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The understated yet inspiring British military drama One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), set during World War II, was the fourth collaboration between the celebrated producing-writing-directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the first under the banner of their production company, "The Archers." The movie, made under the authority of the Ministry of Information as part of a series of films created to lift morale in the United Kingdom, had superior production values and is often considered one of the best British films of its day.
This was the project with which Powell and Pressburger made their names, attracting the attention of such powerful figures in the British film industry as J. Arthur Rank. The pair had first worked together on The Spy in Black (1939), and among their total of nineteen collaborations would be such masterpieces as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). All of the latter films were produced by the Rank Organisation.
The story of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing concerns six British crewmen (played by Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden, and Emrys Jones) who bail out over Holland from an RAF Vickers Wellington bomber called the "B for Bertie" and are aided by Dutch freedom fighters in eluding the Nazis. Choosing the type of bomber to be used settled the question of how many leading men the film would have, since a Wellington had a crew of six.
Ironically, some names in the supporting cast are now more familiar to moviegoers than most of the stars. Among those playing Netherlanders are Pamela Brown, Joyce Redman and Peter Ustinov, all in their film debuts. Googie Withers, whose film experience had been limited to "quickies," was so hard up for work in these hard times that, according to Powell, she broke down and cried when he gave her the part of a woman who conceals the crew in her home.
The original screenplay was entitled One of Our Aircraft Failed to Return. Powell wrote in his 1986 autobiography A Life in the Movies that, although he found that title to be "evocative and euphonious," it was considered too downbeat. He wrote that when filming began the script was "half-finished, and half-finished it remained for most of the production."
Although the wartime budget was limited, Powell and company ensured that the film's technical aspects were first-rate. Noel Coward visited the set and, after observing how efficiently the crew staged the complicated action scenes, hired the entire unit to work on his film In Which We Serve (1942).
Exterior filming locations included the "Low Countries" in England's East Anglia, and Boston in Lincolnshire. Second unit director John Seabourne, Sr. staged the scenes involving the "lobster pot" (a floating steel platform anchored in the North Sea to facilitate rescue of downed airmen) despite being seasick the entire time. Future director David Lean was responsible for the incisive editing.
For the important scenes showing the bombing of Stuttgart, Germany, art director David Rawnsley oversaw the creation of an elaborate model of the city at the Riverside Studios near the Hammersmith Bridge in London. The model, wired for explosions and lighting effects, was so huge that it covered the entire floor of the studio. Cameraman Freddie Ford had to spend ten hours a day stretched on his stomach on the roof the studio, but was thrilled by the experience. "Mind it, Guv'nor?" he responded when asked. "I just love it!"
Powell had decided on complete naturalism for the film's soundtrack. "There would be no music. There would only be the natural sounds of a country at war. It was not a documentary; it was a detached narrative, told from the inside, of what it is like to be a pawn in the game of total war."
Upon its release in the U.K. in June of 1942, the movie was enthusiastically received. Powell wrote that, upon seeing the film, J. Arthur Rank "was the picture of smiling cordiality" and said, "Tell us what you want us to do. We would like you to join us. Would you like a long-term contract?"
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing was nominated for Oscars® for Best Original Screenplay (Powell and Pressburger), and Best Special Effects (Ronald Neame, photographic, and C.C. Stevens, sound).
Producers: John Corfield, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell (written by); Emeric Pressburger (story and written by)
Cinematography: Ronald Neame
Art Direction: David Rawnsley
Film Editing: David Lean
Cast: Godfrey Tearle (Sir George Corbett, Rear Gunner in B for Bertie), Eric Portman (Tom Earnshaw, Copilot in B for Bertie), Hugh Williams (Frank Shelley, Observer/Navigator in B for Bertie), Bernard Miles (Geoff Hickman, Front Gunner in B for Bertie), Hugh Burden (John Glyn Haggard, Pilot in B for Bertie), Emrys Jones (Bob Ashley, Radio Operator in B for Bertie), Pamela Brown (Els Meertens), Joyce Redman (Jet van Dieren), Googie Withers (Jo de Vries), Hay Petrie (The Burgomaster).
by Roger Fristoe