“One of Our Aircraft is Missing” has plenty that labels it as dated, a combat film of simple set-ups, primitive effects, plucky characters and attitudes easily seen as morale-boosting propaganda today.
But what’s striking about this early production of The Archers, as the productions of co-writers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were branded, is its stark modernity, a lean story told with artful touches and unfussy performances, all in a film that was produced at the tail end of “The Darkest Hours” of World War II.
That mid-war (1942) pedigree, the lack of a musical soundtrack, un-subtitled conversations in Dutch and German and workmanlike “keep calm and carry on” professionalism of those playing a trained and drilled bomber crew make this one of the most striking combat films made in the thick of the last World War.
The story the filmmakers, years away from their “Red Shoes/Black Narcissus” technicolor glories, cooked-up was another variation of that classic “behind enemy lines” quest first served up in ancient Greece by Xenophon in “Anabasis.” It’s the Allied airmen flipside of Archers’ German sub crew quest of the more action-packed, more entertaining and timeless, “The 49th Parallel,” their previous film. An RAF bomber crew bails out over Holland, and has to find its way to the coast and possible Royal Navy rescue. In “Parallel,” the fleeing submariners must threaten, coerce and shoot their way to neutral America. In “Aircraft,” the British aircrew must depend on the enterprise of the defiant, friendly, “Let’s have some wine, first” Dutch.
Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden, Hugh Williams and Emrys Jones are identified, right in the opening credits, as the various specialists in the aircrew — from pilots and navigator to “observer” and radioman.
There’s an old soldier/rear-gunner (Tearle), a “diplomat” turned pilot (Burden) who speaks a little Dutch, a footballer/radio operator (Jones), a working class front gunner (the great character actor Miles), the officious co-pilot (Portman of “49th Parallel”) and an actor-turned-navigator (Williams).
They get their twin-engined Wellington off the ground, make a little small talk about what Stuttgart, their target this night, is like, note the topography passing underneath them, cope with flak, futilely shoot at German spotlights and dip down low to hit their target.
But they don’t clear the city without getting hit, and eventually limping along on even one engine won’t work.
“Stand by to abandon aircraft! Stand by to abandon aircraft!”
We see the process of bailing out, through gun emplacement hatches or bomb bay doors, and hear the ironic sounds of the sputtering single engine sputtering back to life and continuing on, crewless, back to England.
On the ground, one member of the crew is separated from the rest. Dutch children inexplicably chasing all the family livestock (cattle, big and sheep) through the woods find them.
Thus does their escape odyssey begin.
A huge gathering of women led by the English-speaking schoolteacher Els (Pamela Brown) debate what to do and how to do it. There’s a testy interrogation of the “prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you are who you say you are variety.”
They’re disguised and led off, en masse, with the women (the “actor” dresses in drag for “my finest performance”) bicycling along with them as cover. The Brits portray their Dutch as still allies, worthy of liberation.
” Do you think that we Hollanders who threw the sea out of our country will let the Germans have it? Better the sea.”
They’re hidden in plain sight in a Catholic church service, something a couple of the Protestant Brits bicker about. They cope with a Dutch “Quisling,” a traitor (Robert Helpmann) who advocates collaborating with the Germans, and see a judgmental priest (future star Peter Ustinov) point to the error of his ways.
And they end up in the hands of another defiant Dutchwoman (Joyce Redman), who passes a mid-war assessment of Nazi era Germans that stings and rings true even today.
“They’re an unhappy people. I would rather be a Dutchman in Holland than any German soldier. They want to believe that somebody’s their friend, and that’s the whole trick.”
Thanks to a brisk script and the masterful editing of future director David Lean, “Aircraft” clips along, serving up genuine suspense, dashes of wit and limited bravado as the combatants put themselves in the hands of people who risk their lives to save them.
There are better prints of it than I saw, which impacts the airborne scenes more than those on the ground. The soundtrack is the first thing to go on older, unrestored copies of films of that era, and even in the inaccurate “quiet” of the notoriously noisy bombers, the dialogue is murky.
The film has entirely too much day-for-night footage to pass modern muster. That serves the film’s propaganda purposes. The crew can plainly see where they are, and bomb targets with pinpoint accuracy in the dark. The RAF bombed at night to avoid German fighters, and bombed cities because they were easier to find and hit that specific factories, railyards and the like. Even if they missed, they destroyed Germans and German infrastructure.
The footage of the “crippled” Wellington plainly shows both engines operating, and the optical effects — mimicking anti-aircraft fire, flak and tracers — is if anything slightly more primitive than in “The Dam Busters,” which came out over a decade later.
But Powell and Pressburger get fine, buttoned-down performances from one and all, and make great use of East Anglia locations — windmills, a Cathedral, rivers and woods — to create a convincing Holland.
And their scriptural problem solving, how to get these lads from A to B, is endlessly inventive, maintaining suspense and making the Dutch the true heroes of the piece.
That’s perhaps the most optimistic thing about this early 1942 production (it was released that July). Before Stalingrad, before El Alamein, before America’s impact could be felt and the tide truly turned, this film is shot through with the sense that “there’ll be blue birds over, the white cliffs of Dover” and that Europe will be liberated, even though the only one pushing that line as inevitable was Churchill.
As corny as it can seem, and the film generally avoids that sentiment on an overt level, this upbeat-in-the-face-of-adversity is kind of astonishing to take in now, given the speed at which gloom and doom about resurgent fascism spreads through Western Civilization these days.
As with “The 49th Parallel,” Powell and Pressburger show us that dated, “old fashioned” World War II movies can and sometimes do have a lot to say to later generations beyond a simple history lesson.
Rating: approved, some violence
Cast: Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Pamela Brown, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden, Joyce Redman, Hugh Williams, Emrys Jones, Robert Helpmann and Peter Ustinov
Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Produced by The Archers for British National, available on Tubi, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 1:22