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Laurence Olivier - Star of the Month
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Conquest of the Air

This multi-part British semi-documentary drama recounts humanity's attempts to fly from ancient times up to the mid-1930s, employing dramatic re-enactments, archival footage beginning with World War I-era aircraft, and actual working models of early flying machines. As expected from a country poised at the edge of war, there is a certain amount of nationalism and sabre-brandishing in showcasing the commercial and experimental aircraft in use or development at the time of the film's production, including the earliest helicopters. It's no surprise, then, that the picture was commissioned by the British government's Air Ministry.

The film was updated to include footage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, when the German airship (aka zeppelin or dirigible) exploded on docking at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, killing 13 passengers, 22 crew members, and one ground crew member. That version was released in 1940, after Great Britain had entered World War II.

The film was produced by Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born filmmaker who had risen to prominence in the British film industry with such international successes as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and Rembrandt (1936). Conquest of the Air credits five different directors, chiefly the producer's younger brother, Zoltan Korda, who would go on to direct The Four Feathers (1939) and Jungle Book (1942). The Kordas' obvious affinity for historical subjects served them well in the first half of the movie, which features a number of actors recreating such important figures in the development of air travel as Wilbur and Orville Wright, Leonardo da Vinci, Roger Bacon, the Montgolfier Brothers, Von Zeppelin, and Vincent Lunardi, the pioneering balloonist.

Lunardi, known in his time as "The Daredevil Aeronaut," made a highly publicized hot air balloon flight in London in 1784, witnessed by the Prince of Wales and other prominent aristocrats and statesmen. Carrying a dog, a cat, and a pigeon, Lunardi traveled 24 miles in his ostentatiously decorated hydrogen balloon, which with characteristic bluster he claimed to have designed as a "tribute to all things British." Following this display of air prowess, Lunardi became the most sought-after man in London for a time. He is played appropriately with great bravado--and an Italian accent--by the 29-year-old Laurence Olivier, fresh off his success as Orlando in the film version of Shakespeare's As You Like It (1936) and not long after the London stage sensation of Romeo and Juliet, in which he alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud. It was a small role and something of a lark for the young actor but an important step in Olivier's rise in film. Two months later he would be seen in the even more jingoistic Fire Over England (1937) with future wife Vivien Leigh, followed by the popular romantic comedy The Divorce of Lady X (1938), with Merle Oberon. As both of those films were produced by Alexander Korda, it's obvious Olivier's turn in this docudrama did him ample favors.

The second half of the film relies more heavily on archival footage and, as such, is more documentary in feel, especially given the rather stodgy narration by Charles Frend. This half does include some fascinating footage of the early stages of automated flight and navigation techniques and the development of both civilian and military equipment. In addition to bombers and fighter craft, we get some insight into the beginnings of the then relatively recent aircraft carriers and helicopters.

Directors: Zoltan Korda, Alexander Esway, John Monk Saunders, Alexander Shaw, Donald Taylor
Producer: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: John Monk Saunders; commentary written by Peter Bezencenet and Hugh Gray; from stories by Antoine St. Exupery
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper, George Noble, Hans Schneeberger, Lee Garmes (uncredited)
Editing: Peter Bezencenet, Charles Frend, R. Q. McNaughton (uncredited)
Music: Arthur Bliss
Cast: Frederick Culley (Roger Bacon), Laurence Olivier (Vincent Lunardi), Franklin Dyall (Jerome de Ascoli), Henry Victor (Otto Lilienthal), John Turnbull (Von Zeppelin).

by Rob Nixon



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