Thursday, 23 September 2021

Archers take flight… One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1941), BFI Blu-ray out 4th October


It says so much for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - the newly minted Archers – that two of the standout performers in this war film are women. Powell had asked his partner to create meatier roles for women and Pressburger duly delivered with Pamela Brown and Googie Withers having more than enough to enable intelligent and subtle turns that showed that grim purpose and bravery were not the preserve of men.


And again, as the Wellington bomber flies towards its target, the Mercedes Benz factory in Stuttgart, the crew talk about the city some have known, old girlfriends, culture… propaganda this may be but not the sort that forgets the humanity of the enemy. You can understand this worrying some of the shallower brains at the War Ministry but as with the earlier 49th Parallel, this film only has full characters even though there’s barely a speaking part for a German.

Great Godfrey

There’s also a marvellous interplay between the RAF crew and their gunner, an older soldier returned to fight the war… he shares some moments with Googie Withers that prefigure Colonel Blimp as Ian Christie points out in his thoroughly informed and entertaining commentary. This is news to me and it makes Godfrey Tearle’s performance as Sir George Corbett, rear gunner and former army officer, all the more enjoyable; so many back home, like my Granddad Bill, were too old for this war but had fought in the previous one; they had so much to give as wardens and home guard.


I also loved Ian’s reminiscences of bonding with Emeric over a mutual love of Arsenal, the all-conquering team of the thirties, with five championships just like Liverpool in the seventies (although we had six titles in that next decade). In terms of consecutive triumphs though, this film is part of an unparalleled run from Powell and Pressburger and even on a shoestring budget and with a tight brief from the powers that be, they make a film that still bears repeat viewings and which delights every time.


The film starts with a note about the execution of five Dutch men for aiding and abetting the escape of a British aircrew and, whilst as Christie points out, such adventures were far from common at the time, they were to become more frequent as the war went on. Sponsored by the Netherlands Government in London, the aim of the film was to show the Dutch resistance to German occupation and to send a message to domestic viewers that Europe was still fighting.

Bertie makes his way

The action starts in the most eerie way as an RAF Vickers Wellington bomber, glides across the channel, not a soul on board, before crashing into an electricity pylon. The bomber is identified as B for Bertie and one of the RAF men on watch is played by Michael Powell himself, a rare appearance but he looks just the part.


We’re then taken back and introduced to the cast one by one as they check equipment before take-off, before moving back fifteen hours before the crash landing as the lads share some banter over breakfast. Eric Portman is able to use his native Yorkshire accent as Tom Earnshaw, second pilot, as he reviews two agricultural calendars sent as gifts. Next to him is Hugh Burden as John Glyn Haggard, pilot of B for Bertie and Hugh Williams as Frank Shelley, a former actor now turned observer/navigator. Near them footballer Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones) turned wireless operator listens to radio commentary alongside front gunner Geoff Hickman (Bernard Miles) with the old man of the outfit, Sir George completing the set.


Soon they’re off to Stuttgart reminiscing about the place before being caught by anti-aircraft fire after the bombs had been dropped on target. Ian Christie points out another disconnection with actuality with the Wellington lacking much of a guiding system, many raids ended up off target. Not that that was the story anyone wanted to hear in 1941.

Spot the aircrew...

The crew abandon ship as both engines fail and as they sail to earth one re-starts and is enough to carry Bertie all the way home to that pylon, but it’s too late to turn back and their adventure is now really to begin. On land, the crew are naturally unsure of how to proceed and the only one with any experience of this kind of combat is Sir George who gently assumes the role of leadership. He is a professional soldier and all the others are conscripts and he is there because he knows the risks and wants to take them.


The crew meet some children who take them back to their village where they encounter the locals in a meeting led by schoolteacher Els Meertens (Pamela Brown) who quizzes them intently before accepting that they are who they are. Food is shared and a plan is hatched. The crew can stay with them in disguise but they must move on quickly…

Pamela Brown quizzes Eric Portman and Hugh Williams

There’s a beautifully constructed scene in the local church – actually a set, not the first time Powell was to be refused permission to film in a place of worship with A Canterbury Tale also largely a set – in which a young Peter Ustinov is the priest and the organist is Alec Clunes (yes, father of Martin) who was a highly respected stage actor. His role if small but key though as he cheekily glimpses over to a German officer searching for the Brits and plays the first few notes of the Dutch national anthem…  humour always goes with resistance and if we weren’t quite ready to beat them, we could certainly laugh at them.


The team are passed onto the local burger master (Hay Petrie) and attend an engagement party where they see more of the hidden lives of the loyal Dutch who take care to signal their affiliation through hidden pictures of their Queen and discrete displays of orange blossom. They meet a quisling called De Jong played by Robert Helpmann, the Australian dancer and choreographer who was to perform in The Red Shoes. He brings a fierce oddness to this character and it’s one of the film’s key moments of open hostility, guns drawn and hatred exposed. Another pointed cameo.

Ustinov and Clunes add flavour

There’s a trip to a soccer match where the crew find their missing member Bob, playing in what is mainly a light-hearted way of showing how passive Dutch resistance works. The Germans tell them there are too many and some must leave and so the entire crowd starts to depart forcing the soldiers to let them all stay. Also is on the pitch is one Cliff Bastin, who scored more than a few goals for Arsenal Football Club.


The final stretch approaches as they hide in a truck carrying supplies to Jo de Vries (Googie Withers) a resistance fighter under the deepest of cover who can arrange for their escape via boat. Withers is a force of nature, blazing across the screen with detached resolution; an expert in playing the game of occupation when the crew are mere amateurs… all except Sir George. He and Jo are drawn to each other, kindred spirits but with a little more… Powell wanted to develop their relationship more but his excellent editor, David Lean, suggested there was meat enough on that idea for a whole film and there was born the idea that became Blimp.


Needless to say, whilst all the women arouse respect and admiration from the crew, Jo and the old knight, are the emotional heart of the film.

Hugh Burden and Great Googie

There is so much more… I’m always amazed at just how much meaning Powell and Pressburger smuggle into their films even when tasked with a relatively narrow objective. The camerawork from Ronald Neame is a delight and the soundscapes contribute to a tense, frequently silent, dream-like reality, filled only with the fears and hopes of the characters risking their lives. We score the action with our own response and Powell was right to eschew the artificiality of music for what is a film to relish technically, historically and artistically.


The BFI Blu-ray bomb-bay is packed as usual with excellent extras, including: 

Target for Tonight (1941, 50 mins): Harry Watt’s acclaimed documentary reconstruction of a Wellington bomber’s mission over Germany which influenced Powell’s approach to his film, no music and the focus on calm-hearted realism.

An Airman’s Letter to His Mother (1941, 5 mins): Michael Powell’s powerful propaganda short, narrated by John Gielgud

The Volunteer (1944, 44 mins): an entertaining look at the Fleet Air Arm, directed by Powell & Pressburger and starring Ralph Richardson

The Biter Bit (1943, 14 mins): A propaganda short detailing the destructive force of wartime aerial bombardment, produced by Alexander Korda and narrated by Ralph Richardson

Image gallery including a reproduction of the original storybook based on the film by Emeric Pressburger and much more.


Michael Powell

It’s worth pre-ordering *immediately* as the first pressing only includes the magnificent Illustrated booklet with essays from Ian Christine and Sarah Street, along with an excerpt from A Life in Movies: An Autobiography by Michael Powell, a selection of original film reviews, notes on the special features and full credits…


For Archers fans and cineastes in general it’s a dream so buy it, buy it now! The BFI shop is open 24/7 online and now you can retail in person as well now that we have the Southbank back!

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