Christopher Silvester on a war movie with no rousing patriotic music or violence, but nevertheless filled with unexpected delights and discoveries
This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Among the rich harvest of British war films, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) is a particular favourite of mine. Now available in a new Blu-ray format from the BFI at £17.99, it is not ranked high in the canon of films written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and it pales alongside the expressionist glories that were to come from this duo.
But, as Ian Christie writes in his booklet notes, “the upside of such a modest reputation may be that it offers unexpected delights and discoveries, not only for fans of Powell and Pressburger — known collectively as The Archers after their production company — but also for anyone interested in British cinema’s response to the Second World War”.
B for Bertie, a Wellington bomber, is missing. We see the plane flying low over water. Cut to the unmanned control column, which is wobbling a little, the pilot’s seat empty, the dashboard controls indicating low altitude, the fuselage empty too, with the wind whistling through. Just like the Marie Celeste. The plane crashes into an electricity pylon and then we hear the standard radio announcement of the day: “From this and other operations, one of our aircraft is missing.”
We are introduced to the air crew of six men as they test their comms. Back at the bomber base, we briefly meet the predominantly younger crew, who learn that an older airman, Sir George Corbett, is to accompany them on their next mission as rear gunner.
The sense of a population being bullied by this semi-visible occupier is conveyed with a delicacy that makes it all the more disturbing
Played by Godfrey Tearle, a stage matinee idol of the 1910s, his role was inspired by the real-life example of Sir Arnold Wilson MP, who volunteered to become a rear gunner at the age of 51 following the fall of France in 1940. “Blasted beehive gets smaller every trip,” Corbett mutters as he climbs into his rear gunner’s bubble.
B for Bertie departs on its mission to bomb the Mercedes-Benz plant in Stuttgart, unloads its stick of bombs, but catches some flak as it turns for home, one of its engines fails, and the other begins to stutter ominously. The crew bail out but, contrary to their expectation, the plane continues flying.
Down on the ground, we discover that the first pilot (Hugh Burden), an ex-diplo bluff Yorkshire farmer (Eric Portman), the handsome Welsh navigator (Hugh Williams) is an ex-actor, and the front gunner is a talkative Cockney (Bernard Miles), there is also a radio operator (Emrys Jones), while the mature wisdom of Sir George maintains the purposeful ethos of the group.
There are also the three main actresses in the film, Pamela Brown, Jo Redman, and Googie Withers, who plays Jo de Vries, a resistance organiser. All play strong, capable characters, especially the latter; this was a first significant dramatic role for Withers and a foreshadowing of all those resourceful females in Powell and Pressburger’s later films.
The debonair navigator kisses the hand of de Vries and remarks that she is playing “a dangerous game for a woman”, whereupon she says, “You don’t seem to think much of women.”
The ballet dancer Robert Helpmann portrays de Jong, the quisling traitor, as a popinjay. In his autobiography, Michael Powell recalled how much “I loved Bobby’s over-acting.” Peter Ustinov as the young priest seems to be under-acting, which is not a statement that one could imagine making in most contexts.
One of Our Aircraft is Missing is rare in that it has no rousing patriotic theme music, in fact almost no music at all. In the airborne scenes, we hear the drone of the bomber’s engine, the ominous whistles and explosions of the flak, and the rush of wind when the plane’s hatch is opened for the crew to bail out.
On the ground, the soundtrack picks out the birdsong and later the gentle pedalling of the villagers cycling to church only to be rudely interrupted by a military vehicle that rushes past with a siren blaring.
The Nazi invaders are subtly depicted as remote figures. Elements of the action are announced by German voiceovers reading out the contents of official permits or orders. The sense of a population being bullied by this semi-visible occupier is conveyed with a delicacy that makes it all the more disturbing. This is what you can expect, and more, if ever England is invaded, the film is saying.
One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a war film without any violence and yet we are left in no doubt as to the jeopardy that the airmen and their Dutch protectors are in. It is dedicated at the outset to Dutch farmers who were executed for helping British airmen escape and ends with the slogan: Nederland Zal Herrijzen! (The Netherlands Will Rise Again!)
If you buy the BFI Blu-ray, you can also listen to the audio commentary of Ian Christie, pre-eminent in his knowledge of Powell and Pressburger’s work, and watch the extras, such as Powell’s five-minute 1941 short An Airman’s Letter to His Mother. But if you wish to avoid any frills and just enjoy the movie, you can always rent it for 48 hours from Amazon Prime
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