I’ve waited several years to see this, having learned about it as the first adaptation of the novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le retour des cendres) that formed the raw material for Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Germany 2014). It’s a very different film from Phoenix, but representative of its production context. The film is set primarily in Paris but shot at the MGM-British studio at Boreham Wood. I’m not sure if there were any B-unit shots in Paris, or stock footage. It is presented as a very beautiful B+W ‘scope print with Christopher Challis as DoP.
The basic plot offers us Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin) who we meet first in late 1945, arriving in Paris by train. She has been in a Nazi concentration camp and has made it back to Paris after a period of recuperation in a German sanatorium. Flashbacks reveal that in 1940 she was a wealthy widow working as a doctor in Paris and with a stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar) in boarding school in England. Michelle had taken a younger lover, a Polish chess champion, Stanislas Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) and the couple were married immediately before she was seized by the Nazis as a Jewish woman. The only other principal character is Dr Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), Michele’s colleague at the clinic.
When Michelle returns she is unrecognisable after the ravages of the camp but Bovard organises plastic surgery and the main narrative development in the story is that Stanislas does not recognise her, even though she gets back close to how she looked before. He believes the woman he married is dead but hatches a plan to steal her wealth which French law has frozen until death is confirmed or Michele is found alive. The remainder of the narrative becomes a mystery thriller involving the four principals.
The film belongs to the broader 1960s phenomenon of Hollywood films made in Europe. It was made by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists and the novel was adapted by the celebrated Hollywood writer Jules Epstein. But the production was essentially British with John Dankworth as music director joining Challis, by this time one of the leading British cinematographers (including the later films of ‘The Archers’ (Powell and Pressburger), and British heads of department throughout the rest of the creative team. Samantha Eggar was at this point the rising young star of British cinema, having made The Collector with Terence Stamp for William Wyler in the same year. Herbert Lom was established as a fine star actor in the UK, having arrived as a Czech migrant in 1939. Many of the supporting cast were originally French but domiciled in the UK whereas Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell were at this point known across Europe. Thulin, one of Bergman’s company in Sweden in the 1950s, appeared in French, German and Italian films as well as going back to Sweden. Schell was seen as the major German actor of his generation who worked in the UK or the US as well as Germany. Overall the cast of Return from the Ashes do manage to convey a Parisian sensibility, even though they are working in English. This is in contrast to the hairstyles and costumes in the film which, following Hollywood conventions, are faithful to the 1960s more than the 1940s. (Whereas Phoenix makes a good stab at conjuring up the Berlin of 1945-6.)
The producer-director of the film is J. Lee Thompson, a surprisingly prolific director for one who came to directing later than most. Born in 1914 he started to write plays as a teenager and gradually through the late 1930s his scripts were used for stage plays and some films.He continued as a writer up to the time of his war service and briefly afterwards until he got the chance to direct his own work in 1950. His second film,The Yellow Balloon proved to be his breakthrough work and throughout the 1950s he was a prominent director in the UK with several hits which were also critical successes. He gradually moved into larger scale films with international stories and actors and had a huge international success with The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961). Several other Hollywood successes followed but by the 1970s he was still making films but most of them were not up to the standard of his 1950s British films. Thompson was a Bristolian and it looks now as if the Bristol-based ‘Rediscovering Cinema Film Festival’ based at Watershed in the city is getting interested in exploring Thompson as a filmmaker. I think Return from the Ashes is a worthwhile film. The source novel has an unusual story which in this adaptation is played with the kind of climactic sequence which prompted the distributors to copy Hitchcock and beg audiences not to give away the ending. The effectiveness of the narrative depends on the camerawork by Challis and the strong performances of the four principals. I find it difficult to describe the intensity of the performances but Thulin and Schell are dynamic. Lom provides the strong and steady background and Eggar provides the beauty, the petulance and the nastiness that the part demands.
The HD print I found online is currently available on the best known video-sharing site and I’m grateful to the person who uploaded it. I don’t think I’m likely to find the second adaptation in 1982 which was made for French TV with the title Le retour d’Elisabeth Wolff (the Michele character).
The Tory government in the UK is seriously considering the possibility of selling the publicly owned Channel 4 TV corporation. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is not funded by the licence fee but by the sale of advertising. However, as well as its commitments as a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in the UK, Channel 4 has other commitments that derive from its establishment in 1982 as a ‘publisher broadcaster’. These have been watered down over time and particularly since the early 1990s when the bold, radical style of Channel 4’s operations was severely curtailed and the channel became more focused on mainstream programming skewed towards younger audiences, while retaining a cutting edge on particular forms of programming such as news. I confess that I became far less interested in the station at that point. However, the other parts of its original remit remained in the sense that Channel 4 was required to commission all its programming from other TV channels and particularly from independents. In addition this commissioning should include production outside London and the South East. This became particularly important when ITV ceased to be organised through regional franchises and became a single national network operation.
Film 4 is the film production and distribution arm of Channel 4, commissioning films since the channel’s outset. In the last 30 years, Film 4, alongside the BBC and BFI has been a major funder of independently produced British films. I would go so far as to suggest that if Channel 4 had not funded filmmakers in the 1980s through to the 2000s, the British film industry would probably have folded and become nothing more than an offshore facility for Hollywood productions. It might be argued that in reality that’s all the UK film industry has ever been except for its genuine studio period from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Nevertheless, Channel 4 and Film 4 have been important in ensuring that smaller independent British films have been made, including films in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as English regions. In doing so they have been crucial in helping to develop the careers of filmmakers such as Shane Meadows.
It’s also true that the commissioning of programmes by the BBC and ITV from independents eventually followed the Channel 4 lead. Even so, to take away that possibility that Channel 4 might fund an independent to make Derry Girls in the North of Ireland or It’s a Sin about a group of gay men learning to live with HIV/AIDS in the 1990s would be very damaging to the media ecology in the UK. Both have been big hits with audiences, but would another broadcaster have commissioned them? The companies that made them are now quite large independents, some having been acquired by foreign multinationals, but many others are still small UK companies. On Tuesday this week 44 independent production companies paid for a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph newspaper, a major Tory-supporting media outlet, arguing that privatisation “would cost jobs, reduce investment, and place companies at risk in the nations and regions”. The ad was timed to attract attention at the Tory Conference in Manchester.
The government response has predictably argued that any buyer of Channel 4 would be required to abide by its PSB and other founding commitments. So, it would follow the ‘successful’ model of privatisation of the rail industry, postal service, energy and water etc, all of which are now a national disgrace? If the privatisation goes ahead the only likely buyers are going to be multinationals and these will be mostly US-owned corporations. Can we see Disney, Viacom or Warner Bros, supporting offices in Leeds and Bristol and funding shows like Derry Girls? Perhaps they would, but in the long term they are international capitalist enterprises with only profit as a long-term goal (Channel 4 is currently a not-for-profit corporation). Would Film 4 still exist as a funder? Wouldn’t the already high US content of the channel just increase? Do we really think that the UK government could force one of these corporations to stick to PSB regulation?
There is a second concern here that links the possible privatisation of Channel 4 to the rise in film production from the streamers, principally Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple. The Tories will argue that the streamers are producing films in the UK, lured by high quality skilled crews and facilities and tax concessions for ‘high-end television’ as well as feature films. There are several problems with this. First, the government has no clear cultural policy. It cries out for films and TV about ‘British values’, whatever they may be, but The Crown is the only Netflix production I can think of that fits the government request and that’s not exactly social realism. Are Netflix going to fund Shane Meadows (and would Shane want to be funded by them?). Second, dependence on dollar investment in UK film and TV is vulnerable to exchange rate changes and other factors. The streamers could decide to leave for a host of reasons and all the shiny new studio spaces currently being hurriedly built to lure the streamers would be empty. I don’t subscribe to Netflix or Amazon, Disney or Apple TV+. Dealing with multinational capitalist enterprises is a given of modern life but this quartet threaten the very future of British broadcasting. With a government seemingly determined to ‘subdue’ the BBC and create more commercial freedom, UK TV will become as US-dominated as the UK film production. Channel 4 is one of the few organisations striving to protect independent filmmaking in the UK – and to help export the films produced. The privatisation must be stopped.
Limbo is one of the more remarkable British films of the last few years. Its subject matter of asylum-seekers in the UK is not in itself new, but its presentation here is – in several different ways. Although it is a fictional story, there is a real-life event which is some ways might prompt the ideas behind the fiction. In 2015, when the Conservative government in the UK agreed to take 10,000 Syrian refugees, a small number of families (15 or 24 according to varying reports) were sent to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Rothesay is a ferry and road/rail journey of around 2 hours away from Glasgow. The influx of even a small number of refugees was noted on an island with a resident population of only around 6,500. Fortunately the refugees appear to have settled in well.
Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo places a motley group of around 20 asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides (the film’s credits suggest that scenes were shot on several islands in the group including North Uist). This carries to the extreme the idea of isolating asylum-seekers with larger towns several hours journey away (apart from air services). The asylum-seekers are all single men who are housed in what appear to be local council dwellings and the narrative focuses on a group of four men in one of the small houses. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work until they have been cleared to stay in the UK as refugees. Sharrock’s approach to his narrative is arguably both absurdist and fantastical, but in many ways actually makes a more authentic statement about what it means to be an asylum seeker than other more ‘realist’ films. The film is released in the UK by MUBI and after cinema screenings it is now available to stream on MUBI. The stream includes a recorded discussion between writer-director Sharrock and his four principal actors. It is worth noting that the actors were at first reluctant to read a script which they thought might be the same old story about migrants and ‘white saviours’ etc. However, having read the script, they all became enthusiastic and very much wanted to be part of the production.
The film opens with a close-up on a blackboard. The camera pulls back to a mid-shot of a woman facing the camera. She nods and a man turns on a portable CD player. Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started With a Kiss’ begins and the camera pulls back to a long shot showing the woman slowly begin to move her body in time with the music. We can see the man now as well and the couple appear to be in a small hall with a high ceiling and a long thin blackboard on the wall behind the couple and a large space in front. The screen shape is Academy, the squarish shape (1.37:1) coming back into vogue for isolated art films. I was so mesmerised by this opening, I failed to recognise one of my very favourite performers, Sidse Babett Knudsen the Danish star of the Borgen TV serials. Here with long straggly hair and wearing an ill-fitting blouse and calf-length skirt, she and Kenneth Collard play Helga and Boris who are employed to help asylum-seekers to understand British customs. This lesson is ‘Cultural Awareness 101: Sex – Is a Smile an Invitation?’. When the camera offers us a reverse shot of the twenty asylum-seekers they look bemused, mystified or stunned. The camera picks out the four men who will be principal characters. Sidse’s dancing is at once hilarious, oddly strained and yet still erotic. The pacing is very slow. Helga asks a question when the dancing ends and one man slowly raises his hand to answer but we then cut to the bleak (but very beautiful) landscape of the isles with heather-covered moorland, seawater inlets and hills in the background and then to an isolated phone-box in the middle of nowhere. This is the centre of the universe for the asylum-seekers, their only means of access to the outside world (apart from a hill-top where a mobile signal might be possible). I’ve described this opening in detail because the constituent elements are well-known/conventional but Sharrock presents them in such a distinctive way throughout the film that we are invited to think again about what we see.
Eventually, our focus will narrow to just two of the characters (though significant action will also involve the two West Africans in the house). Omar is a Syrian who always carries his grandfather’s oud everywhere he goes. In its case, the oud is like a guitar and initially Omar cannot play it because he has injured his wrist. When his dressing is removed he is still unable to play but more from the trauma of being parted from his family (though he came to the UK deliberately, hoping to send for his parents). Omar speaks very good English, as does the other main character, the older Farhad, an engaging Afghani man who has been waiting longer for his asylum application to be considered. I’m not going to spoil any more of the narrative and instead I’ll stick to general comments about Ben Sharrock’s approach to his story. I understand he spent some time in Syria after growing up in Edinburgh. This is his second feature following Pikadero (Spain 2015), filmed in Spanish and Basque – this is also available on MUBI.
Limbo does have a conventional narrative of sorts. Some viewers might read it as a showing a ‘character journey’ for Omar. It’s not giving too much away to suggest that he can only free himself from his own ‘limbo’ by playing his oud, preferably for an audience. But this also means coming to terms with aspects of his family relationships and Sharrock finds ways to explore this using fantasy sequences which I think work very well. I think this is a wonderful film. Parts of it are very funny. One or two moments are harrowing. It isn’t an overlong film at just over 100 minutes but it is slow, giving you more time to appreciate the camerawork by Nick Cooke and the pacing of the edits by Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti, as well as reflecting on what you are seeing. The performances are all very good but particularly the two central performances by Amir El-Masry as Omar and Vikash Bhai as Farhad. Bhai is from Leicester and El-Masry was brought up in London. I realised later that I had seen El-Masry in the John Stewart film Rosewater (US 2014). He has also appeared in a Star Wars film. Bhai has been in several UK TV shows. El-Masry speaks Egyptian Arabic and Bhai learned some Dari for his role as an Afghani man. I point this out simply to confirm that this is a carefully scripted film for actors rather than an attempt to cast non-professionals in a form of realist drama. The focus is directly on the experience of ‘limbo’, the pervading sense of being caught in a ‘waiting room’ with memories of where you have left and attempts to maintain hope about where you might get to. There is relatively little contact between the four men and the locals who are mainly friendly if sometimes insensitive. The locals include both Helga and Boris but also a local Glaswegian Sikh shopkeeper who has some good lines. Reviewers have variously compared the film’s presentational style to Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. I can see the possible links but this is very much Ben Sharrock’s (and his cast and crew’s) film.
One of the best films I’ve seen this year and one that I very much recommend, I hope you can find Limbo online or on a cinema screen. Perhaps community cinemas will book it? You can view the MUBI trailer below. The US trailer is, I think, misleadingly ‘oversold’. The MUBI one gives you a better idea of the film.
Bank Holiday is notable for several reasons. It’s an early directorial effort from Carol Reed, borrowed from ATP for a Gainsborough production. It’s also an early outing for Margaret Lockwood, already looking ‘smashing’ and an experienced ‘leading lady’, but not yet the huge star she became in the 1940s – it was the third of her seven films made with Carol Reed. In her autobiography she argues that the success of this film made her a real film star in the UK. The photography is by Arthur Crabtree who would go on to become a major director at Gainsborough Studios. The strong supporting cast includes several notable players including Kathleen Harrison in her ‘Cockney’ persona. The film is a comedy-drama mixed with a romance. (In the US the film was retitled Three on a Weekend with one sequence excised to comply with the Hollywood Production Code.)
The first half of the film perhaps provided the model for the later propaganda picture Millions Like Us (1943) with its depiction of a seaside holiday in Brighton (disguised here as ‘Bexborough’). Reed and Crabtree offer us an almost documentary record of the British working-class August Bank Holiday (which was thensensibly at the start of August, rather than the end as currently). I particularly enjoyed the sequence at the London railway terminus (presumably meant to be Victoria). There are two, for me, unusual features of the film. The first is the casting (with top billing) of John Lodge, possibly for the US market. I confess that I wasn’t aware of Lodge as an actor and an American ‘blue-blood’. Lodge was a tall man with a severe demeanour and a face seemingly etched from marble. I’m not surprised that his biggest role was opposite Marlene Dietrich in Joseph von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress in 1934, early in his short acting career. Later he appeared in several British films plus a French production but he gained a naval commission in 1942 and never returned to acting. He was part of the two great New England families, the Lodges and the Cabots, and after the war he became first a US Senator and then Governor of Connecticut. When the Republicans returned to power in 1968 he moved into diplomacy as an American Ambassador. With his background, Bank Holiday sounds an unlikely production on which to utilise his talents. In fact Lodge as ‘Stephen Howard’ provides the serious drama which to some extent bookends the comedy and romance. As the film opens, he is waiting for the birth of his first child and his wife is being tended by hospital nurse Catharine Lawrence (Margaret Lockwood). The birth is difficult and the mother dies. Catharine is very moved by Stephen’s distress but like so many other workers in London, she is expecting on this Saturday lunchtime to travel to the seaside with her boyfriend Geoffrey (Hugh Williams). Can she enjoy the Bank Holiday with Stephen’s despair hanging over her? On her train journey we meet the other characters who provide the two main comic adventures.
Kathleen Harrison plays the mother of three young children, travelling with her not very supportive husband. This Lancashire actor (born in Blackburn) solidified her persona as a cheerful Cockney character in the post-war ‘Huggets family’ films at Gainsborough, starting with Holiday Camp in 1947 (which is also ‘topical’ in detailing the post-war surge in holiday camps). The other main comic narrative in Bank Holiday features René Ray as Doreen, the winner of the ‘Miss Fulham’ beauty contest hoping to win a prize in a contest at the Grand Hotel in Bexborough. With her is her friend Milly (Merle Tottenham) and this narrative also plays on the social class differences as all the film’s characters end up at the Grand Hotel for various reasons. (There is an interesting glimpse into the world of ‘girls’ papers’ discussed by Doreen and Milly at the newsstand in this piece from the Jill Craigie Project.) The original story idea and final script for Bank Holiday were written by Rodney Ackland (with Hans Wilhelm and Roger Bruford). This was Ackland’s first major success and he went on to have a hand in many more stories and scripts.
I’m interested in Bank Holiday partly because it seems like Gainsborough’s answer to ATP’s success with Sing As We Go (1934) starring Gracie Fields on her trip to Blackpool. Fields was the biggest British female star of the 1930s and Blackpool was Brighton’s main rival as the premier seaside resort. I’m biased in favour of Blackpool, but I’m intrigued by some of the Brighton footage, especially the outdoor swimming pool which I’m assuming was the Black Rock Pool. The 1930s was the age of the Lido in the UK, with 180 built between 1930 and 1939 (see the history of Grange-over-Sands lido). Margaret Lockwood in 1938 couldn’t match Fields, but she was at the top by 1945. They were, however, very different kinds of film star. Lockwood could sing but I don’t think she did in films?
The film’s script cleverly brings the three narratives together through the Grand Hotel (and the idea of the ‘dirty weekend’ as Geoffrey finally gets a room with a double bed for his girlfriend Catharine). I find the tonal shift between the drama of Catharine’s concern for Stephen and the comedy of the Brighton adventures to be startling and Stephen’s behaviour at the hospital is shocking by modern day standards but it doesn’t seem to have bothered the 1938 audiences. In some ways the film feels like a war-time picture with its tragedy and comedy mix and the fears of war are presented through newspaper hoardings. Reed and his crew are I think quite brave in the way that they represent dreams and interior thoughts, such as Catharine’s about Stephen as she handles the cigarette lighter that he left behind at the hospital. Linden Travers has the small but significant role as Stephen’s dead wife Ann. The first occasion, when Catharine thinks about Stephen is presented, I think, as a parallel narrative, with Stephen staring into the Thames while Catharine gazes into the sea. The second longer sequence, when Catharine plays with the lighter, offers something I haven’t seen before. Catharine’s thoughts about Stephen conjure up a flashback to Stephen and Ann together watching a royal event which could be the Coronation of George VI in 1937. Has anyone else seen this kind of narrative device? Does it have a special name?
But above all this is Margaret Lockwood’s film. She went to Hollywood soon after her next film, The Lady Vanishes for Alfred Hitchcock, but she didn’t enjoy her time at 20th Century Fox (Fox had a ‘star-exchange’ scheme with Gainsborough and Ms Lockwood found herself playing opposite Shirley Temple rather than Tyrone Power as she hoped. After a second Hollywood production loaned out to Paramount she came back to the UK with her husband just a few weeks before war broke out in 1939.
Here’s the Talking Pictures TV trailer for Bank Holiday:
This programme is part of the Centenary Celebrations at the Picture House which opened in July 1921. And Saturday September 4th sees a screening of the delightful comedy drama The Smallest Show on Earth in its original 35mm format; (the film starts at 5 p.m.). This is a production of many talents from British Lion: produced by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and directed by Basil Dearden from a script by William Rose and John Eldridge. All of these are key contributors to the British cinema of the 1950s.
The ‘Smallest Show’ takes place in the Bijou Kinema. Its new owners are Jean and Matt Spencer (Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers). The Bijou is an exterior facade in Kilburn and an interior set at Shepperton Studio. But Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography and Oswald Hafenrichter’s editing creates a believable “flea pit” that resembles some of the fine surviving cinemas from the 1920s. This atmospheric venue comes with three equally archaic but engaging staff. Percy Quill (Peter Sellers) is the projectionist lovingly caring for a machine out of the early 1900s: Old Tom (Bernard Miles) is the commissionaire, still with a regal uniform that I remember from my youth: and Mrs Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford) is cashier and bookkeeper. Among the memorable lines in the film is her explanation of how they handle the period’s Entertainment Tax.
In a sequence approaching time travel we view an after hours film show with Quill projecting a classic silent film whilst Mrs Fazackalee accompanies on the piano. Intriguingly for the audience on Saturday the silent film clip is from Cecil Hepworth’s 1923 ‘Comin’ thro the Rye’ starring Alma Taylor. Later in the centenary people can enjoy full-length film by this pair: Helen of Four Gates (1920).
This is a genuine British classic offering eighty minutes of pleasure for first-time viewers and those revisiting the film. For the latter I should reassure them that the Picture House is more commodious than the Bijou and that the former’s 35mm projector is more up-to-date and in better condition that that of the latter.
This film belongs to one of the most successful sequences of continuous film production ever achieved by a team of filmmakers. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (P&P) made more than a dozen films together between 1939 to 1949. All of them have stood up well and some of them have come to be seen as the best of British cinema. Having been united by Alexander Korda for The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), Powell and Pressburger stayed together in the UK when Korda went to Hollywood to lead the UK propaganda effort in the US. P&P made the highly successful propaganda picture 49th Parallel in 1941. They were surprised that after the commercial success of their Canadian-based film (which was also an American hit, winning an Oscar for Pressburger’s script) they were unable to get funding from Rank to make their next picture when their outline was deemed ‘non-commercial’. Instead they turned to Lady Yule at British National who agreed to fund another propaganda picture (the filmmakers were committed to films that supported the war effort directly). They also decided to pool their talents and form their own production company ‘The Archers’, taking equal credits as ‘Producer, Writer and Director’. Their first Archers title was based on the phrase that Powell heard on nightly radio broadcasts: “One of our aircraft has failed to return”. In late 1941 and early 1942 the RAF was charged with night-time bombing raids on German targets but these were still part of a limited offensive by twin-engined bombers such as the Vickers Wellington, the bomber built in the largest numbers during wartime. The RAF provided a ‘shell’ of a Wellington to The Archers for the inflight shots and a full scale model of was built at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith to shoot scenes of the bomber over Germany and the final crash back in the UK. The interiors were shot at Denham.
The opening of the film is innovative and shows both Pressburger’s ideas about narrative and Powell’s brilliance in presenting moving images. The title on the print I saw was actually ‘. . . One of our aircraft is missing‘ – a snappier title than the original radio announcement. Pressburger begins the narrative with the execution order of Dutch resistance workers shot for aiding British flyers, giving the emphasis to them rather than the RAF crew. Then, having established that the Wellington bomber ‘B for Bertie’ has not returned from a bombing raid, we see that the aircraft is apparently flying itself across the channel, after which it is too low to avoid crashing into an electricity pylon. What has happened? The actual credits roll now with the aircrew presenting themselves and then we flashback to discover what happened to the six man crew who baled out of their aircraft believing it was about to crash. The narrative will then follow their attempts, aided by various Dutch communities, to get back to the UK.
If you’ve seen 49th Parallel, you’ll realise that One of Our Aircraft is Missing reverses every aspect of the earlier film. Where six Germans from a U-boat attempted to cross Canada to reach the neutral US, we now have six RAF crew attempting to escape from occupied Holland. The Canadians were encouraged to look out for the enemy, the Dutch were to be portrayed as brave and resourceful in resisting the Nazi occupation. The film had the support of the Dutch government in exile in London.
P&P made several important decisions about the film. They declined to use any non-diegetic music and decided that the Dutch and Germans should speak their own languages (which aren’t subtitled). English was used only when it was logical to do so given the events (i.e. when the Dutch townspeople talk to the RAF flyers). This realism factor is heightened by the use of locations in East Anglia to represent Dutch houses, canals, fields/fens etc. The film looks very fine. It was photographed by Ronald Neame and edited by David Lean, both of whom would later become directors in their own right. The casting of the RAF crew included well-known actors of the time with Eric Portman and Bernard Miles as the names which are perhaps best remembered from the period. (Eric Portman played the leading Nazi in 49th Parallel.) Smaller roles include Peter Ustinov as a priest, but for fans of Powell & Pressburger perhaps the two most significant roles are taken by Pamela Brown and Googie Withers. Pamela Brown was a successful theatre actor but this was her first film role. She would become one of Powell’s lovers and the two remained close throughout the rest of her life. Googie Withers had worked with Powell in the 1930s when she was still a bit player or a lead in ‘quota quickies’ and comedies. She could speak Dutch as her mother had a Dutch background. The Archers used her again in the second Dutch resistance film they produced but didn’t direct, The Silver Fleet (1943). With these roles she moved up in the British film industry and emerged as a star in Ealing pictures from 1944 onwards.
The script avoids any direct confrontations between the aircrew and the German forces who are mostly seen in long shot or overheard. It is not until the final acts of the escape that the crew have to fend for themselves. Up until then they are protected by the Dutch resistance. One of the ironies of the film is that there is actually very little ‘flying action’. Instead this is much more a ‘resistance/escape’ narrative with the final section involving an ingenious device which again needed permission from the War Office to use.
One final point about the script is discussed at some length by Powell in his memoir, A Life in Movies (1986) sheds more light on P&P’s ideas. They had the idea early on to include an ‘over-age’ member of the aircrew based on a widely-reported statement by an eccentric MP who joined up to fight. (Most aircrew were very young.) P&P wanted to include an older man who would be played by Ralph Richardson but he was unavailable (he was working for the Fleet Air Arm, although P&P did get him for The Silver Fleet). They turned instead to a much older actor, the matinee idol from the 1910s and 1920s who was a Great War veteran, Godfrey Tearle. He is tolerated by the younger airman who don’t really understand him and Pressburger wrote a scene in which he tries to explain to the younger men that he was like them in his youth. David Lean persuaded Powell to cut the scene during the edit because it didn’t advance the plot. Lean supposedly said it introduced a theme that could make a whole film. This became the birth of the Colonel Blimp character in the next P&P film. Powell was fond of telling stories and this may be an exaggerated version of events. Nevertheless it points towards P&P’s understanding of wartime Britain and their stunning creativity at this point. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a great propaganda film and a wonderful example of wartime filmmaking.
Here’s the trail on Talking Pictures TV with Pamela Brown as resistance leader very much in control: