wed 08/12/2021

Blu-ray: One of Our Aircraft Is Missing | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: One of Our Aircraft Is Missing

Blu-ray: One of Our Aircraft Is Missing

The tense 1942 Powell and Pressburger RAF drama that salutes the Dutch Resistance

Emrys Jones, Googie Withers, Godfrey Tearle and Hugh Burden in 'One of Our Aircraft Is Missing'BFI

The fourth feature made by writer-director partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing is not as celebrated as the six consecutive masterworks with which they followed it. It’s nonetheless a remarkably atmospheric film that outlined the shape of things to come.

It was inspired by the sacrifice of five farmworkers of the hamlet of Greup (near Oud Beijerland in South Holland), who were executed by the Germans on 19 September 1941 for attempting to spirit away the crew of an RAF Wellington bomber downed by flak. The six British airmen became POWs.

Since this propaganda movie – supported by the RAF, the Air Ministry, and the exiled Netherlands government in London – was bound to honour British pluck and escapology as well as the valour of the Dutch Resistance, the crew must brave a German-operated port and the U-boat-patrolled North Sea before their adventure is over.

BFI coverTypically, Powell and Pressburger establish the airmen’s characters with brisk brushstrokes: Hugh Burden, a lawyer, is the capable pilot and overly reserved skipper; Emrys Jones, an artless famous footballer, is the young wireless operator; Bernard Miles, a slow-talking tradesmen, is the watchful front gunner; Eric Portman, a pugnacious Yorkshire businessman, is the second pilot; Godfrey Tearle’s dour veteran, a “sir”, shows natural leadership once they’ve parachuted from their doomed plane (and the footballer's gone temporarily missing); Hugh Williams, a sophisticated well-known actor, is the observer. (Powell plays the businesslike plane dispatcher back at the airfield.)

Tension is emphasised over excitement – not one of the airmen shows a moment of fear throughout their ordeal. The Dutch are equally unflappable, save a cornered quisling played by Robert Helpmann. 

To balance the all-male crew and indicate that in total war women's courage is as crucial and reliable as men’s, Powell chose actresses to play the resistance leaders (aside from Hay Petrie as the eccentric village mayor and Peter Ustinov as an unsentimental priest). Pamela Brown excels as a school teacher who rigorously determines the airmen are truly British (she and the skipper incidentally glimpse a soul mate in each other). Googie Withers is in formidable mode as the supposed Anglophobe who hides the flyers in her labyrinthine house and schools them in how to reach the open sea. Not that Withers doesn't have her glamour scene – she's dressed to the nines when she entertains her guests to dinner and toasts the war effort, which earns her two chivalrous kisses on the hand from Williams's charmer.

The kind of expressionistic black and white cinematography that would illustrate suppressed emotions and sudden reveals in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going! was deployed in One of Our Aircraft to evoke the perilousness of situations the airmen are too phlegmatic to acknowledge. The future director Ronald Neame was credited with “photography” and had the gifted Australian cinematographer Robert Krasker as his operator; their chiaroscuro work, laden with nocturnal threat, anticipates Krasker’s work on The Third Man. David Lean (shortly to direct In Which We Serve) demonstrated his brilliance as an editor especially in the sequence that has the airmen-turned-boatmen silently negotiating a German-manned swing bridge at the coast. 

The BFI has included four contemporaneous documentaries with this Blu-ray release. The best and most important is Harry Watt’s staged Target for Tonight (1941), which follows a Wellington – F for Freddie – on a successful if nearly disastrous bombing mission over a German oil storage facility near Freiburg. The airfield brass and the plane’s crew were mostly played by serving RAF personnel; F for Freddie’s intrepid skipper Percy Pickard and front gunner Joseph Bird were killed in action before the end of the war. It’s their fearlessness and coolness under fire – their casual sang-froid – that makes Target for Tonight the perfect analogue to the main attraction.

To show that in total war women’s courage is as crucial as men’s, Powell chose actresses to play the resistance leaders

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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