In the guidelines for this series it was said that a contribution might discuss multiple films if they were somehow related (I think the examples given were Star Wars and Lord of the Rings). It might be taking liberties to interpret this as broadly as I am doing, but I would like to discuss three films that are related in the loosest sense: all three are Second World War British propaganda films about the air war, and all three have exceptional soundtracks. Two of them are set in the occupied Low Countries, which gives them a particular interest for me that others might not share.
The first of them, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), I mentioned in my earlier contribution about The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Both are wartime masterpieces of the writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (of Black Narcissus fame), but two films could hardly be more different. Blimp is a Technicolor epic covering 40 years of history, with some fairly operatic elements; One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a tightly told story of a couple of days, entirely contemporary, and black-and-white.
The prelude to the film is a shot of a typed press release from the Dutch government-in-exile’s news bureau reporting the execution of five Dutchmen (two farmers and three farm hands) for helping a British serviceman, with a faint, funereal roll of drums in the background. Then the scene cuts to men at an air base straining their ears for the sound of aircraft returning, with the distant drone of an engine getting louder. All the bombers sent out are counted back, except for one. Then come the opening credits, and the film proper begins with the beginning of a night raid on the Mercedes Benz machine works in Stuttgart. For the first 20 minutes, the main sound is the throbbing of the engine, interspersed with short conversations (showcasing a range of accents among the crew) and occasional anti-aircraft fire.
The plot is simple. A British plane (a Vickers Wellington, to be precise) on its way back from bombing Stuttgart is shot down over the Netherlands. The crew bail out, after some mutual suspicion gain the trust of a member of the Resistance, and are smuggled to the coast. They brave the North Sea in a small boat, and are rescued by the Royal Navy. Throughout the film, the sound is as natural as possible — engines, sirens, guns, footsteps, birdsong, barking dogs, human voices. The only music is music that the characters in the film can hear (an organ in church, a gramophone, German soldiers singing). This was fairly revolutionary film-making for the early 1940s.
The propaganda message of the film is twofold. Firstly, that Britain is not alone, and not only fighting for its own survival; even countries conquered by the enemy are actively subverting German efforts and diverting German resources, and eagerly await the day the Allies will invade. Secondly, that patriotic civilians in occupied countries are given a sense of hope by British bombing raids. This gives the sound of the aircraft engine a more than incidental role. This is not just an experiment in cinematic realism, but a theme in which the sound of the aircraft engine is central, almost a character itself. In one of a couple of set-piece speeches in the film, a Dutch Resister (played by Googie Withers) references the sound as British planes fly overhead, sending the German soldiers who would otherwise block the airmen’s escape to their shelters.
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 those 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.
The other film set in the Low Countries, The Flemish Farm (1943), is in many respects similar to One of Our Aircraft is Missing. A refugee Belgian pilot serving in the RAF obtains permission to return to occupied Flanders on a mission to retrieve the colours of the Belgian Air Force, buried in a secret location on the eve of capitulation in 1940 to keep them from falling into German hands. Although his presence on occupied territory is voluntary, the plot has a similar outline (evading identification and capture, contacting the Resistance, obtaining the means to return to Britain). It doesn’t have Powell/Pressburger’s irony, and the comedic touches are fewer and heavier The opening credits claim that the screenplay is based on ‘an actual incident’, and this may be true.
There are a couple of important differences. One is location. Outside shots in One of Our Aircraft is Missing were filmed in a part of the Lincolnshire Fens that was drained and colonised by Dutch immigrants in the 17th century, and that looks entirely like Holland. The first time I saw the film, when it was on television almost 30 years ago, it looked so Dutch that it didn’t even occur to me that it could not have been filmed in the Netherlands. The Flemish Farm, in contrast, relies heavily on models and backdrops that are artfully made but could never be taken for real locations. There’s a backdrop of the medieval city centre of Ghent that is instantly recognisable, but unmistakably a painting. One of the few exceptions is the crossing of the Pyrenees, shot on location on Exmoor, which to my eye (but Grumpy would perhaps correct me) is not a very convincing substitute for Spanish mountains.
The other is the soundtrack. The Flemish Farm has an orchestral score specially commissioned from Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the great names in the British romantic-classical tradition, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. This, in a sense, links it to the third film, The First of the Few, which was scored by William Walton (an avant-gardist not, in this instance, being very avant-garde).
The First of the Few (apparently released in the US in a much shorter version under the title Spitfire) is not an adventure story like the other two, but something in the nature of a ‘biopic’ about the designer of the Spitfire (and also something of a ‘buddy’ film, with David Niven playing his test pilot). Perhaps surprisingly, it has similarities to two Studio Ghibli films, Porco Rosso (for scenes of the Schneider Race) and The Wind Rises (another biopic about an aeronautical engineer of the 1930s). The title is an allusion to Churchill’s ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’, referring to the fighter pilots who warded off the Luftwaffe in 1940–41. The film opens with the Battle of Britain, with the Niven character, now an RAF officer, reminiscing about the development history of the Spitfire. Although it’s a little slow-moving in places, and I can see why they cut it for the US release, to does have some quite funny and some quite touching moments. I only saw it for the first time recently, and it surprised me slightly that I had never heard of it until a year ago, when a Dutch classical musician being interviewed on the Belgian radio mentioned the score as one of his favourites.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.