives a film debut to Peter Ustinov.

An excellent experience, and a slice of history. It may not be a masterpiece, but in that excised line it became responsible for one.

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