Thursday 27 August 2009

The Lion Has Wings (1939)

Directors: Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrian Brunel
Stars: Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson

Rushed into production by Alexander Korda to aid the British war effort, using three directors working simultaneously, this is unmistakably a British propaganda picture and as such, becomes a real slice of the era. For the longest time it's made as a documentary in the style of the newsreel footage of the day, using EVH Emmett of Gaumont British News to narrate it. Korda wasn't British by birth, being born Sándor László Kellner in Pusztatúrpásztó, Austria-Hungary, and he wandered around the nations making films before settling in Britain, which he fell in love with, thus prompting films like this that he financed out of his own pocket. It succeeded in showing the government the power of film in such a conflict and played a large part in keeping that industry alive for the duration.

We watch Britain at peace, improving itself, enjoying itself, free and happy. There's even room for internal joking, as the healthy English sports of rugby, swimming and athletics are compared with a Scots propensity for throwing large heavy things about. Even King George is having fun, walking around in public singing songs with his people. Then we see the real comparison, Nazi Germany, where it would seem that nobody does anything except march and listen to Hitler. It even takes a leaf out of Leni Riefenstahl's book by including some of her footage from Triumph of the Will and some of the healthy pursuits we English pride ourselves on could easily have been used in a German propaganda film.

With traditional English reserve, it's polite even when talking about the enemy and modest when talking about ourselves. When tearing holes in Hitler's hollow promises, he's still called Herr Hitler and we prove his real motives by naming the pages of Mein Kampf and reading the appropriate quotes, like page 315 explaining why the supreme race should conquer and subdued the world. At Hendon, Ralph Richardson, as Wing Commander Richardson, looks at the great display of aviation skill and points out to Merle Oberon as his screen wife that 'they're quite good.' When war is declared and she asks him if we're ready, he answers, 'We've never been better prepared,' and if that single statement isn't the entire point of the film, I don't know what is.

What it gets right is the focus on the air, which would soon be proved in the Battle of Britain when we defeated the German Luftwaffe, who had the benefit of bigger numbers and better machinery. It got the matter of fact nature of the Brits down too. As a bombing squadron sets off for the Kiel Canal, one airman asks another about the party that night. 'Better make tomorrow,' he replies. This tone is the greatest success here. It speaks to confidence, preparation, capability, things to settle the butterflies in the collective stomachs of much of the country.

What Leni Riefenstahl did with propaganda was inspire awe, what Korda gives here is quiet belief that we don't need to inspire awe to get the job done, because getting the job done is what we do best. Even though pains are taken to point out that this war wasn't of our doing and we really didn't want any part of it, if it has to be fought we'll fight it and we'll do so with the best of our ability. Whether we're in the headquarters of fighter command or with the watches on the coast, or even back in the days of the Spanish Armada, the impression is business as usual, which in many ways it was, given that this is recycled footage from Fire Over England.

It gets things wrong, as it was bound to do given that it was the very beginning of the war. In explaining that we're ready even for a long war, that worst case scenario is given as three years, or about half what it turned out to be. There's a proclamation that we wouldn't bomb civilians, but the people of Dresden found out the worst way that we wouldn't live up to that claim. In fact the politeness that pervades here isn't just about the general nature of the English, it speaks to a different era, one before the real horrors of what World War II would bring. It suggests that what we'd discover soon wasn't even something we could conceive beforehand.

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