The title is probably better known than the film; it’s been applied to everything from dinosaurs to chickens in tv shows and films, even finding turning up as a line of dialogue in From Russia With Love. It’s a phrase that was used frequently on wartime radio, and that torn from the headlines feel is very much to the fore in this film by British writer-director-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The war was in full swing at this point, and a slew of propaganda films were required to keep the populace on message in terms of the on-going fight against the Nazis. Like Went The Day Well? One of Our Aircraft is Missing is better than most of the programmers from the period; this BFI blu-ray restoration gives us a chance to see why.
The film starts with admirable energy and direction; a few brief scenes capture the camaraderie between the crew heading off in their RAF Vickers Wellington to begin their bombing run over Stuttgart; the way that each member is introduced is ingenious and very modern. From the get-go, the visuals provided will surprise many viewers, particularly in high-definition. The views from the plane (B for Bertie) of the ground are remarkably clear and convincing, enough to provoke investigation as to how this might be; a full miniature, built in Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, was used in such a way that’s almost indistinguishable from real footage. Round about the 30 minute mark, the crew find themselves in the occupied Netherlands, and manage to enlist the help of friendly locals to make their escape. It’s not hard to see the point of telling this kind of story; while planes were regularly shot down or MIA, the notion that the personnel might be safe and sound or even their way back home would give hope and comfort to many, and the picture of an oppressed Dutch people delighted to help chimed with the British government’s desires to be seen as liberators.
The crew themselves are well distinguished, featuring non-nonsense turns from Bernard Miles, Godfrey Tearle, Hugh Burden, Hugh Williams, Eric Portman and Emrys Jones, and the locals they encounter are also vividly drawn, including a debut for Peter Ustinov as a priest, and Googie Withers as a wheeling and dealing local. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child catcher Robert Helpmann also has a flamboyant role, and it’s always a pleasure to see Pamela Brown, every bit as arresting here as she was in I Know Where I’m Going! Having played the perfect Scottish lass in that film, it’s quite a shock to her as a suspicious Dutch school-teacher here, but she nails a very different character every bit as well. With David Lean and Ronald Neame also involved behind the camera, there’s always striking scenes and images to conjure with, not least when the team are making an escape by boat via underwater canals.
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing drags a little in the mid-section, where there’s a little too much specifying about the Dutch resistance, and some of the spy-craft seems a little simplistic; it’s also notable that even when under extreme pressure, not one of the crew considers the situation informal enough to loosen their ties. That might sound ridiculous, but there’s also telling dialogue that intrigues; a conversation about the skylight in an occupied building is important because the glass-ceilinged room means an unguarded area during air-raids. The point is that the occupying forces had a limited budget, and those who know the lay of the land on the resistance side have an advantage if they can put their minds to it.
Oscar nominations for screenplay and special effects were well deserved here; while some of the dialogue is a little starchy by today’s standards, it’s fascinating as an artefact of the time. Packaged with several hours of choice propaganda films from the period, One of Out Aircraft Is Missing is a great collection of material for those seeking details about how WWII was won in the hearts and minds of those involved. This version is twenty minutes longer that the US cut, and should appeal to fans of The Archers, those interested in WWII and anyone who enjoys a rattling good, stiff-upper lip patriotic story.
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing is released on blu-ray for the first time in the UK this week (Oct 4th 2021). Thanks to the BFI for advanced access to this title.
- Presented in High Definition
- Newly recorded audio commentary by film scholar Ian Christie
- 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
- Image gallery
- Includes reproduction of the original storybook based on the film by Emeric Pressburger
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio
- ***First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with essays by Ian Christine and Sarah Street, 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