One of Aircraft Is Missing is not one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films—it’s better thought of as a sighting shot. It is the first film made under the Archers’ banner. But watching it again when it popped up on television, there are already resonances with later work. If there is a theme in The Archers’ films, it is of cultures trying to understand each other—one thinks immediately of Colonel Blimp, but also of the laird teaching “highland economics” in I Know Where I’m Going or the great Anglo-American set piece in A Matter of Life and Death. Or even the failure of the Himalayan convent and the nuns’ departure from India in Black Narcissus.
This might also be a metaphor for the partnership between Powell and Pressburger itself: the patrician Englishman and the polyglot emigré.
So, specifically, my interest in One of Our Aircraft is in the scene about 45 minutes in where the airmen from the bomber crew are waiting in the front room while the Dutch villagers debate what is to be done with them in the dining room next door. The airmen are a social melange, largely for dramatic purposes, though perhaps for propaganda purposes too. They are indignant that the Dutch do not take them at their word, and they start to worry that they might be turned over to the Germans (although, as one of them observes, no-one has left the house.)
Els Meertens (Pamela Brown) explains they’re going to church.
Of course, the villagers are right to be careful, for they are taking all the risks. If the airmen are caught, they will be dispatched to a prisoner of war camp; if the villagers are caught helping them, they are likely to be deported to a forced labour camp, or shot. Actually, we’re reminded of the risks they’re taking even in a pre-credit sequence.
Eventually, the airmen offer a cutting torn from yesterday’s Times (what else) as proof of identity. As the Dutch schoolteacher (played by Pamela Brown, who appeared in several Archers’ films) takes it back into the room where the villagers are debating, she says:
ELS: I thought airmen had better eyesight than that.
Another look around the room identifies the codes of those Dutch opposed to the Germans: orange blossom above the lintel, and a concealed portrait of the exiled Queen.
Pressburger’s cultural fencing continues as the Dutch formulate the escape plan, which involves cycling in disguise to the local church, which is 6 miles closer to the coast, and for which they already have the necessary papers. Of course, it is a Catholic church and two of the crew are “chapel.”
ELS: But it’s our only plan.
EARNSHAW: If this gets back to Halifax, I’ll never hear the last of it.
ELS: We will dress you in Dutch clothes. Nobody will know.
EARNSHAW: You don’t know chapel folk.
The sequence where they disguise the airmen for the journey is also a wonderful piece of film-making: the actor in the aircrew is put into drag, in a shot that tilts rapidly down the RAF uniform, dissolves from his boots through to the clogs now on his feet, and then tilts back up just as quickly to take in the new outfit, along with some crisp luvvie banter.
Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) gets into his disguise.
In his biography of Pressburger, Kevin Macdonald observes that the screenwriter was “immune to cliché.” A quotidian phrase from the news bulletins (“one of our aircraft is missing”) that probably floated past native English speakers, stuck with the Hungarian Pressburger, now working in his fourth language. The choice of Stuttgart as the target of the bombing raid was deliberate:
The references to the girls in Stuttgart and the song ‘I Kiss Your Little Hand, Madam’ (“The composer was a Jew, I believe”) certainly have a personal resonance… [H]e had so disliked the town as a student—it was the place where he had first experienced anti-Semitism.
It is also one of the few Archers’ war stories in which we don’t see a “sympathetic German.” In fact, we barely see the enemy: “We only see their shadows,” writes Macdonald, “or hear their clipped voices shouting orders, the demonic screeching of their vehicles shattering the peace of the countryside, and the clicking of marching boots.” Macdonald exaggerates, but only slightly.
The film is also formally interesting because it has no score. The soundtrack, from the drone of the plane’s engine in the first sequences, to the noise of the Dutch villagers and their British escapees cycling to church, to the canal water lapping the boat and the crowd at the football match, is all “natural” sound. Shades of the 1930s documentary movement. And perhaps because of this influence, the Germans speak German, the Dutch characters speak Dutch (except to the aircrew), and the English mostly speak English. Our confusion as to what is happening matches that of the aircrew; their confusion is often part of the story.
Within this “natural” soundscape there are a couple of moments when the Dutch national anthem plays an important part in the plot. The first time, more low key, in the church, when the organist uses it to distract a German soldier; the second (no spoliers, but more critical to the narrative, and a clever plot device) when some German soldiers are tricked into playing it on their mess gramophone. One of Aircraft is almost an exact contemporary of Casablanca with its famous rendition of “La Marseillaise”; both films were likely borrowing from, or paying homage to, the singing of the French anthem in La Grande Illusion.
Pressburger’s time working for UFA in Berlin weaves its way into the script in his play on cultural stereotypes. Jo de Vries, the woman who engineers the crew’s final escape is thought by the Germans to hate the British because her husband was, apparently, killed in a British air-raid on Haarlem.
I never heard that we bombed Haarlem.
ELS: The Germans want us to believe it, so Jo de Vries obliges them. They like her, because they believe she hates the British. That is what she wants, so everyone is happy.
In fact, her husband is broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda from London.
As both Macdonald and the film critic Ian Christie observe, the film is the inverse of The 49th Parallel, in which a German U-boat crew has to abandon their craft a long way from home. The German crew, in a hostile environment and a hostile society, falls apart, with one member shot for desertion when he tries to join a German-speaking religious community they encounter in northern Canada.
The British crew in One of Our Aircraft, helped by a sympathetic population who have learned to play on German sensibilities, hangs together and escapes. But the two films have this in common: the heroes, in both films, are the people of the country; Canadians in one, Dutch in the other.
Jo de Vries (Googie Withers) helps the aircrew reach a boat to escape