Thursday, June 26, 2014

Powell and Pressberger's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing

I suspect that The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus are the films that spring to mind when most movie buffs think of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. However, the filmmaking duo explored the theme of war more than any other. It's present--either directly or indirectly--in 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Contraband, and A Canterbury Tale. However, their most prominent war film was One of Our Aircraft is Missing.

It was produced in 1942 under the auspices of Great Britain's Ministry of Information, with the goal of boosting the country's morale during World War II. It also marked the fourth collaboration for Powell and Pressberger and, notably, their first one in which their producing, directing, and writing credits were billed collectively as The Archers.

One of Our Aircraft Is Missing begins with an empty airplane plunging into power lines and then backtracks to 15 hours before the crash. In almost documentary-like fashion, we're introduced to the plane's crew as it prepares for its next--apparently routine--mission. Personally, I struggled with differentiating the characters during these early scenes since I was unfamiliar with many of the British actors. As a result, the first 26 minutes were a bit of a slog.

However, the film takes off once the crew parachutes from its damaged plane into occupied Dutch territory. To their surprise, the British fliers are discovered by children that lead them to a resistance group willing to smuggle the entire crew out of Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The escape comprises the rest of the 139-minute running time, with suspenseful sequences alternating with pithy conversations among the Brits, the Dutch Resistance, and the Nazis.

Googie Withers as a spy.
Powell and Pressberger specialized in creating strong parts for their leading ladies, as evidenced by Black Narcissus, I Know Where I'm Going, The Red Shoes, and others. You can add One of Our Aircraft Is Missing to that list. Pamela Brown shines as a member of the Dutch Resistance, especially in her first scene where she subtly interrogates the Brits to ensure they are not Germans in disguise. Later in the film, the crew is aided by an entrepreneur (Googie Withers) who plays a dangerous game: She conducts routine business with the Nazis while she hides the British fliers in her quarters and plans the final phase of their escape. These tough, dedicated women are the true heroes of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.

Geoffrey Tearle is probably the best-remembered of the male leads, having portrayed a villain in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935). He later appeared in Mandy (1952), a critically-acclaimed film about a young deaf girl, and the Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). Of course, the most famous actor in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing has only a small supporting part. That would be Peter Ustinov, who looks so young as to almost be unrecognizable as a priest.

Powell uses lighting to simulate shells
exploding in mid-air outside the plane.
The crisp black-and-white photography suits the film--which is saying a lot since Michael Powell later revolutionized the use of color in Black Narcissus. The film opens with a pre-title sequence, which was unusual for the 1940s. It also contains no music, emphasizing natural sound to great effect.

One of Our Aircraft Is Missing earned Academy Award nominations for special effects and the screenplay by Powell and Pressberger. Amazingly, it was Michael Powell's only Oscar nomination. Emeric Pressberger won an Oscar for his 49th Parallel screenplay and received another writing nomination for The Red Shoes in 1948.

The man who edited One of Our Aircraft Is Missing didn't receive any recognition for his work. Still, he had a pretty good career in the cinema. His name was David Lean.


  1. Have never seen it, but the story sounds like a more realistic, less action-packed version of Errol Flynn's "Desperate Journey," which was released just a few months later.

    1. Gary, yes, the two films share a similar premise and, though different in tone, I'm a fan of both.

  2. Rick, I thoroughly enjoyed your profile of the Archers' first work. Like you, I preferred "One of our Aircraft is Missing" once said craft hit the ground. The children are wonderful and the townspeople quite believable, but the two women especially shine in their dangerous work. It was fascinating to recognize Peter Ustinov in what IMDB has listed as his first film role, after a documentary and short. What I found especially wonderful was realizing the risks a little town was willing to take to help their allies get home safely. I really liked the black and white photography because it was like seeing a newsreel tell its tale, but with much more interest. It reminded me also of "A Matter of Life and Death" with the heaven scenes done in black and white versus the earth scenes in color and, of course, David Niven's Peter Carter's descent to what should have been his death, had not a celestial error been made. I hope people will check this little gem out, remembering to stick with it until the bailout since that is when everything becomes interesting.

    1. Toto, loved your insightful comments about the use of B&W in ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING. The parallels to A MATTER OF LIFE & DEATH are interesting, too.