One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, released in 1942, was the first film Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made after formalizing their partnership as The Archers, with both taking equal credit for writing, producing and directing. In 1941 they had collaborated on The 49th Parallel. In 1943 they would make The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the first of a series of masterpieces they created in the Forties. In practice, Powell directed, Pressburger wrote and did most of the producing, and they closely collaborated on every aspect of their films.
The movie tells the story of the crewmen who bailed out of their bomber, B for Bertie, over The Netherlands in 1941. Even more, it tells the story of the Dutch men and women who endangered their own lives to give the crew shelter, to protect them and to pass them on to the North coast of Holland until rescue could be arranged.
Bertie, a two-engine bomber, is returning from a run over Stuttgart when it's hit by flak. The plane loses an engine but the crew nurse the plane along until the second engine stutters out over Holland. The six-man crew bail out. Five land together; one is missing. There is John Haggard (Hugh Burden), the pilot and the youngest; Tom Earnshaw (Eric Portman), the co-pilot, a Yorkshire businessman before the war; Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams), the navigator, a West End actor with a famous wife; Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones), the radio operator, a soccer star; Geoff Hickman (Bernard Miles), the front gunner, an owner of an auto garage; and George Corbett (Godfrey Tearle), the rear gunner, at least twenty-five years older than the others, a knight, a member of parliament who immediately signed up with the Royal Air Force when war was declared.
The crew, which is shortly reunited, now must trust the men and women of Holland. With one clever ruse after another they finally arrive at a house on the edge of the North Sea, owned by a woman who professes hatred of the English. She runs fishing boats and has the town's German detachment headquartered in her home. Eventually, in the middle of a British bombing attack, she will take them down to her basement, put them in a row boat, have one of her fishing boats meet them and take them to a German rescue buoy bobbing in the middle of the North Sea. There is a radio in the buoy. With a little luck the crew will be picked up by a British ship before a German ship arrives. She has done this before.
At each step of the crew's journey through Holland they meet more men and women who will put their lives at risk for the crew. The Dutch know who they are and protect them. The Germans suspect there is a British crew about, but can't find them. We meet a burgomeister (Hay Petrie) whose young son plays a dangerous trick on the Germans, a young priest (Peter Ustinov), a brave church organist (Alec Clunes) and a frightened Dutch collaborator (Robert Helpmann). At each step the situations grow increasingly tense and dangerous.
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing is a propaganda movie. It is precisely because Powell and Pressburger were so unwilling to do the ordinary and the expected that it holds up very well nearly 65 years later. For instance...
--There is no phony derring do or heroics. The Dutch get the job done in threatening situations, but with bravery that is understated. The crew know their lives depend on these men and women and learn quickly to do as they are told.
--We hardly see a German. And we never see a ranting, raving German officer or an enlisted goon. The German threat hangs over the movie, but it is made more effective by being subtle.
--The class consciousness of many British war movies, with the officers brave and well bred and the working class enlisted men often used for comic relief, is muted. All members of the crew have their own characteristics. All are members of the same team.
--The bravest of the Dutch, the most resourceful and the ones with the iciest nerves, are the women. From Else Meertens (Pamela Brown), a schoolteacher in a small community, to Jo de Vries (Googie Withers), who plays a risky double game with the Germans and owns the fishing boats, it is the women to whom the crew owe their salvation.
--There is no musical score. What we hear is wind rushing by, boots marching, the creak of windmills, water lapping at a stone pier and, often, just silence. Only a director as sure of himself as Powell could get away without using music to cue us what to feel.
--As tense as many of the situations are, Powell and Pressburger never shy away from humor in unlikely situations. It works because it allows us to know the characters better and to let us catch our breath before another dangerous scene starts. And they are sly. You have to be quick (or read a couple of reviews, which is what I did) to catch at least two puns they throw into the action.
--The opening, and especially the closing, is typically quirky and satisfying. I won't even try to describe them.
The movie was dedicated to the members of the Dutch resistance. We last see the crew getting ready to board their new bomber, this one a big four-engine job. Their target? Berlin.
The Region 2 DVD available from Amazon UK is not perfect (the picture is a bit soft) but the film looks much better than any VHS version out and is well worth buying.