“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.