It may be pure propaganda, but this British war film is one of the greatest ever made
All British films made between about 1939 and 1950 were, fundamentally, propaganda. Until 1945, they aimed to maintain the morale of a public which, day by day, had to continue despite the blitz, the bereavement and the rationing and dislocation in a time of total war. After 1945, British cinema sought to escape from the post-war realities of austerity, displacement and even more rationing.
A gem of the era, meant to lift people’s spirits when the war was still turning bad for Britain, is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1942 masterpiece, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, produced with the approval of the Ministry of Information. It takes its title from the ministry’s reports to the BBC on the raids on Germany, which would chill listeners’ hearts with Bomber Command husbands, sons and brothers. The film was designed to reassure these families that even if their plane did not return, its crew might. Given that 55,573 of Bomber Command’s 125,000 men never made it home, offering hope was a tall order, but the film bolstered its credibility by avoiding wild unrealism and the kind of jingoism that would have made comical.
B for Bertie – the vanishing plane – is a Wellington with a crew of six, played by actors of era-stalwart characters such as Hugh Williams, Godfrey Tearle, Hugh Burden and Bernard Miles, alongside newcomers Emrys Jones and Eric Portman, one of the great box office names of the 1940s. After dropping its load on Stuttgart, the plane develops engine problems. The crew parachutes near the Dutch coast; on the ground, five of the six get together and ask the local people for help. (They spot the sixth, peacetime professional footballer, a few days later, playing for a Dutch village team).
The film’s other propaganda purpose is to openly profess a sense of camaraderie for the Dutch and to thank them for the help they gave Allied airmen, at great personal risk. They have their quislings, of course – one, played in the most grotesque way possible by Robert Helpmann, ends delicately by his German friends – but otherwise they are described as relentlessly brave and defiant. At a time when it could still not be guaranteed that Britain would avoid invasion, the film created a model for how it was hoped the British would behave in such a difficult situation.
With the help of a Dutch woman (played coldly by Googie Withers), who poses as a collaborator in order to work more effectively with the resistance, the men end up boarding a boat bound for England, and are picked up. in the North Sea. One is injured, but recovers, so the movie has a happy ending of the kind that was all too rare in real life. As propaganda, it ticks all the boxes. British characters are brave, modest, unable to constantly panic and joke. The Dutch are a model of what allies should be. And the Germans are used to portraying a stereotype that lasted in film for decades afterwards: cruel, vicious, menacing and rather thick. It was exactly what the public needed in 1942.