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WWII in the Movies: The Homefront
Remind Me

The Lion Has Wings

Thursday May, 23 2019 at 04:00 AM

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In late August 1939, at Denham studios outside London, producer Alexander Korda assembled together his contract artists, several of whom - including director Michael Powell - were in the middle of making The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Everyone in the room, not to mention all of England, knew that war with Germany was inevitable and would probably happen very soon. Korda announced to his team that months earlier, he and Winston Churchill had made a verbal agreement that on the day war was declared, Korda would use all his resources (and his own money) to immediately start producing an anti-Nazi propaganda film. In exchange, Churchill promised to use the British film industry as a weapon throughout the war, eventually providing funding for more propaganda films. In this way, Korda thought, the industry's survival through the war would be assured. (In World War I, the British film industry had effectively been shut down for the duration.)

Michael Powell, in his memoir, recalled Korda's instructions to his team: "When war was declared, filming on The Thief of Bagdad would stop. The next day, everybody at Denham would start working on a feature propaganda film which Alex had promised Churchill would be ready in one month. During this month, Alex guaranteed the salaries of all his contract people. All he asked of us was that we would go with heart, mind and soul into making his new picture, and work with whomever we were assigned to. The coordinator of the whole production was to be Ian of Korda's associate producers. Dalrymple's brief was to build the main case against Hitler as a warmonger and butcher of his fellow men, to show Britain's potential for men and munitions in the coming struggle, and above all, to star the Royal Air Force. The film was to be called The Lion Has Wings [1939]."

At the time of the Denham meeting, the studio was already a classified area. When, a week later, Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany, production on The Lion Has Wings began as planned, and under a shroud of utmost secrecy. (A newspaper article of the time refers to directors at Denham walking around "with fingers on their lips.")

Dalrymple assigned three directors - Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, and Adrian Brunel - to shoot the film simultaneously in various locations. Shooting lasted twelve days. The film was completed within five weeks, and was in theaters in less than eight. The content was a mixture of documentary-style footage, scripted narrative featuring Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson among others, and footage from two earlier films, Fire Over England (1937) and The Gap (1937). Powell directed the flying sequences (including actual British bombers returning from the "Kiel Raid" on Germany) and most of the Nazi raid on London and the British defense; Brunel did the documentary sections; and Hurst shot the narrative scenes between Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson. (Oberon, incidentally, had recently married Alexander Korda.)

Powell described the film as "a hodgepodge. A good third of it was a reconstruction...of the way Europe in the last five years had crawled to lick Hitler's boots. England, the great appeaser, was as much to blame as anybody.... Another important section was the industrial section, which showed the Midlands swinging into war production. It was mostly done by clever montage technique, and was mostly lies. Our war production and war preparation was completely illusory."

Indeed, The Lion Has Wings was designed as a blatant propaganda film, made to inspire confidence in those who saw it that England was totally prepared to swing into war mode. In reality, it wasn't. Time was needed to build the Royal Air Force, and especially the Navy, into the powerhouses they needed to be. As Michael Korda (Alexander's nephew) later wrote: "In England, the movie was widely regarded as overoptimistic, since the public did not as yet have any reason to believe in the efficiency or strength of the R.A.F., having been told by both the appeasers and the anti-appeasers that it was too weak to confront the Germans."

Powell knew next to nothing about combat aircraft, and he was given a Royal Air Force liaison to show him around some air bases and meet RAF fliers. On the last day of peace, his liaison came to the Thief of Bagdad set to meet Powell, who was shooting the magic-carpet sequence. "Flying carpets?" said the officer. "We'll have you flying on something better than this before you're finished, Mr. Powell."

In his research, Powell was especially fascinated by the new invention of radar, which for the moment remained secret. It not only appears in The Lion Has Wings but is depicted as operational and widespread, a piece of propaganda designed to scare the Nazis. "By cross-examining fighter pilots," wrote Powell, "I learnt enough about how the system worked to put on a show. The system was not in operation, but very soon would be. No reason why it should be 'top secret.' Night fighting up to that time had been a matter of who had the sharpest eyes and quickest wit. If we could make Jerry think that we could already shoot his pilots down before they sighted ours, we would shake his nerve. I told Dalrymple that I was going to exploit this magical radar thing in the flying sequences in the film.

"We decided that my sequences in the film were to show an all-out attack by Nazi bombers, supported by fighters, was completely wrecked by the use of radar by the fighter squadrons of the RAF (as actually happened nine months later). Of course, it wasn't known as radar then, nor did I explain it. It was this 'new thing' - 'this electric eye.'"

In all, Powell wrote, The Lion Has Wings "was an outrageous piece of propaganda, full of half-truths and half-lies, with some stagy episodes which were rather embarrassing and with actual facts which were highly distorted; but the will to fight was there, and I think The Lion Has Wings can claim to have caused a lot of people all over the world, who were inclined to support the Axis, to stop and think again. The making of this piece of popular propaganda also saved the British film industry from eclipse."

The film premiered in London on Oct. 31, 1939. Critics and audiences all knew it was propaganda, but the public ate it up, wanting to feel inspired. It received enormous publicity and was a huge hit. Churchill praised it, and, according to Michael Korda, "a print smuggled into Germany produced from Hitler a threat to bomb the British movie studios."

In a Nov. 19, 1939 New York Times article about the state of the British film industry, British writer C.A. LeJeune wrote: "Not quite documentary, not quite newsreel, not quite adventure tale, it combines all three in an hour of vivid journalistic cinema. We live again the Sunday morning of Sept. 3, the Prime Minister's broadcast, that first air-raid warning that ended the old order. We see the silver balloon barrage over London... Then comes the high spot of the film - a reconstruction of the Kiel Canal raid, from information supplied by the actual flyers, who are seen taking off and returning to the air field... By and large, we feel that Mr. Korda has got something in The Lion Has Wings that this country's propaganda can very well do with. As a nation we find it hard to roar, but this time we have opened our mouths and let out a good one."

The film's American opening, on Jan. 13, 1940, produced a similar response, with The New York Times declaring it "a tremendously interesting and exciting motion picture. It is Miss Oberon...who makes the film's ultimate plea, on behalf of England's wives and mothers, for a speedy and honorable end to this war for the right to freedom and justice and human dignity. And Mr. Richardson, with typical British reserve and dislike for emotional displays, falls asleep as she makes her little speech. The scene is illustrative of the general spirit of the film: purposeful, proud, firmly resolved, yet not so sober about it all as not to indulge in a grin now and then.... Labeling it propaganda doesn't alter the fact that it makes an interesting, informative and thrilling show."

Both The Lion Has Wings and The Spy in Black (1939) (Michael Powell's first collaboration with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger) were in release at the same time, and both performed very strongly at the box office, which helped Powell's career considerably. It gave him added clout and credibility as he (and Pressburger) produced another winner, Contraband (1940), then 49th Parallel (1941) and a slew of classic films through the rest of the decade and beyond.

The Lion Has Wings features voice-over narration by E.V.H. Emmett in the British version, and by Lowell Thomas in the American version. Both were famous broadcasters in their home countries.

Producer: Alexander Korda
Directors: Adrian Brunel, Brian Desmond Hurst, Michael Powell; Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Screenplay: Adrian Brunel, E.V.H. Emmett; Ian Dalrymple (story)
Cinematography: Osmond Borradaile, Bernard Browne, Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: Vincent Korda
Music: Richard Addinsell
Film Editing: Henry Cornelius, Charles Frend, Hugh Stewart, Derek N. Twist
Cast: Merle Oberon (Mrs. Richardson), Ralph Richardson (Wing Commander Richardson), June Duprez (June), Flora Robson (Queen Elizabeth I, edited from: Fire Over England, archive footage), Robert Douglas (Briefing officer), Anthony Bushell (Pilot), Brian Worth (Bobby), Austin Trevor (Schulemburg), Ivan Brandt (Officer), G.H. Mulcaster (Controller), Herbert Lomas (Holveg), Milton Rosmer (Head of Observer Corps), Ronald Adam (Bomber Chief).

by Jeremy Arnold


Michael Powell, A Life in Movies
Michael Korda, Charmed Lives
newspaper articles (as cited)



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