Deprived of the operatic spectacle that accentuated their post-war work, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing finds Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in a state of artistic puberty, developing their skill set before taking the intellectual leap into aesthetics. Nascent attempts at exploiting oblique camera angles and meticulously-shot excerpts of aerial photography bear a precision that would blossom into a fanciful future, but stern duty makes for anemic drama, leaving an honest patriotic endeavor to stagnate beneath the slow progression of narrative diligence.
Hints of Expressionism surface beneath the formality of reenactment, particularly in the narrow quarters of a Royal Air Force bomber, but The Archers’ efforts to limit character development and the melodrama of emotional familiarity are thwarted by the intentions of diplomatic financiers, who ushered the picture into production as a sign of solidarity between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The resulting collaboration separates creative differences into autonomous vignettes: the first and superior portion examining an unsuccessful British airstrike and the second taking inventory of Dutch cultural idiosyncrasies amidst the flying regiment’s ground-level escape.
Powell and Pressburger are far more comfortable in the “beehive” than the lowlands, milking tension from the murky glow of a cramped cockpit and ominous bird’s-eye visions of the theater of operations, cloaking each distant windmill in caliginous shade. The only illumination discernible on screen billows forth from flame-engulfed structures and fiery bursts of gunfire, which obscure the field of view and lunge towards the aircraft’s wings like wrathful schools of flying fish.
The ethereal grandeur of the lighting and miniature set design evoke Fritz Lang’s future worlds at a great distance, forcing the eye to squint at vast alien ruins and stirring the imagination despite the humbleness of their creation. The inability to determine each piece’s origin (cardboard or concrete?) speaks volumes about the team’s consummate craftsmanship and nary a shot passes without a recurring symbol, often aligning the repetitive motion of clocks and gauges to the dehumanization of military protocol.
Sadly, this subtextual language dissipates after the plane runs aground, leaving the film to coast on a cocktail of dry colloquy and Dutch courtesy. When not trading in fish out of water cliché or cross-dressing farce, the script leans heavily on clerical humor of both kinds, mocking Der Kommandant through coded pipe organ anthem and an endless stream of forged bicycle permits. Though it may seem wise to inject levity into a picture preoccupied with strafing strategy, the imbalance between halves forfeits the danger and virtuosity of the opening raid, thrusting a schmaltzy climax on a sober audience.
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (British National Films Ltd., 1942)
Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Photographed by Ronald Neame
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