“We must keep our land, darling. We must keep our freedom. We must fight for what we believe in: Truth, and Beauty, and Fair Play, and… and Kindness, so that even if we don't live to enjoy life founded on the good things, at least our children may. Eh, darling?”
- Mrs. Richardson's heartfelt speech that literally sends her husband into a deep snooze (and a few viewers)
When Britain entered WWII, production halted on Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad, and the producer marshaled a cachet of that film's talent pool towards developing and realizing a propaganda feature that outlined the country's patient efforts to avoid war with Germany until there simply was no choice but to defend itself against power-hungry Hitler.
As Ian Christie explains in his incisive liner notes in Criterion's booklet, Korda poured a good chunk of his own money towards getting the film make, and had a few stars – master thespian Ralph Richardson, Korda's then-wife Merle Oberon, Bagdad's heroine June Duprez – appear in the dramatic episodes interwoven with a great deal of old and newly shot documentary footage.
The dramatic episodes outlined by Ian Dalrymple (A Hill in Korea) are dated, stale, and horribly melodramatic (see opening quote), and exemplify the kind of cheerfully reserved, stoically dignified archetypes that the angry young men directors in the sixties would accost in their social dramas.
Richardson and Oberon play cleanly-dressed, upper-class citizens who lend their skills towards the war effort while maintaining a very cozy lifestyle in London, and their worries, hugs and kisses, and reunion after long shifts in the RAF and hospital, respectively, play like politely dragged nails on blackboard, but at the same time they make for fascinating comparisons with the more energetic, nationalistic archetypes American studios would lard into their own propaganda films once the U.S. entered the war soon after.
The film's most irritating aspect is an ongoing narration that heralds nothing but Britain's absolute supremacy in all technological and societal endeavors, and the DVD's archived comments from co-director Michael Powell reinforce the film's propagandistic role: to ensure Britons that the whole country was ready to hit the Huns with a treasure-trove of indigenous and colonial resources.
Powell's says the film was “full of half-truths and half-lies… and actual fats that were highly distorted,” and the film was really just a “hodge-podge” of sections and montages showing the country's war production in full swing, which Powell confesses were “illusory” due to resources and other issues.
Nevertheless, the film does an efficient job in laying the basic historical stepping stones that led to Britain 's displeasure with Germany , contrasting the Nazi and British styles in satirical montages, and showing the RAF's force in two air battles: a bombing raid, and a repulse of German bombers from British soil.
WWII and air buffs will love the rare footage of vintage fighter planes (in manufacturing, air show, and flying montages), whereas the combat sequences are very economical, and largely dependent on stock footage, close-ups of wounded German pilots, and models plummeting to the ground. Even more amusing is the final battle which is never seen: the camera simply holds on Richardson 's tense visage as he listens to the audio of the battle. The actor pretty much saves a scene that's a cheap cheat, unless Powell wanted to emphasize human emotions in place of fast action, explosions, and fireball victories.
Film fans familiar with The Battle of Britain (1969) will also find some striking similarities with the dramatized air combat sequences, and the war room set, where high-seated overlords instruct pilots by radio after viewing current enemy fighter positions on a pair of immense table maps below.
Richard Addinsell's score offers a predictable mix of heroic marches, themes, and sparse underscore, and he has some cheeky fun by rescoring footage of German musicians during a Nazi march montage with a threadbare collection of instruments playing flatulent, burlesque-styled music.
The mix of footage from very diverse sources works surprisingly well, and the film's editors managed to evoke some intense combat montages, although a German air assault on London becomes very comical when Nazi captain calls off the raid after seeing the massive balloons over London, designed to force them to higher and increasingly inaccurate bombing altitudes; one worrisome glance, and the whole mission's aborted, just like that.
Co-director Adrian Brunel would make one final film, The Girl Who Forgot (1940), before virtually disappearing from filmmaking after enjoying a prolific career during the 1920s, whereas Brian Desmond Hurst would make two notable war films: Dangerous Moonlight (1941), and Malta Story (1953).
Michael Powell's other wartime films as writer, director, and/or producer include The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), the propaganda short An Airman's Letter to His Mother (1941), The 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Silver Fleet (1943), the propaganda short The Volunteer (1943), and A Canterbury Tale (1944).
The Lion Has Wings comes as a bonus feature in Criterion's 2-disc edition of The Thief of Bagdad.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan