The ‘Royal-Champion’ Storyline | Case Study:
The RAF On Screen, From The Dawn Patrol to The Sound Barrier
Royal Air Force pilots have traditionally been portrayed onscreen in romantic terms, as 'knights of the air' who had a code of gallantry. In WWII, they were 'The Few', after Churchill's quote that never was so much owed by so many to so few. They made suitable modern versions of the 'royal champion' figure for public consumption in wartime. The truth of course is more complex, and various screen dramas to their credit have tried to reflect this.
The RAF was formed on 1 April, 1918, becoming the ‘oldest independent air force in the world’ ie not just a part of an Army organisation. (The US did not have a separate Air Force until 1947.) A British air force actually existed before that under another name, the Royal Flying Corps, a part of the British Army founded in 1912; the new name reflected the fact it was amalgamating, as an independent organisation under a new Air Ministry, the RFC with the Royal Navy’s air arm, the RNAS. (The latter was essentially returned to RN control in 1939 as the Fleet Air Arm.)
RAF use of biplanes extended into early WW2, as films made at the outset of WW2, like Korda's quickly-made, impromptu propaganda 1939 drama/ documentary The Lion Has Wings, clearly show.

The Fleet Air Arm's torpedo-carrying biplanes and crews which crippled Bismarck in May 1940 (as seen in Sink The Bismarck, 1960, above) would have been part of the RAF until the previous year. (The new Fleet Air Arm got its own tribute film in 1941 - Ealing's Ships With Wings, a tale of derring-do by a pilot aboard the carrier Ark Royal.)

Dramas Set In WWI
The Dawn Patrol / Flight Commander (1930)
The CO of a front-line RFC squadron must order his men to their deaths, losing them one after another, until he can stand it no more. This psychological drama is not so much about the strain of command itself, but about the strain imposed by the military chain of command, where GHQ is just a voice on the field telephone, issuing orders which are virtual death sentences. (They are up against air ace 'von Richter' who is providing air cover for the upcoming German offensive. The final raid, on a vital enemy supply depot, is naturally a one-man suicide mission.)
This WW1 drama, co-scripted by John Monk Saunders from his story "The Flight Commander”, is almost forgotten, eclipsed by the 1938 remake [below], being then retitled Flight Commander to avoid confusion. At the time, Howard Hughes tried to block its release, as unwanted competition for his still incomplete Hell's Angels [see below], bringing suit for plagiarism. Warner Bros rushed it through post-production and beat Hell's Angels to the theatres, the suit being dismissed.
Comment – This is one of the first military dramas to establish the motif where we see the chain of command passing leadership responsibility on down, as men are killed and replaced, so that the bolshy 2nd-in-command finally becomes the new CO, now as strict as his predecessor.

Hell's Angels (1930)
The original script by Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook has two English brothers leave Oxford to join the RFC when WWI begins, get tangled up with a former friend, a German student who joins the Luftwaffe, and a young woman playing one off against the other. After being captured while participating in a bomber raid on a German munitions depot, one brother shoots the other to stop him giving away the Allies' attack plan, before he himself is executed.
This 131-minute production [cut by 30+ mins for its UK release], is regarded as the first major aviation sound film. (Wings, 1927, a tale of US fliers in Europe, had been a silent.) It was filmed by producer/ co-director Howard Hughes at great length, requiring reshoots when the advent of talkies overtook it. English co-director James Whale actually filmed another WWI classic, Journey's End, while Hughes was still shooting aerial scenes. (Several crew were killed in flying accidents.) Whale also brought in Joseph Moncure March to re-write the script. The writing is still crass, the actors make no attempt to pretend they are British, and the story, which also works in a Zeppelin raid and German air ace von Richthofen, makes little sense. It features the usual Hollywood-war-film setup of brothers in arms overcoming their romantic rivalry for self-sacrifice. There is only one real flying sequence, occupying most of the last 40 minutes, with dozens of planes, and some impressive shots.
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
The CO of an RFC squadron must order his men to their deaths, losing them one after another, until he can stand it no more.
Comment – This is an almost scene-for-scene remake of the 1930 version [above] and reuses its aerial footage. (Though California’s desert and mountain landscapes scarcely resemble France.) However this is regarded as the major version, which raises the matter of why. At first it appears the dialogue has had a 'polish', the result being livelier and more focused, but the credits don't list an additional writer, but rather one less, which may be the explanation. The director of the 1930 version, Howard Hawks, also had a script adaptation co-credit, and even tried to take story credit when it was nominated for Best Story Oscar, saying it was all based on his own WW1 experiences [!]. (The award was given to John Monk Saunders, who said his story and dialogue were inspired by interviews he conducted with WW1 fliers. Saunders had co-scripted Wings, the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar.) It may be that Hawks as director had cut out anything that didn't fit his own stock idea of a male-group ethos (his trademark), and this material was restored here, making it a richer film.

Aces High (1976)
This Anglo-French production was scripted by Howard Barker from RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, with material from the 1936 memoir Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Arthur Lewis, the last surviving WW1 British flying ace. Sherriff’s original play was set in a company-HQ dugout on the Western Front, but most of the ground scenes are transferred almost intact to a forward RFC airfield. The theme is similar to that of The Dawn Patrol: the psychological strain of front-line service where life expectancy is a matter of a few weeks, and command decisions are likely to get your mess companions killed.
Comment – The play is a WW1 classic, and the transfer of the setting from the trenches to an airfield works well. A prologue scene added by Howard Barker, where the Squadron Leader is greeted as a crusading hero at his old public school, sets up the disillusioning reality to follow.

‘Biggles’ (James C Bigglesworth RFC/RAF) is the best-known fictional RAF character, in a long-running [1932-68] series of 100+ boys adventure stories by Captain WE Johns, who was ex RFC/RAF, a WW1 bomber pilot who survived umpteen crashes and ended the war a POW. Yet amazingly there are no direct film adaptations and only one tv production, a low-budget soundstage-shot b&w 1960 ITV children’s series, where Biggles is a ‘Detective Air Inspector’ working with Scotland Yard.
A Biggles feature was announced in 1968, to star James Fox, but this was cancelled. In 1969, Universal Studios announced a big-budget Biggles Sweeps The Skies, but this was also cancelled. In 2000, a trilogy, to start with Biggles Flies North, was also announced and cancelled. In 2003, a company based at Pinewood Studios called Biggles Films Ltd appeared, but again nothing came of it. The only feature ever produced is a strange 1986 scifi spinoff version, details right.   

The only Biggles feature actually produced is not based on any novel. This is a strange 1986 scifi spinoff version, called Biggles or Biggles - Adventures In Time, where Biggles is a minor character, playing second fiddle to a modern American PR man who is whisked back in time to WWI, to help foil Germany developing a sonic weapon.       
Dramas Set In WW2
The Lion Has Wings [1939]
Korda's quickly-made [with 4 directors/units], impromptu drama/ documentary is an all-in get-ready-to-fight propaganda effort. The RAF doesn't appear for the first 15 of its 82 minutes, when we see pre-WW2 aircraft at the Hendon air show. But there are reenactment scenes, including the Sep 1939 Kiel-canal raid by Wellington bombers, 'first blood of the war'. (In reality it achieved next to nothing, and subsequent raids suffered heavy losses).
The main actor/character is Ralph Richardson, as an RAF Wing Commander in Fighter Command station control, seen directing a flight of Spitfires against a night bombing raid. (This was not a realistic tactic, either.) He also plays domestic scenes with his screen wife, a volunteer nurse. The younger personnel, the air crew, are played by actors, with the actual air crew from the Kiel Raid also seen. The film ends with the RAF's motto and logo.

A key image of WW2-set film dramas is a Spitfire zooming protectively over English countryside. It first likely appeared in First Of The Few, about the development of the Spitfire [listed below], in a scene where the prototype is shown off to visiting RAF and Air Ministry staff. Mainly, the scene appears in films which are not about the RAF per se. The 1944 Powell/Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale has a famous transition ending the prologue, where a mediaeval hunting hawk turns into a diving Spitfire. In the 1942 Noel Coward-David Lean film In Which We Serve, the captain and his family have a picnic on the downs while an aerial dogfight happens overhead. A Spitfire zooming over English downland also appears in the prologue of the 1952 David Lean / Terence Rattigan The Sound Barrier [below], in the 1975 antiwar docudrama Overlord, and later in colour, in The Land Girls [1997] as an iconic wartime image.

Right: In the final shots of the 1944 Tawny Pipit, we see that the protagonist has named his Spitfire after the Latin name for the pipit (whose nest the local villagers campaigned to protect from being overrun by military exercises).


Left: The Spitfires-over-the-downs picnic scene in In Which We Serve, 1942 and [mouse over] the ad for The Land Girls, 1997.
Above: Screenshots from First Light, 2010

The First Of The Few (US title Spitfire) [1942]
The story of how the prototype of the fighter that saved Britain in 1940 came to be designed and built between the wars. It covers the development of the plane by its designer RJ Mitchell, up to its first flight in 1936, with a framing prologue and epilogue set during the Battle of Britain. The plane's main test pilot, played by David Niven, appears throughout, latterly as the Station Commander.
This was made with official backing as a morale booster, with location work shot on a real RAF airfield, and real pilots appearing as themselves - some of whom did not live to see the film's premiere. Mitchell himself died of cancer just before the war, having worked himself to exhaustion, and the film's director and star Leslie Howard was shot down by the Luftwaffe while aboard a civilian passenger plane, coming back from a visit to neutral Portugal to promote the fillm. (Some historians believe this shootdown 'accident' was an act of revenge.) Note that the original film ran 129 minutes, whereas US release prints titled 'Spitfire' usually run only 89 mins. I have a feature page on the film up here.
Dunkirk (2017)
A flight of 3 Spitfires tries to provide air cover for the cross-Channel evacuation during a one-hour patrol in which one after another is lost.
Written by its director Christopher Nolan, this is an attempt at providing a visceral experience suitable for IMAX presentation, with no background or intro scenes, and minimal dialogue. It has 3 story segments identified on screen, each with a different timeframe, the one illustrated here being '3.The Air /one hour'. Mainly real aircraft are used, with a remote-controlled model substituted where this was not feasible as the director did not want to use CGI. It seems to be the only film to show anything like the RAF's actual role in the Dunkirk operation, which previously came in for criticism as they did not patrol the beaches where the army was awaiting evacuation and being divebombed and strafed. In this version, the RAF pilot gets a massive cheer when he finally makes it to the beaches.
Piece Of Cake (1988)
Adapted by Leon Griffiths from Derek Robinson’s 1983 novel, this 6-part ITV series covered a Fighter Command squadron over the first year of the war, Sep 1939-Sep 1940.
Comment – This is a sardonic view of war, with any heroics undercut by bitter ironies. Robinson’s approach is to contrast the romantic 'knights of the air' image of the RAF with the grim realities. (Nearly everyone in it is killed, one after another.) It is unusual for mainly covering the Phoney War / Battle of France, with only the last 2 episodes on the Battle of Britain. It was all filmed in southern England, using half a dozen airworthy Spits plus some static mockups and a few German warplanes. Shots of larger German formations are from the 1969 film, below.


Left and right: Screenshots from Piece Of Cake, 1988.

Battle Of Britain (1969)
A big-screen realist dramatisation in Technicolor Panavision of the famous Battle, from the fall of France in June 1940 to the German abandonment of their invasion plans in mid-Sept.
Comment – Made pre-CGI, this uses models and a few ‘glass’ opticals to bulk up the airworthy planes available (12 Spitfires and 1 Stuka, plus some German fighters and bombers). Scripted by James Kennaway & Wilfred Greatorex from the 1961 nonfiction book The Narrow Margin by Derek Dempster & Derek Wood, it is a no-nonsense, rather glum drama, its 132 minutes driven along by its busy Ron Goodwin score.

A Yank In The R.A.F. [1941]
A brash American, a former US Mails pilot, arrives in England after ferrying a bomber across the Atlantic, and meets up with a former girlfriend in London. Wanting to be a Spitfire pilot, he is assigned as a navigator to Hudson light bombers, at first dropping leaflets on Berlin, then bombs on Dortmund when the Phoney War ends. He crash-lands in Holland but escapes. He then joins in a massed Spitfire attack on the Luftwaffe above the Dunkirk beaches. The fake newspaper headlines we see puff up how the RAF turned the tide of the evacuation.
Comment - Based on the story The Eagle Squadron by "Melville Crossman" [=studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck] this was the first major Hollywood attempt to dramatise the RAF's war. However it is mainly a trite wartime romance (in which the focus seems to be on actor-dancer Betty Grable flashing her legs, with 2 fliers competing for her attentions) with a wartime flagwaver finale. The ending was reshot to have the hero survive as the RAF thought having him killed in combat would be offputting. The credits acknowledge the aerial scenes shot by RAF camermen, which first appear an hour in, with some shots of a bomber flight leaving at dusk; later, for the Dunkirk action, we see a squadron of Spitfires (our hero has somehow transferred from bombers to Spitfires) taking off and in action (in a ridiculous massed dogfight over the beaches). Most of the footage is of model planes and model sets.
Angels One Five (1952)
A stiff-necked new pilot assigned to a frontline Battle of Britain aerodrome struggles to fit in.
Scripted by Derek Twist from the book What Are Your Angels Now? by the film’s technical advisor W/Cdr Pelham Groom, this was the first post-war ‘Battle of Britain’ film. It is also almost the only one to focus on Hurricanes rather than Spitfires. The Hawker Hurricane fighter was in fact the main workhorse aircraft of the Battle, making up two-thirds of Fighter Command strength. The Hurricane was also a fighter that was being scrapped in 1952, and rarely featured onscreen after this. (The production had to import 5 from Portugal to make up the numbers.)
Comment – Apart from a poor-quality model set at the end (showing the light at the end of the runway), the film uses real planes and locations - RAF Kenley aerodrome and the real wartime operations room at RAF Uxbridge. The director, George More O’Ferral, had been stationed at RAF Fighter Command HQ in 1940. The title music is the RAF’s official march, composed for its 1918 creation.

Tmavomodrý svet / Dark Blue World (2001) 
Two Czech pilots who fled German annexation in 1939 join the RAF, fight in the Battle Of Britain and meet a young, apparently widowed, Englishwoman.
Written by Zdenek Sverák, the father of its director Jan Sverák, this takes the standard romantic triangle plot into a larger geopolitical context. The 2 pilot protagonists are looking back at 1940 events from 5 years of postwar captivity in a labour camp behind the new Iron Curtain, since their RAF involvement made them politically suspect. Aerial scenes are partly taken from the 1969 film of the battle (and also apparently Pearl Harbor, 2001), while others were filmed in the Czech Republic, with CGI effects added. This was the most expensive Czech film made to date. 


Hurricane / Hurricane: 303 Squadron / 303: Bitwa o Anglie / Mission Of Honor [U.S. title] (2018)
Written by Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith, this UK-Polish coproduction is a dramatisation of the contribution of the volunteer Polish 303 Squadron, who fought fiercely in 1940 and beyond, becoming the most effective at shooting down German planes, and then, like the Czech pilots [see above entry], were betrayed by the Allies at war's end by being returned to their home countries, where they were treated as political undesirables in the new communist bloc.
Comment - The latest work in this profile. Dialogue is partly in Polish, subtitled, with some humour and drama drawn from cultural differences and language misunderstandings.


Left: Hurricane (2018)

Eagle Squadron (1942)  
Written by Norman Reilly Raine from a C.S. Forester story, this is a tale about two buddies who go to Britain to join the RAF, and their various [unlikely] adventures in the RAF's new specially-formed Eagle Squadron designed to accommodate US volunteers prior to the US entering the war.
Comment – The film is not easy to see today; its production history suggests why. Originally it was to be a documentary using real Eagle Squadron pilots, but the 6 chosen were all shot down, and others in the Squadron refused to cooperate, later walking out of the premiere. The US producers inherited some aerial footage already shot, and incorporated this into a romantic drama shot in California.

Pearl Harbor (2001)
Written by Randall Wallace, this 3-hr wartime romance (the usual 2 airmen and a nurse) includes a Battle of Britain sequence, where two young Americans join the RAF and lead the fight.
Comment – The British sequence has the two American buddies in computer-generated scenes of Spitfires over the white cliffs of Dover, screaming and shouting over their R/T the whole time, and surviving impossible situations. Given the film's reputation for being unintentionally funny and/or offensive, further comment is probably superfluous here.  

First Light (2010)
Adapted by director Matthew Whiteman and Caleb Ranson from the 2002 memoir by Geoffrey Wellum, this BBC2 docudrama was made for the 70th anniversary of Battle of Britain. The story is told from the viewpoint of a Spitfire pilot, whose 88 year old self appears in the prologue and narrates. The 18 year old 'Boy' Wellum arrives at frontline 92 Squadron in May 1940 without having been in a Spitfire and has to learn how to survive, which he does physically but not psychologically.
Comment – Though there is some aerial fight footage taken from the 1969 film Battle Of Britain, most of the 78-min running time consists of obviously authentic scenes not shown in other films.

Right and below: Screenshots from First Light.

Target For To-Night [1941]
Scripted by its director, Harry Watt, this is the most famous wartime RAF PR film. It covers a night-time raid to blow up some hidden fuel tanks near the Rhine. We see the preparations, and follow the raid through one aircraft, Wellington bomber F for Freddie.
Comment – Though referred to as a ‘documentary’, it is not one in the modern sense, being scripted and acted, in this case by regular RAF personnel. (Harry Watt said few of the flying crew depicted actually survived the war. For example, the pilot died on the 1944 Amiens raid that would inspire the film Mosquito Squadron, below.) Most footage is authentic, but the scenes of destruction of the railyard are obvious model shots.

Nebeští Jezdci / Sky Riders [1968]
This b&w Czech production about a trio of Czech pilots in RAF Bomber Command in 1942-3 was co-adapted by Filip Jánský, Zdenek Mahler, director Jindrich Polak and Vera Kalabova from Filip Jánský's 1964 novel [pub. in English translation as Riders In The Sky, 1969]. (The title, also given in subtitles as Heaven Riders, seems a reference to Ghost Riders In The Sky, one of a number of 40s songs heard on the soundtrack or sung by the characters.) Under the name Richard Husmann, the author had been an air gunner in both the RAF and Soviet Air Forces.
The film jump-cuts back and forth between the protagonists' life on their RAF base and their night-time missions aboard their Wellington twin-engine bomber. It has been claimed this is the best Czech WW2 film drama made so far. The dialogue is a mix of Czech and English. Aerial shots are said to be from Target For Tonight [above], but there are additional scenes of crash-landings etc, perhaps with a radio-controlled model.
Reach For The Sky (1956)
A cocky young air-cadet trainee loses both legs in a flying stunt in 1931, but fights his way back to sufficient mobility to take part in WWII. Scripted by director Lewis Gilbert and Vernon Harris from Paul Brickhill's biography of Douglas Bader, this is a tribute to a determined double amputee. There are scenes of his involvement in the Battle of Britain (leading a Hurricane squadron), being shot down over France, ending with his taking part in the RAF’s flypast memorial service in 1945.
Comment - The treatment of Bader, who was still alive and a national hero at the time, is quite uncritical of his self-centred bullying side which emerged in later accounts by his RAF colleagues. The scenes with Hurricanes and Spitfires were shot at RAF Kenley. The original 135 minute version was cut by 12 minutes for US release.

A Perfect Hero [1991]
A once-handsome pilot must come to terms with his disfiguring injuries in the Battle of Britain.
Written by Christopher Matthew and Allan Prior, this 6-part ITV series seems to have fallen into obscurity (no reviews on IMDB). It was evidently inspired by the fate of Richard Hillary, whose 1943 book The Last Enemy was about surviving the burns to his face and hands, which required what we now call plastic surgery, then a new field, the patients being known as guinea pigs.

Fair Stood The Wind For France [1980]
An injured RAF bomber pilot bales out with his crew over France and must remain at a remote farmhouse to recuperate, where he becomes involved with the farmer's daughter, with whom he eventually escapes.
H. E. Bates’s wartime novel was adapted by Julian Bond as a 4-part BBC-TV serial, filmed at locations around England.
Comment – This is another production which has since fallen into relative obscurity, surprisingly, given that the novel is so well known.
Malta Story (1953)
A young photo-reconnaissance pilot, stranded on Malta when his Hudson is blown up during the stopover to Cairo, is put to use to document German invasion plans. Scripted by William Fairchild and Nigel Balchin from an idea by Thorold Dickinson and Peter De Sarigny, using material from technical advisor Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh P. Lloyd’s book Briefed To Attack, this drama covers the airborne siege of Malta during 1941-2.
The film was made with considerable cooperation from the people of Valetta as well as the postwar authorities, and there are authentic re-enactments of air-raids and the arrival of squadrons of replacement Spitfires from a US carrier. (Purists have complained the Spits are a late-war model.) The high-flying photo-reconnaissance Spitfires were real (they were the original spyplanes), and as shown here, they flew unarmed.
Pathfinders (ITV 1972–73)
Created by Gerry Brown, this 13x60 min ITV drama serial concerns the RAF's all-volunteer squadrons created - despite some high-level opposition - in August 1942 to improve Bomber Command's accuracy, which was initially poor. The Pathfinder squadrons dropped coloured flares to indicate the bombing point for the following bomber force.
Comment - This seems the only drama on the Pathfinder squadrons. It's unfortunate it's so low budget - it uses stock shots from The Dam Busters, plus some radio-controlled model Lancasters, and much of the dialogue also seems familiar. The technical adviser was Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, who appeared in The World At War documentary series.
Appointment In London (1952) (US title Raiders In The Sky) 
This was the first postwar drama to show off Britain's most successful wartime heavy bomber, the four-engine Lancaster. Co-scripted by John Wooldridge and Robert Westerby, and set at a Lancaster base in 1943, the plot concerns the strain of nightly ‘ops’ and the need to stay focused and not get sidetracked by private life. The base 'WingCo' has done 87 of a planned 90 ops, and Command wants him to give up flying. The timeframe of the drama is a month, when three of the squadron are to go to Buckingham Palace for investiture of medals. Inevitably, the WingCo meets someone, a war widow, who overcomes his ‘no private life’ credo, and he does get to have closure on the final-mission front, when the squadron is suddenly a flier short for a 'maximum effort' op.
The original story was by the film’s music composer, John Wooldridge, who served in Bomber Command, including a stint in one of W/Cdr Guy Gibson's pre-Dam Busters squadrons, and flew over 100 missions himself. The IMDB cites Bogarde as saying his character was inspired by Gibson. There are no aerial scenes until the end; instead there are shots of Lancasters being serviced, landing and taking off, and other scenes of life on an RAF base (Upwood in Cambridgeshire). The 3 Lancs used are the same ones that would appear in The Dam Busters.

The Dam Busters [1954]
In 1943, a special squadron of Lancasters trains for Operation Chastise, to destroy the major industrial-hydropower dams of Western Germany using an experimental bouncing bomb delivered at low level. The raid is mostly successful, though costly in lives (over 50 aircrew killed).

Scripted by RC Sherriff from the nonfiction books by Paul Brickhill and W/Cdr Guy Gibson VC [killed 1944], this is such a famous war film it scarcely needs any introduction here. (An earlier plan for director Howard Hawks to film the story in Hollywood was vetoed when Barnes Wallis saw the script, by Roald Dahl, and said it was absurd.) The RAF scenes are in the second half; the first half shows Barnes Wallis's development of the bouncing bomb. The airfield scenes were shot authentically at the squadron's actual wartime base, RAF Scampton, using the same 3 surviving Lancs that had appeared in Appointment In London [above]. The only awkward point for the modern viewer is that nobody at the time thought to tweak the name of the squadron's black-labrador mascot, to something rhyming, like Digger (as is being done for the Peter Jackson remake in development).

Coastal Command [1943]
Made by the Crown Film Unit with RAF personnel playing themselves (and plainly having a whizzo time of it), this shows the work of the RAF’s maritime arm. A Sunderland flying boat and a Catalina, both based on the coast of NW Scotland, provide anti U-boat cover for a convoy, and one sinks a sub. Then a flight of Bristol Beauforts carrying torpedoes and Lockheed Hudsons carrying bombs based in Iceland go after a [fictional] German raider, the Dusseldorf, which has broken out of Norway, to slow it down so it can be caught and sunk by the Navy.
Comment – The film is interesting as a look at CC procedures, but its ‘I say chaps’ dialogue seems quaint; composer Ralph Vaughan Williams clearly didn’t find the film inspirational as his score for once is unmemorable. 

Night Flight (2002) (also released as Night And Day)
Written by veteran actor-writer William Ivory, this is a 2h 40min BBC drama serial about a pair of surviving Bomber Command veterans (played by Christopher Plummer and Edward Woodward) haunted by their war experience as Lancaster aircrew. The flying scenes are flashbacks with the two leads played by young actors, within a present-day framework of remembrance.

' of our aircraft is missing' [1944]
The crew of flak-damaged Wellington bomber B For Bertie bale out over Occupied Holland and evade capture with the help of the locals.
Comment – Another thoughtful wartime drama which avoids propaganda statements and cliches by reflecting on more enduring values, from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The flying scenes make up the first half-hour, a raid on Stuttgart. In the epilogue they take off to bomb Berlin in a Stirling [the RAF’s first four-engine bomber]. US prints were cut by 20 mins.

633 Squadron [1964]
This was a US-financed production, its American director and star both being vintage-plane buffs. After the success of Mirisch Productions’ 1963 The Great Escape, it set up a UK subsidiary to make several more WW2 colour-widescreen adventure dramas with American directors and stars but using British stories and supporting personnel, the lead character usually being a Canadian or American volunteer in the RAF etc. British/ South African author Frederick E. Smith’s 1956 novel is said to have been inspired by several RAF ops involving low flying and precision bombing, like the Amiens raid on a Gestapo prison HQ. (This was also the main inspiration for Mirisch’s 1969 Mosquito Squadron – see below.) The script was by naturalized American Australian author James Clavell, who had co-scripted The Great Escape, but Wiki says it was reworked by US writer Howard Koch at the insistence of star Cliff Robertson.
Comment - A glum version of a boys-own adventure distinguished by colour-widescreen location filming in Scotland using real Mosquitos; the film is driven along by the constant use of Ron Goodwin’s main theme (in 6/3 time, geddit), which became a military/pops-concert staple. The plot setup, of a V2 rocket fuel plant in the cliff at the head of a Norwegian fjord, which can only be destroyed by knocking a giant boulder loose above its entrance, is farfetched, especially given the small bombs the Mosquito could carry. (This uses obvious models, and the setup is reminiscent of the failed air attack at the start of The Guns Of Navarone.)

Mosquito Squadron [1969]
Written by US scriptwriter Donald S. Sanford [who later wrote the 1976 Midway] and tv writer Joyce Perry, and filmed in England, this is a heavily fictionalised version of Operation Jericho, the 1944 raid which freed French Resistance prisoners from the Gestapo prison at Amiens.
Comment – Mirisch’s 2nd RAF drama is largely a rehash of elements from their hit 633 Squadron, with the same handful of reconstructed DH98 De Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers returning as props. Barnes Wallis's small Highball bouncing bomb was real enough, but the rest of the film is stock material in one way or another - there’s even that old American war-drama cliché setup, the ‘love triangle’ with the two leading men at odds over the same woman.

The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954)
Based on a novel by John Harris, adapted by Vernon Harris and director Lewis Gilbert, this is a dramatisation of the role of the RAF’s Air/Sea Rescue launches, which went out to pick up downed aircrew. Here, in autumn 1944, RAF HSL #2561 with an 11-man crew, based on England’s east coast, is alerted to find the dinghy with 4 men who were aboard a shot-down Hudson which was carrying an air commodore bearing vital secret papers. There are mundane scenes of the men on the dinghy and back at the RAF base as well as aboard the launch (lots of grumbling and whining), which is held up by engine trouble and bad weather before going into action at the last minute.
Comment – A typical example of the 50s ‘service tribute’ film cycle, where each branch got its turn. In fact, this followed in the footsteps of a shorter wartime Ealing docu-drama, For Those In Peril, which is less well-known but has a very similar story. Inspired by a story by the late Flight Lt Richard Hillary (author of the memoir The Last Enemy, who had been rescued from the North Sea badly burnt and unconscious), a new Pilot Officer reluctantly joins the crew of an RAF Search & Rescue HSL, discovering how important they can be.

Journey Together (1945)
An RAF cadet pilot is forced to become a navigator after his trainers realise he lacks depth perception, but finds it is just as important a job during a bombing raid on Berlin aboard a Lancaster.
This is basically a training/PR film made by RAF personnel with USAAF cooperation, as its onscreen credits note. However the IMDB credits director John Boulting and Terence Rattigan with the original story. Rattigan had served in the RAF as a tail gunner and then a F/Lt, until his release from service to develop his play Flare Path as a feature [see below].  

The Way To The Stars [US title Johnny In The Clouds] (1945)
Opening in peacetime on a now-deserted airfield, this drama looks back at its wartime use, first by the RAF (flying Bristol Blenheim light bombers), and then by the USAAF (flying B-17 bombers), with the focus on personal relationships with women in the nearby market town. (There are no flying scenes.)
With ‘story and scenario’ co-credited to F/Lt Terence Rattigan, this ‘war-torn romance’ story was the playwright’s main contribution to the war effort. It was expanded from his hit 1942 stage play Flare Path, written while serving as a tail gunner. In 1945, he rewrote it, together with producer Anatole De Grunwald, as a feature film. Director Anthony Asquith also worked on the script, and a Capt. Richard Sherman helped with the USAAF scenes. The memorial poem quoted twice in the film about ‘Johnny head in air’ supposedly written by one of the dead aviators was actually by John Pudney, then an RAF intelligence officer.

A Matter Of Life & Death {US title Stairway To Heaven](1945)
An RAF bomber pilot bales out, parachute-less, into the sea, and wakes on a beach, unsure if he is dead or alive. The answer is he [a] is caught between life and death, by a bureaucratic snafu in Heaven, or [b] is hallucinating this scenario due to suffering a brain injury.

Comment - Another thoughtful effort from the writer/director team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, this time partly in Technicolor [the earthbound scenes] and partly in monochrome [the heavenly scenes]. (A new 4K restoration of the film was released in July.) The beach sequence was filmed in North Devon, at Saunton Sands/ Braunton Burrows, called 'The Burrows' in the film.

The Purple Plain [1954]
An RCAF Mosquito pilot, posted to a Burmese airfield in 1945, meets a local woman and overcomes the death wish that has gripped him since he was widowed in an air-raid during his honeymoon in 1940. He survives a plane crash in the jungle and carries his wounded navigator to safety before going on alone for help.
Written by Eric Ambler from a novel by H.E. Bates, this was filmed in Technicolor by Geoffrey Unsworth in Sri Lanka, using a mix of real Mosquitos [for the airbase scenes] and models [for the flying scenes]. This is a succinct psychological drama, cf this exchange between the protagonist and the missionary Miss McNab: "And what do you fly, Mr Forrester?" "Mosquitos. Fighter-bombers." "I say they're wicked, devilish things." "True." "I see you're one of the quiet thoughtful ones, Mr Forrester."
 Dramas Set Post-WW2
The Sound Barrier [US: Breaking The Sound Barrier] (1952)
At war’s end, an RAF pilot becomes a test pilot for his father-in-law’s aviation firm, testing a new jet, the Prometheus. It opens with a late-model Spitfire diving over Seaford Head in Sussex, and being buffeted by the approaching sound barrier, which is the great challenge the protagonists face.
This David Lean production lists 4 British jets of the day in the credits as its co-stars. The Prometheus is played by the Vickers Supermarine 535 Swift, a prototype of which 2 were built. Terence Rattigan’s script has a controversial plot point involving the joystick control-column becoming immovable in a dive at Mach 1 and being freed only by pushing the stick forward (a procedure to pull out of a spin). Chuck Yeager, officially the first to break the sound barrier in level flight, said that this would crash the plane, but otherwise “It was a good and very realistic action picture.”

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)
This Ealing drama is based on a story by Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard, which he said was true. In 1946, he was about to fly to Tokyo aboard an RAF Dakota transport when he was told of a colleague’s dream where Goddard was killed in an air crash on mountainous Sado island in Tokyo Bay. The dream’s details however did not match the next day’s flight plan. Then the details – type of plane, number of passengers, route, weather conditions etc changed one after the other till they matched the dream, and the plane with Goddard aboard did indeed crash on Sado - though he survived.
When he retired from the RAF, Goddard wrote an account of this odd experience, which was published in 1951 in The Saturday Evening Post. British studio Ealing bought the rights at the suggestion of director Leslie Norman. (Ealing had already made several dramas with supernatural elements in a modern setting, such as The Halfway House and Dead Of Night.) To write the script, Ealing commissioned R. C. Sherriff, who the year before had scripted The Dam Busters.
Comment – This is an eerily effective ‘Twilight Zone” style drama (cf Leonard Maltin: "first-rate suspense film will have you holding your breath as it recounts tale of routine military flight, the fate of which may or may not depend on a prophetic dream.") Much of the drama rests on character psychologies as the story of the dream gets around among the 13 passengers and aircrew, who have different reactions or rationales that are put to the test.


Colour Films - The first 3 RAF 'jet-age' dramas in colour appeared in the 1950s, with two also in widescreen:
Conflict Of Wings (1954)
Scripted by Don Sharp and John Pudney from Sharp’s novel, and set and shot [in Eastmancolor] in the Norfolk Broads, this has locals protesting against RAF use of a wetland area as a practice bombing range, finally occupying it en masse to stop the bombing test.
Comment – The setup at first seems interesting – the locality is called the Island Of Children, named after a Roman burial ground; the local birds are said to be the spirits of the dead children. But this is never developed. Group 3 Productions, set up apparently to emulate the success of the anti-authoritarian Ealing comedies, contrived several such works without any real wit or comedy. For example the birds in question are not rare [as in Tawny Pipit], but seagulls! There are a few 2nd-unit shots of jet fighters [Meteors?] which were soon to become rare birds themselves as Britain switched to missile defence [see below].

High Flight [1957]
This was based on a Jack Davies story and made by Warwick Films, who specialised in colour WW2 dramas set in Britain but with American leads. With exteriors shot at the RAF’s training college at Cranwell, it follows a cohort of ‘new entry’ officers through their 3 years.
One pilot is the spoiled son of the former superior of the college’s Wing Commander, an elderly American with a tin leg. The son knows his father was killed saving the Wingco’s life after the latter made a mistake that was covered up, and uses this to avoid dismissal for not being a ‘team player.’ In the end the Wingco helps guide the new pilot down after he is wounded by Soviet ack-ack during a NATO deployment.
Comment – The plot is ridiculous. It’s been claimed the RAF cooperated for PR reasons as the govt planned to replace manned aircraft with missiles. The only interest is 2nd-unit scenes showing some of the aircraft of the day, mainly Vampires and Hawker Hunters, seen for the first time in widescreen colour.

Rockets Galore! [US title Mad Little Island] (1957)
Adapted by Monja Danischewsky from author Compton Mackenzie’s followup to his novel Whisky Galore! [filmed by Ealing], this was evidently inspired by the creation of a missile test range on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Locals sabotage the installation in various ways, finally by claiming the area is a nesting ground for a rare bird.
This Rank production was in concept an ‘Ealing’ comedy, made just as the studio was closing down, filmed on the same locations with some of the same cast, but this time in Technicolor. The film reflects the moment Britain was about to shift its deterrent power from jet bombers to guided missiles, and there are no jet-aircraft flying scenes. The main character is an RAF Squadron Leader sent in to liaise, who inevitably falls for the charm of the place, via the local schoolteacher.


Squadron (1982)
Created by Peter May, Alastair Balfour and producer Joe Waters, this 10x50 min BBC1 series was a followup to the producer's Warship. It focused on a modern Rapid Deployment Unit which used what were then [ie in the Falklands War era] state-of-the-art aircraft: the Harrier jump-jet, Hercules transport, Puma helicopter and the Phantom jet fighter.
Each ep was a self-contained story, filmed on RAF bases at home and abroad. Though the series was shown abroad, no home video version was ever released and it remains unavailable for viewing.

  Envoi - Per Ardua Ad Astra

The 1952 film The Sound Barrier ended with a model jet pointing at the moon, seeming to fulfil the RAF’s motto Per Ardua Ad Astra, but this subsequently went no further, either on screen or in reality.
In his memoir Inside Story, science journalist Chapman Pincher blamed the loss of Britain’s lead in supersonic jet technology on Vickers chief designer Barnes Wallis’s reluctance to risk aircrew lives again after the Dam Busters losses of over 50 men, instead proposing small robot planes. These were not developed but pointed the way for missiles replacing piloted aircraft where possible, which became RAF policy after 1957. There were no more contemporary-set aviation dramas such as the US made through the 50s onward.
Britain’s part in the genre retreated into futuristic fantasy, showcased in comics and radio serials like Dan Dare [a spacefleet Captain] and Journey Into Space [featuring Captain Jet Morgan]. But film and tv dramas were restricted to ground-based plots like Nigel Kneale’s 1950s BBC Quatermass trilogy, whose protagonist was the professor in charge of the British Experimental Rocket Group, which organises manned rockets to the Moon etc; the series only gets him into space once, in the finale [dropped for the 1957 Hammer film version Q2 / Enemy from Space] of Quatermass II. Space exploration is by treaty not meant to be militarised, but other countries like the US dovetail military and civilian elements of their space programmes, and this was a source of conflict in Nigel Kneale’s forward-looking trilogy. Here, the 'military mindset' is often the enemy, a theme later picked up by US scifi. Ten years after the year, the RAF were no longer the heroes, the champions.
Only Hollywood had the money to make space-voyage features in any case. Rex Gordon’s 1956 novel No Man Friday aka First On Mars, on a secret British Mars expedition, was never filmed but a similar US-made story, the 1964 children’s film Robinson Crusoe On Mars, was, featuring a US space pilot. David Lean’s hope of filming Charles Chilton’s popular Journey Into Space radio drama series and novels came to naught. Since then, there have only been children’s serials made using puppets or animation, like Thunderbirds [set in the mid 21st C] or the short-lived 2002 Dan Dare tv series.
Of course, Britain has still has its own space programme [a UK spaceport is currently planned, somewhere on the West Coast] as well as being part of the European Space Agency, which Britain will remain a member of post-Brexit as it is EU-independent…  

... Will Dan Dare, Jet Morgan or some other space-force pilot-hero now appear, in anticipation of this?


Above: Dan Dare, a futuristic RAF 'type': logo and [mouse over] a screenshot from the 2002 tv series


Left: Novelisations of Journey Into Space [Operation Luna] and [mouse over] its followup The Red Planet radio drama series by Charles Chilton, who served in the RAF in WW2. David Lean was never able to progress his interest in filming it, and since then there have been no other film attempts.

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