Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 24, 2017
To view Conquest of the Air click here.
Perhaps I’m alone in this (though I hope not) but I find watching old info docs as much fun as watching old movies. When I first got TCM years ago, I quickly settled into something that would become a familiar pattern. Sitting down for a night of movie watching, I was often more excited for the programming between the movies as the movies themselves. And if one of those one-reel wonders turned out to be an informational documentary or travelogue, all the better. If you’ve seen some of them, you know that re-enactments play a big role in them, whether they’re covering the early days of the Pony Express, cataloging superstitions or retracing Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. These infotainments would become the models for cable programming years later, and when you watch them, you can see proto Modern Marvels and Wild Discoveries in the making. In Britain, these formats were done with exceptional skill and an eye towards entertainment and one of the most interesting, and ominously timed, was Conquest of the Air(1936), produced by Alexander Korda and directed by his brother, Zoltan.
Conquest of the Air is a look back at aviation history up to the point the documentary was financed and made, 1935. It was scheduled for released in 1936 and, indeed, it was. But its timing placed it just before some extraordinary events in the world of aviation that the film then had to go back and edit in. When all was said and done, it was released again in 1940, in England and America, making it one of the few docs of the period actually given a re-edit budget and then given an overseas release.
The doc itself starts off with the narrator, Charles Frend, relating the story of Icarus before taking us through the history of humanity’s ill-advised attempts at strapping wings to people and having them jump off of tall structures. These are done as comically as they can be (there are just so many ways you can put a funny twist on someone falling to their death) before we get into the real innovators, like Leonardo da Vinci, constructing plausible means for flight but no technologies to achieve them. It quickly moves to balloons and gives us the pleasure of seeing Laurence Olivier’s performance as early Italian aviation pioneer Vincenzo Lunardo (he even gets to say the title of the movie!). Olivier had not yet achieved stardom, though not for lack of trying. His notices for his stage work were good but his film work was completely underwhelming. His role here came just before Fire Over England (1937), which provided a major bump in his fame until, by the time of this doc’s re-release in 1940, Olivier was a star and used as a draw for the re-release’s distribution.
Interestingly, the balloon segment takes us right up to the zeppelin, specifically the Hindenburg and all of its luxuries. If you know your history, you’ve quickly put together that this film’s production and release dates of 1935 and 1936 precede the Hindenburg’s cataclysmic destruction in 1937. That’s the first reason for a re-shoot and re-release a couple of years later. The second reason has to do with the operators of that airship, Nazi Germany. The original documentary ends with World War I being the only war in which aerial combat took place. The nature of aerial warfare, which would evolve immensely in just a couple of years from this doc’s making, is only given a cursory mention. That’s when you can tell there’s been some editing afoot.
The Hindenburg’s explosion is covered in the reissue (in the appropriate section on airships) and newsreel footage of Winston Churchill lets us know that Britain is now at war, and will be until the enemy can take it no more. Then a fleet of British bombers and fighters are shown and the documentary comes to an end by saying that aviation development will have to wait until the war’s end to resume its innovation. Of course, aviation technology, like almost every other technology used in warfare, progressed tremendously through World War II, so maybe the filmmakers were hoping the war would be over so quickly that there wouldn’t be time to innovate for the purpose of killing. Either way, re-releasing was seen as a motivator in more ways than one. It was intended to boost morale by highlighting Britain’s contribution’s to aviation history but also show how any country getting the technological upper hand in the aviation arms race could be the victor and we all needed to chip in and make sure that was Britain. It’s release in America, no doubt, was intended to get Americans, not yet in the war, behind the idea of helping her allies (the Lend-Lease Act was more than a year away and getting involved in the war in any way was still a hotly debated issue).
I’m grateful that outlets like TCM, Criterion and Filmstruck, have found it just as important to preserve and present these old documentaries as the old movie classics that are their mainstay. You watch a doc like this not for its informative value, though of course it still has plenty, but for its entertainment value and historical time capsule qualities. It’s interesting to see, for instance, how American achievements, which we understandably hear a lot about in this country, are given lighter weight here. The first man and woman to cross the English Channel (Louis Bleriot and Harriett Quimby, respectively), for instance, are given as much screen time as Charles Lindbergh, or Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon, who first crossed the Pacific non-stop in 1931. Of course, the Wright Brothers get a good share, and even a reenactment, but that’s to be expected. In the end, Olivier’s Lunardo probably gets more time than anyone.
Conquest of the Air, available on Filmstruck, is a journey through time in more ways than one. It is a documentary going back to the first myths of flight through the contemporary age but also a reminder of where Britain stood in 1940 and how much it had at stake. So much so that re-releasing a lightweight entertainment documentary about flight was seen as necessary to build morale.
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