Sunday, March 25, 2012

Powell & Pressburger: "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing"

“One of Our Aircraft Is Missing” is a terrific World War II film about a missing RAF crew after a bombing raid.

The film comes from the great Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell – Pressburger wrote the story, the two co-wrote the screenplay and Powell directed. It’s a film that works as a drama, an adventure and as propaganda for anyone who was fighting.

The movie begins with the report of five Dutchmen who were executed by the Germans for helping in the escape of a British air crew. While this is an unrelated detail to the forthcoming drama, it does set up the danger that the occupied Dutch underground movement faced.

Next comes a report that crew “B” for “Bertie” has not returned after a bombing raid. Then we see an empty aircraft before it spectacularly crashes. So what happened to the crew?

The story flashes back to the camaraderie of the airmen before their next mission, which will take them on a raid of Stuttgart, Germany. The six men of “Bertie” board their plane and head across the English Channel. Although the raid goes well, the plane is hit, and it is soon apparent that it won’t make the return trip back to England. So the men parachute out, one by one, landing in the Dutch countryside as the empty plane eventually meets its fate.

Five of the men reconvene on the ground, with one missing, and they begin to plot their uncertain journey. However, several children discover them, taking them to their parents and beginning a series of events that move the men through the occupied country toward the channel.

The Powell/Pressburger films have a distinctive feel to them that is unlike films being produced in Hollywood at this time. There’s a melding of drama, intelligent dialogue and British wit that keeps each film from being typecast within one genre. It would be easy to categorize “Aircraft” as an exciting adventure, yet it also works as a war drama with elements of comedy sprinkled throughout. In fact, one of the most effective sequences comes in the plane as the crew heads toward Germany. Powell provides only the sights and sounds that the crew would experience, from the beauty of the clouds and sea to the flashes of the antiaircraft fire that’s both lovely and terrifying. Even the dialogue is a bit muffled as the men are in full gear, adding to the realism. Instead of being intense, it’s experiential, which is just as fascinating.

It’s this type of realism that sets the film apart from its Hollywood counterparts. This is not a criticism of Hollywood, which produced a number of quality war-time films like “Sahara” and “Bataan.” It’s the unique style of Powell/Pressburger. Even the opening is distinctive – rather than rolling the credits, “Aircraft” sets up the story first before “introducing” the cast and crew.

And it’s a distinctive cast and crew, with so many fine English actors – Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden and Emrys Jones as the crew; Peter Ustinov and Robert Helpmann in small roles; and Googie Withers (above, with Burden and Miles) as a standout playing a Dutch woman unafraid of helping these men. In fact, it’s her speeches that are the most rousing.

These messages were aimed at a wartime audience, reminding people to never stop fighting, no matter what the odds or the dangers being faced. It didn’t matter if the audience was British or American – it was rousing and it worked.

The film was well-received in the U.S. both by critics and audiences. The movie was released in 1942, the same year that saw a second World War II film from Powell/Pressburger called “The Invaders” (U.S. title). The latter garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and won Pressburger an Oscar for Best Story. “Aircraft” was nominated for Best Screenplay for the team.

It’s worth noting that the film editor on “Aircraft” was the soon-to-be-great David Lean. His directorial debut with Noel Coward, “In Which We Serve,” a World War II British drama coming out later that year, would have a similar feel to the Powell/Pressburger films and garner even more praise.

“One of Our Aircraft Is Missing” holds up exceedingly well today on all fronts – a World War II drama, a propaganda film and an intriguing adventure. Powell and Pressburger demonstrate confidence in both storytelling and style. This would serve them well for many years to come.

Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting this Powell & Pressburger blogathon. I apologize for my delayed post today. I hope you check out all of the posts in this tribute to a great filmmaking team.

31 comments:

  1. "Instead of being intense, it’s experiential, which is just as fascinating." CFB, this reminds me of a similar technique used in The Red Shoes during the ballet. Much of it is experienced as the ballerina feels it, dream-like and with her own thoughts (such as seeing and hearing the audience applause as an ocean's waves). Powell and Pressberger were certainly master filmmakers, and One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing sounds really good. I haven't seen it...does TCM ever show it? I've seen the name before, but didn't realize it was a P&P movie. I certainly want to see it now! Excellent post!

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    1. I wish Criterion would come out with this title on DVD. My version isn't the best, but once you get into the film you forget about the quality of the DVD. I don't see it on TCM but I'm sure it must have been shown. You'll definitely have to search it out!

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  2. CFB ~ thank you for your excellent contribution to The Archer’s film tribute. I have not seen “One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing”, yet, but your insightful review has me determined to change this as soon as possible. The team of Powell & Pressburger filmed numerous versions of Britain at war, including “The Spy In Black”, and whether the story is driven by propaganda or not, none of these films is ever “derivative”. I find myself continuously impressed by their understanding of the limitless experiences of war and the variety of stories individuals can tell. This film also has the appeal of David Lean and Googie Withers to recommend it, and I hope to have an opportunity to see it soon.

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    1. Thank you for the compliment. I hope you do see this one soon, and let me know what you think of it when you do! I agree completely that their films are never derivative. They appreciate the intelligence of their audience and never talk down to them.

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  3. CFB, I saw this once...long ago...and missed it when TCM showed it just recently (bummer!). So, it was delightful to revisit ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING through your eyes. It's quasi-documentary approach turned out to be very influential (though films like CALL NORTHSIDE 777 would take that approach even further). It was one of P&P's most commercially successful films. In fact, when an industry executive asked what their follow-up film would be, Powell said: "I suppose he expected us to say ONE OF OUR SUBMARINES IS MISSING or ONE OF OUR REGIMENTS IS MISSING. God knows, they were all made at one time or another during the war, or after it. So everyone looked a bit blank when I said it was about Colonel Blimp." Thanks for the excellent contribution to the P&P blogathon.

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    1. What a great quote from Powell. I just wish Criterion would come out with this film on DVD. The quality is not the greatest and it deserves better.

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  4. CFB, I have seen most of the P7P films, but this is one I haven't. It sounds like a typical Archer picture (although there is nothing typical about them), and I like the idea of a story set behind enemy lines (although they encounter Dutch sympathizers). I'll put this on my list.

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    1. I think you would enjoy this one. I hope you do see it!

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  5. Filmboy, I saw this just recently on TCM--there was no way I was going to miss a Powell & Pressburger film I hadn't seen! I absolutely agree with you about what a fine film it is and how, while it is a great patriotic wartime movie, it transcends its origins in a way few films, especially American ones of the time, do. (You mention another that does this, David Lean/Noel Coward's "In Which We Serve.") Those films succeed so well and hold up so well because they're more focused on the people in the story than in scoring propaganda points. For anyone who gets a chance to see this, be sure to look for Michael Powell playing the dispatcher at the beginning of the movie.

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    1. You are right about the focus on people. That's why it works so well. And thank you for mentioning Powell's cameo!

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  6. CFB,
    What a great title! Ha Ha
    After reading Kim's contribution and now your excellent review I see a pattern here with war propaganda films. Before the Blogathon started I was only familiar with The Red Shoes so this was a nice introduction to quite different film from this dynamic duo.

    Peter Ustinov is the only name I recognized from this cast sadly.
    All for British wit and a cleverly written script so I do hope to check it out. As R.D. mentioned, it recently aired via TCM so I may have to wait awhile for it's re-airing.

    Another great review under your belt, Brian.
    Page

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    1. Thank you, Page. I hope you watch more of the Powell/Pressburger films, as they are just so good.

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  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your spotlight on one of Powell and Pressburger's often overlooked films.

    When I first saw "One of Our Aircraft is Missing" as a child I thought my heart would stop beating from the tension. I've never lost that feeling although as an adult I certainly have more of an appreciation of the art of The Archers.

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    1. You are so right about some of the sequences being tense. Once you see many of the P/P films, you appreciate "Aircraft" even more because of what they bring to it.

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  8. I really enjoyed reading your awesome review to a film, I have not yet seen. This sounds like a memorable film, that one would never forget. I will look for it on TCM..

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    1. Thank you! I hope you do get a chance to see it.

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  9. I agree with Page, the title itself is great. Have only seen two film of Powell (The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom) but after reading your review and others I have a new avenue to pursue. Great job!

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    1. Thank you! You should definitely see more Powell/Pressburger films. I think you will enjoy them.

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  10. This was a very enjoyable post about an Archers work I've never seen. It was interesting reading about David Lean's work as an editor here. I have always felt that editing would be an excellent school for directors. Well done!

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    1. Thank you! I agree about film editing and directors. A number of them did just that. For example, Robert Wise was a film editor on "Citizen Kane."

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  11. A Powell and Pressburger film I haven't seen yet-thanks for writing about it and I hope to seek it out soon. Perhaps TCM will air it soon!

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    1. Definitely seek it out on TCM. I think you will enjoy it.

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  12. This is a Powell/Pressburger film I don't know, but you've made a good case for it. Some of those wartime films were so beautiful, propaganda or no. And that sounds like a pretty good cast to me.

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    1. It's a wonderful ensemble cast, so I hope you get a chance to see it.

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  13. I read this review and somewhere in the back of my mind it sounds as if I may have seen One of Our Aircraft is Missing but I can't dredge up any distinct memories of it...and with the way you described it, I apparently have missed it somewhere down the line because it sounds like a piperoo. Outstanding work, CFB!

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    1. Thank you! Yes, you'll have to find it and let me know what you think.

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  14. Classicfilmboy - thank you for covering this P&P film, I'll be on the lookout for it. Your review brings to mind not another WW II film but rather the documentary "Last Best Hope" about the Belgian "Comete" line -an underground effort by Belgians to rescue downed British and American pilots. They saved many - but the Gestapo was close behind - they lost one life for every pilot saved. Sorry for this digression from your excellent review.

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    1. I like your digression! I am not familiar with this documentary, but I'll keep an eye out for it now because it sounds like something I would like.

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