Direction and Screenplay: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden, Emrys Jones, Googie Withers, Pamela Brown
Country: United Kingdom
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1
One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing is a fabulous little war film, written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death). It lacks the emotional heft of their more well-known masterpieces and started life as thinly-veiled propaganda, as did The 49th Parallel. As such, it has subsequently dated, but this unassuming adventure yarn is a thoroughly enjoyable museum piece. Even if you discount Powell and Pressburger, the pedigree of the cast and crew is impressive.
This was Ronald Neame’s debut as a cinematographer and his lighting is frequently astonishing. A modest transfer on this debut Blu-Ray release emphasises the photography without cleaning up every blip and scratch; indeed, the title cards at the beginning of the film even have a bit of frameshift. Still, not at all distracting. Neame was nominated for an Academy Award for his special effects in this film (CC Stevens won for sound effects). He would go on to work with David Lean, who just happens to be the editor, and when you consider he was responsible for Peter O’Toole’s match in Lawrence of Arabia, anything with him as a jobbing editor is going to be worth a look.
The title echoes a wartime phrase for aircraft that have failed to return from a bombing run. The story here follows one such crew of a Vickers Wellington bomber, forced to bail out over the German-occupied Netherlands. The men find help amongst the Dutch, including English-speaking school teacher Else (Pamela Brown). The cast has several British film stalwarts, such as Eric Portman and Bernard Miles. Googie Withers in an early role also helps hide the men, despite her pretending to be a German sympathiser, and a young Peter Ustinov impresses as a Dutch priest.
The opening scenes are fun because they show the crew discussing their lives outside of the war, humanising them in ways that many subsequent war films ignore, but gives the film an indelible warmth. It really comes alive though once the crew bail from the Vickers. With a stiff upper lip throughout, but a wicked sense of humour, there are moments of palpable tension while they employ espionage, derring-do and even a bit of cross-dressing to run rings around the Germans. Grander productions are called to mind such as The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare or John Frankenheimer’s The Train with Burt Lancaster.
One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing is unassuming and dated in many ways, so it could easily have passed you by. It had such a considerable influence though, even its title was frequently adopted in the following years; not least Disney’s One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, also featuring Peter Ustinov. What remains almost 80 years later is a fun adventure movie with a lot of heart. It stands as testament to the wartime bomber crews and to the people, so often taken for granted, that lived across Nazi-occupied Europe.
Audio Commentary with Ian Christie
This is a perfectly pitched and enthusiastic commentary by Ian. He’s a great storyteller, giving us lots of background on the film’s production and it’s story. It’s a really good, easy listen. He and Sarah Street also provide essays for the booklet in this limited edition release.
Otherwise, the disc includes four fascinating newsreel pieces from the time:
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
Target for Tonight (1941, 50 mins): Harry Watt’s acclaimed documentary reconstruction of a Wellington bomber’s mission over Germany
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
An image gallery includes a reproduction of the original storybook by Emeric Pressburger. And the limited edition reversible sleeve features original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio.
Limited Edition Blu-Ray from the BFI available from the 4th October. It’s a beautifully curated release of a modest yet valuable film.