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May 15, 2008
One of Our Aircraft is Missing, 1942: Dir. Powell and Pressburger
The film was being made in early 1942 and was reviewed by The Monthly Film Bulletin (Volume 9 no 100 April 1942). As a propaganda film it functioned on several different levels. The crew was mixed by region and class with a Yorshireman from Halifax and Welshman both of whom were 'chapel' (although not averse to a glass of Bols when being rescued by the Dutch) as well as a more middle-class 'skipper'. The story is about the crew of a Wellington medium bomber who are on a bombing mission to Stuttgart to bomb the Mercedes-Benz factory. They are shot down and parachute into Holland where the Dutch locals decide they are genuine British aircrew and help them to escape. After a series of adventures where they are in constant danger of discovery they eventually make their way back to Britain. The film opens with a story of 5 Dutchmen in the summer of 1941 being executed by the Nazis for helping British aircrew to escape. The information was released by the Dutch government in exile. The film was dedicated to the Dutch at the end.
The film was nominated in the American Academy Awards and it was in general very well made with David Lean as its editor which helped Lean to become joint directer of In Which We Serve with Noel Coward later in 1942. Lean already had the reputation of being the best editor in the UK at the time. Cinematopgaphy was also handled by Ronald Neame and there was an Oscar nomination for Special Effects. (Strangely the Screenonline entry for Neame doesn't credit One of Our Aircraft is Missing. The associate cinematographer was Bob Krasker later to become renowned for his work in The Third Man (1949). As can be seen the film was given a high priority in terms of having one of the best teams of film-makers / technicians available in the UK at the time.
Democratisation and Documentarism
In the new edition of Britain Can Take It (2007) the chapter dealing with Class and Nation p 315 notes that it is 'commonplace' that the two major changes introduced into British cinema during the war years were democratisation and documentarism. Here they note that the critic Roger Manvell first introduced this idea pointing to 1942 as a turning point for the production and reception of this type of film. Given that One of Our Aircraft is Missing takes both aspects of this analysis on board and was already being shot in 1941 we can place the shifts in society earlier than this. Furthemore Powell and Pressburger took this on board even earlier with The 49th Parallel (1941). This film emphasises the importance of tolerance and democracy in Canada and links this with religious tolerance and democracy in the USA. This gives some indication of the underlying importance of the USA in helping to break down class boundaries in the UK. Why after all should Americans risk their lives to defend a system which was still rich in feudal vestiges, and in thrall to aristocracy when that was the sort of thing their grandparents and greatgrandparents had escaped from in Europe itself? It was something that was also alluded to in the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and also A Canturbury Tale (1944). In many ways reading Powell and Pressburger's wartime output as films aimed primarily at American eyes and sentiments rather than gung-ho empire stuff explains what might seem to be a little wayward in their approach.
A Wellington Bomber
The film's opening sequence is an abandoned Wellington bomber which is still flying and gradually losing height. It eventually flies into a pylon exploding. The viewer is taken back fifteen hours when the aircrews at the airbase are given their mission for the night. Later we see the planes taking off into the darkness at around 9.30 pm on a summer evening expecting to be return around 4.00 pm.
In the bomber 'B for Bertie'we are cleverly introduced to all the crew and their posts as the skipper checks that all the communications are functioning. Their mission is to target the Mercedes-Benz factory in Stuttgart. As they cross the dutch coast they are met by some anti-aircraft fire, and they are instructed to keep a sharp eye out for Nazi fighter planes. As they fly past Mannheim they are again met by anti-aircraft fire and they respond by sending down a few bundles of leaflets.
As they draw near the target we see a city straddling a river with several fires going in one area. The Bomber circles once and then makes a bombing run and they head for home. Just as they are about to radio to base their plane is hit by anti-aircraft fire and they lose an engine. The pilot decides to try and make it on just one engine and they plot the shortest route home. The single engine starts to struggle and the plane gradually loses speed and height. Eventually they decide to bail out over Holland. Their plan before they jump is to land near a railway line which they can then all follow so that they will be able to meeet up.
The film cuts to the scene the next morning. Five of the crew are amongst some trees with one having climbed up to spy out the land. They are missing one member of the crew. They are interuppted by some children from a nearby farm playing with their dog. The skipper of the plane was a diplomat before the war and had some rudimentary Dutch and slightly better German. They were able to communicate with the children and establish they are friendly.
The film cuts to the crew waiting in a farm house while the local inhabitants are discssing what to do in another room. The local teacher who is a good English speaker enters keen to establish that they are actually British and not Nazis in disguise acting as agents provocateurs. Once they have established that they are bona fide British aircrew then they are invited to sit down to an excellent meal. After that an escape plan is worked out for the. In the first instance they dress up as both Dutch men and women and cycle to the local Catholic church a few kilometres away. All the time the Nazis are out looking for them as we see an armoured vehicle tearing up the country road. Eventually the Nazis come to the church but the locals bluff it out. The group are then taken to a football match where by more than simple coincidence they meet their missing comrade who is a professional footballer who is playing for the visiting village team.
United once again and narrowly avoiding being given away to the Nazis by a Quisling they hide in a lorry which is going to the port to get some supplies via Mrs de Vries who is a leading member of the Dutch resistance who is masquerading as a Quisling too. She has arranged for a boat and after hiding them under the noses of the Nazis. When there is an airraid this gives them a chance to escape by rowing past a swing bridge and then out to a buoy a few miles off shore which is there to provide shelter for Nazi aircrew who had to bail out.
The escape is dangerous and one of the crew is badly injured as they row fast to make a getaway. They make it to the buoy where there are two German aircrew who have signalled for the Nazi 'E' boats to come and rescue them. The crew of B for Bertie have cut the Buoy adrift and are eventually rescued by a British fast patrol boat.
The closing scene is the crew once again lined up ready to go on a mission only this time the planes behind them are the new Lancaster bombers, which were much larger, faster, with a longer rangeand better defended next stop Berlin says the film's last line, nowhere in Germany will now be a safe haven. The significance is clear, they will be be back to free the oppressed Dutch and the other occupied countries of Europe. The Lancaster bombers were released in early 1942 which situates the film as being placed in the summer of 1941
Dutch Resistance needed to be passive and symbolic. In June 1940 there was a mass 'Carnation Day' as an identification with the Dutch monarchy.
The Bombing of Nazi Germany
The film was made at a time when Britain was getting fed up with 'taking it' and needed a morale booster that it was dishing it out a bit as well. The idea that Germany was beginning to receive some punishment from the air after all the trials and tribulations of the London Blitz and the bomber raids on many other British cities it would have helped audiences to feel that progress was beginning to be made with regard to the prosecution of the War. According to the BBC website by February 1942 British Bomber Command had realied how inaccurate its bombing attempts were and it therefore decided to go for an 'area' bombing approach:
... in February 1942, Bomber Command was instructed to shift the focus onto the 'morale of the enemy civil population'. This new policy came to be called 'area bombing'.
The aiming points thereafter, for bombing raids, were no longer military or industrial installations, but a church or other significant spot in the centre of industrial towns. And since fire was found to be the most effective means of destroying a town, the bombers now carried mainly incendiary bombs. [Detlef Siebert]
By the time the film was released it was certainly being 'economical with the truth' as the impression given by the film was one in which civilians got a dose of leaflets as 'B' for Bertie was on its way to Stuttgart with the end of bombing a factory clearly associated with the Nazi war effort. There could be no moral dilemmas established amongst the British population there. Presumably a film pronouncing proudly a wartime policy of destrying significant numbers of civilians wouldn't go down so well especially in the United States.
Rear gun turret of a Wellington bomber, Powell and Pressburger did a good job representing the cramped and dangerous conditions for the aircrew.
A core element of the film was promoting the bravery and determination of populations under Nazi occupation in this case it was the Dutch who were were being given fine coverage. A crucial speech from Mrs Jo de Vries who has organised the escaping aircrew a boat, quite literally from under the Nazis noses is particularly important in helping to promote the British bombing campaign later to be joined by the Americans:
You see, that's what you are doing for us. Can you hear them running for shelter, can you understand what that means to all the occupied countries, to enslaved people having it drummed into their ears that the Germans are masters of the earth, seeing these masters running for shelter, seeing them crouching under tables and hearing that steady hum, night after night, that noise which is oil for the burning fire in our hearts. (Jo de Vries in One of Aircraft is Missing)
It is a speech aimed primarily at British and American ears it both justifies the bombing of cities and brings hope that this will crack the morale of the Nazis who at this stage in the war haven't faced a military set-back of any significance.
Some of the analysis from the small amount of properly critical analysis available on this film does have a few small inaccuracies. The analysis from the Screenonline reviewer suggests the following piece of textual analysis:
The low position of the camera, looking admiringly up at the airmen, reinforces their heroism.
In fact this introductory sequence to the crew is not quite accurate as there were different camera positions used depending on the task of the crew. The low angles were used on the pilots who naturally sat in a higher place within the aircraft.
Another slight inaccuracy I have noted is in some comments by Murphy (Realism and Tinsel, 1992 p 21). Having quoted the paragraph above spoken by Jo de Vries taken from the film Murphy comments that it was found to be counterproductive to bomb in occupied countries. Whilst this was certainly the case it is not a relevant comment in relation to this film as B for Bertie was bombing Germany. When the allies did bomb targets in occupied territores like Rotterdam it tended to be large and important targets like the port areas which were easy to hit. Alternatively there were some very special raids on prisons holding important resistance leaders. These were well planned and usedd 'pathfinder' planes to ensure accuracy.
As well as being a useful film on the home front One of Our Aircraft is Missing providing tangible evidence of a fight back, can be seen as being designed with American audiences in mind. As Murphy has pointed out once the Nazis had invaded the rest of Europe a number of films featuring resistance to the Nazis were developed. One of Our Aircraft is Missing made with the help of the Dutch government in exile was one of these. The film is cleverly made to feel real by the use of real Dutch people including children so the the dialogue scenes are realistic. any visitor to the fenlands and Licolnshire will also notice the Dutch influenced vernacular architecture for it was Dutch engineeers who helped reclaimed these low lying parts of the country from the sea.
The film was convincingly made overall although one reviewer has commented that it didn't hang together very well at times. This was the case when the local Quisling came into the house of the villagers after the football match. It was a little bit too staged. It was done to clearly make a point particularly I think to American audiences who would have been unaware of many of the issues in Europe for at the time the film was being shot America hadn't entered the war, although they had by the time it was released.
In many ways the film functions as a mirror of Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941). This too was clearly made with the American market in mind and follows the attempted escape of the survivors of a U-Boat crew. Whereas in The 49th Parallel the local Canadian population including the German emigrés in the Hutterite community engage in a convincing and hostile way with Nazi ideology each cameo in One of Our Aircraft is Missing brings out a facet of the determination of resistance to the Nazis. At the same time there is no hatred of the ordinary German in the film, quite the reverse. Two of the air-crew of the Wellington bomber have had German girlfriends and one has even visited Stuttgart and knows its history and has a smattering of German language. This good German bad Nazi pattern was an important feature of propaganda films aimed at America for there was a large German speaking population in America who needed to be influenced. Of course Pressburger the scriptwriter had worked in Germany for many years and was very familiar the real situation on the ground which meant that these aspects of the scripts were handled from experience. Millions of Germans of course were not Nazis.
During the escape the aircrew have to takke on a viariety of guises in order to pass unnoticed. At one point one of the crew who is an actor in peacetime dresses up as a Dutch woman whilst those staying as men put on clogs in order to pass as locals. Moor (2005 p 52) conflates these activities with those of the son of one of those helping them get away who after being bribed by the Quisling to take records to the Nazi guards swaps them for some of the Dutch National anthem, clearly in a way designed to get the Quisling into trouble thus brining in a sense of humour to the film as well as underscoring that the vast majority of the population were trying their best to resist in any way they could just as the crowd of villagers all moved off from the football match thus 'confusing' the Nazis. Sadly Moor's reading of this becomes an attempt to fit activities often taken on in real life as "...instances of role-playing and rebranding" which:
inch towards a postmodern sensibility... (Moor, 2005 p 52)
One of the more ridiculous comments I have seen about a Second World War film! Naturally postmodernists can read texts how they like and generate lots of rather aberrant meanings for themselves, however it takes us a long way from what I strongly suspect Powell and Pressburger had as preferred readings. As someone who as a teenager read many of the escape stories of the time these seemed obvious things to do suited to the times. It is hardly nanotechnology to note that society is a set of social constructions which can be subverted. Identity is thus always potentially malleable. The point is that the attempts by the Nazis to reconstruct Dutch society were continuously being undermined even at the micro-level.
Murphy in Realism and Tinsel (p 20) implies that this film along with others he had identified in the resistance cycle didn't do very well at the box office however the entry on the film in the IMDB differs from this analysis.
According to IMDB Academy Awards page for 1943 the film received a nomination for best writing original screenplay. In the same year the 49th Parallel received a nomination for best film as well as winning an award for 'Best Writing Original Story' category. This film also received a 'Best Writing: Screenplay' nomination. One of Our Aircraft is Missing gained a 'Special Effects' nomination.
|Academy Awards, USA|
|1943||Nominated||Oscar|| Best Effects, Special Effects
Ronald Neame (photographic)
C.C. Stevens (sound)
| Best Writing, Original Screenplay
Table taken from IMDB entry to One of Our Aircraft is Missing
By 1945 it was hard to tell one German city from another. They had all been turned into rubble by the relentless Allied air raids. Ironically the bombing of these cities didn't have a great deal of effect on the industrial capacity of the country, for under Albert Speer's reorganisation many of the industries were dispersed away from poulation centres. Many of the those considered most valuable were sited underground where tunnels had been dug out by slave labour from the occupied countries. Others were in the countryside. Industrial production increased until 1944. The other irony of the bombing of industrial cities was that the populations of these had never put the Nazis into power. The Nazis never won a popular free vote in any of the major industrial cities on their way to power. The real centres of Nazi support in small town Germany were relatively unscathed.
What Really Was the Situation in Holland During the War?
Film maker Paul Verhoeven has a very different perspective on the realities of the war. Interviewed for the Daily Telegraph about his recent film about collaboration in the Second World War Black Book he comments:
There were some good Resistance people," argues Verhoeven, "but there were a lot of people who didn't do anything. In 1942, the Dutch had nearly accepted being part of Germany; that was the general tone at that time. Then, after Stalingrad, it started to dawn on people that it might go the other way. And then those who'd been working with the Germans and had filthy hands started to move as fast as possible to the Resistance." (My emphasis: Verhoeven in Daily Telegraph)
Verhoeven is known for being outspoken and the Dutch Resistance Museum provides a good basis of knowledge. The section on the Second World War gives a good overview of the pressures exerted by the Nazis including the mass evacuation of the coastal regions to build a defensive wall.
Aldgate, Anthony and Richards, Jeffrey. 2007(New Edition). Britain Can Take It. London: I. B. Tauris
Moor, Andrew. 2005. Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces. London: I. B. Tauris
Murphy, Robert. 1992. Realism and Tinsel. London: Routledge