This film belongs to one of the most successful sequences of continuous film production ever achieved by a team of filmmakers. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (P&P) made more than a dozen films together between 1939 to 1949. All of them have stood up well and some of them have come to be seen as the best of British cinema. Having been united by Alexander Korda for The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), Powell and Pressburger stayed together in the UK when Korda went to Hollywood to lead the UK propaganda effort in the US. P&P made the highly successful propaganda picture 49th Parallel in 1941. They were surprised that after the commercial success of their Canadian-based film (which was also an American hit, winning an Oscar for Pressburger’s script) they were unable to get funding from Rank to make their next picture when their outline was deemed ‘non-commercial’. Instead they turned to Lady Yule at British National who agreed to fund another propaganda picture (the filmmakers were committed to films that supported the war effort directly). They also decided to pool their talents and form their own production company ‘The Archers’, taking equal credits as ‘Producer, Writer and Director’. Their first Archers title was based on the phrase that Powell heard on nightly radio broadcasts: “One of our aircraft has failed to return”. In late 1941 and early 1942 the RAF was charged with night-time bombing raids on German targets but these were still part of a limited offensive by twin-engined bombers such as the Vickers Wellington, the bomber built in the largest numbers during wartime. The RAF provided a ‘shell’ of a Wellington to The Archers for the inflight shots and a full scale model of was built at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith to shoot scenes of the bomber over Germany and the final crash back in the UK. The interiors were shot at Denham.
The opening of the film is innovative and shows both Pressburger’s ideas about narrative and Powell’s brilliance in presenting moving images. The title on the print I saw was actually ‘. . . One of our aircraft is missing‘ – a snappier title than the original radio announcement. Pressburger begins the narrative with the execution order of Dutch resistance workers shot for aiding British flyers, giving the emphasis to them rather than the RAF crew. Then, having established that the Wellington bomber ‘B for Bertie’ has not returned from a bombing raid, we see that the aircraft is apparently flying itself across the channel, after which it is too low to avoid crashing into an electricity pylon. What has happened? The actual credits roll now with the aircrew presenting themselves and then we flashback to discover what happened to the six man crew who baled out of their aircraft believing it was about to crash. The narrative will then follow their attempts, aided by various Dutch communities, to get back to the UK.
If you’ve seen 49th Parallel, you’ll realise that One of Our Aircraft is Missing reverses every aspect of the earlier film. Where six Germans from a U-boat attempted to cross Canada to reach the neutral US, we now have six RAF crew attempting to escape from occupied Holland. The Canadians were encouraged to look out for the enemy, the Dutch were to be portrayed as brave and resourceful in resisting the Nazi occupation. The film had the support of the Dutch government in exile in London.
P&P made several important decisions about the film. They declined to use any non-diegetic music and decided that the Dutch and Germans should speak their own languages (which aren’t subtitled). English was used only when it was logical to do so given the events (i.e. when the Dutch townspeople talk to the RAF flyers). This realism factor is heightened by the use of locations in East Anglia to represent Dutch houses, canals, fields/fens etc. The film looks very fine. It was photographed by Ronald Neame and edited by David Lean, both of whom would later become directors in their own right. The casting of the RAF crew included well-known actors of the time with Eric Portman and Bernard Miles as the names which are perhaps best remembered from the period. (Eric Portman played the leading Nazi in 49th Parallel.) Smaller roles include Peter Ustinov as a priest, but for fans of Powell & Pressburger perhaps the two most significant roles are taken by Pamela Brown and Googie Withers. Pamela Brown was a successful theatre actor but this was her first film role. She would become one of Powell’s lovers and the two remained close throughout the rest of her life. Googie Withers had worked with Powell in the 1930s when she was still a bit player or a lead in ‘quota quickies’ and comedies. She could speak Dutch as her mother had a Dutch background. The Archers used her again in the second Dutch resistance film they produced but didn’t direct, The Silver Fleet (1943). With these roles she moved up in the British film industry and emerged as a star in Ealing pictures from 1944 onwards.
The script avoids any direct confrontations between the aircrew and the German forces who are mostly seen in long shot or overheard. It is not until the final acts of the escape that the crew have to fend for themselves. Up until then they are protected by the Dutch resistance. One of the ironies of the film is that there is actually very little ‘flying action’. Instead this is much more a ‘resistance/escape’ narrative with the final section involving an ingenious device which again needed permission from the War Office to use.
One final point about the script is discussed at some length by Powell in his memoir, A Life in Movies (1986) sheds more light on P&P’s ideas. They had the idea early on to include an ‘over-age’ member of the aircrew based on a widely-reported statement by an eccentric MP who joined up to fight. (Most aircrew were very young.) P&P wanted to include an older man who would be played by Ralph Richardson but he was unavailable (he was working for the Fleet Air Arm, although P&P did get him for The Silver Fleet). They turned instead to a much older actor, the matinee idol from the 1910s and 1920s who was a Great War veteran, Godfrey Tearle. He is tolerated by the younger airman who don’t really understand him and Pressburger wrote a scene in which he tries to explain to the younger men that he was like them in his youth. David Lean persuaded Powell to cut the scene during the edit because it didn’t advance the plot. Lean supposedly said it introduced a theme that could make a whole film. This became the birth of the Colonel Blimp character in the next P&P film. Powell was fond of telling stories and this may be an exaggerated version of events. Nevertheless it points towards P&P’s understanding of wartime Britain and their stunning creativity at this point. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a great propaganda film and a wonderful example of wartime filmmaking.
Here’s the trail on Talking Pictures TV with Pamela Brown as resistance leader very much in control: