Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made some great films in their together. This is not one of them. For a propaganda film made in 1942 with the express intention of bumping up British spirits during the war, One of Our Aircraft is Missing is quite well capable of putting its audience to sleep. Perhaps this was the intention: smuggle the film into Nazi-occupied Europe, screen it, send the crowd to a deep deep sleep, then go in there and give Jerry what for!
It was directly after this film that Powell and Pressburger embarked on their hot streak of five or so films that cemented their positions as two of the most critically-acclaimed directors in pre-60s Britain. It is really quite hard to reconcile the visual imagination of their later films such as A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus with the dreariness and blandness of this turkey. One could argue that wartime resources put a dampener on Powell and Pressburger’s filmmaking abilities but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale were both also produced in wartime, and both are quite acclaimed. It’s easy to see why One of Our Aircraft is Missing is largely forgotten in the duo’s filmography.
The basic plotline is to do with an aircraft crew bombed down somewhere over Holland and their attempts to get back home safely. The first 20 minutes or so of the film are its most effective. In a very matter-of-fact, almost documentary-like style, we follow the crew on their bombing mission over the skies of Stuttgart. The constant drone of the aircraft engine, the simple, dry chatter, the dialogue of men doing work that they don’t have much choice in doing. The simplicity of this sequence allows it to work as a solid piece of wartime filmmaking.
It doesn’t feel propagandistic, and this film is very much not a propaganda film driven by ideology, but simply a wartime morale booster and little more. There is a speech late on in the film that extols the virtues of bombing from the perspective of the occupied peoples, the only blatant moment of propaganda in whole film. In the context of the sheer destruction of the Allied bombing campaign and incidents like the firebombing of Dresden, where some 25,000 people lost their lives for what was fairly little tactical gain, this is a terrifyingly cold moment in a film otherwise given over to trying to promote camaraderie and the kind of good old British values that would make Michael Gove blush through his fat plastic toad cheeks.
Whatever the film’s stance on Allied bombing is, the vast majority of the film is terribly boring. Once the camera and the cast have landed on the ground, the journey back to Blighty is about as exciting as the train from Peterborough to Nottingham. Everything is shot in a dull, realist sort of way. The Dutch resistance who attempt to help the Brits sneak their way back are as exciting as canal water, with a whole host of excellent English accents, which isn’t surprising as the Dutch do speak very good English. Nothing particularly exciting happens. A few times the Germans very nearly discover our plucky heroes but they always pull through eventually. A small feature film debut for Peter Ustinov is a nice surprise but otherwise it’s really hard to find anything exciting to say about a film like this. Best left ignored, even for people who are fans of the Powell and Pressburger films.