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Fans of WW2 docus are always on the lookout for something new, and Koch Vision's The Royal Air Force At War: The Unseen Films 1940-1944 delivers exactly what they want to see. This collection of 24 training and public information short subjects was filmed during the war. They are all uncut just as the R.A.F. squadrons and local cinema audiences saw them. In other words, hint, hint, if you have a member of the family building an airplane model in the next room, your gift possibilities just went up by a notch.
If you know someone who cares about this kind of film, you'll know what I'm talking about -- they aren't interested in the same 30 shots of the London Blitz, where the camera trucks into the glass doors of a shop to see the blaze within. The Unseen Films all seem to be new, and contain out-of-the-ordinary footage of every imaginable British airplane in action. In the training films we see even more of these aircraft. I now know where to access the first aid kit in a Spitfire, and three ways to get into a sealed cockpit without hurting an unconscious pilot!
The films range from training tools showing turret gunners what to do, to pieces cautioning lazy pilots not to make bonehead mistakes, to civilian-friendly films to offer practical advice when stricken aircraft come tumbling out of the skies. The movies are very British in tone, with a highly developed sense of common cause. Although the narrations stress the concept of teamwork and equality, a definite class-consciousness is present. One film spends twenty minutes hammering home the proper way to salute superior officers. It's all so ritualized, you'd think that's what airmen do all day.
Some of the films appear to have been produced to address specific problems or concerns. Many of the actors are authentic R.A.F. personnel but most of the "acting" is better than one sees in U.S. Signal Corps films. Few if any credits are included but it is likely that pro directors and artists from England's already-celebrated docu tradition worked on some of the pictures. Action is of course staged but personnel, uniforms, haircuts and the details of rooms evoke the era with an authenticity not found in fiction films.
Here's a breakdown of the contents:
Bits of Our Aircraft Are Missing
A primer about how to salute, when to salute, who to salute to, how to salute sideways, saluting while walking -- every place but in the toilet. Exasperating but also fascinating. The "good saluters" have a snappy form that would bring tears of joy to the eyes of Colonel Blimp.
Re-Arming a Bomber
A film for the detail aficionados. It covers the entire period from when a plane lands until it's refueled and re-armed to fly again. The number of dangerous jobs involved is staggering. The guys tending the bombs and arming their fuses must have nerves of iron. Also, the variety of weapons payloads is explained to the nth degree. I know people who dote on this sort of thing.
A tribute to the R.A.F., with historical footage of their action in WW1. A recruiting piece, perhaps? The flying corps certainly looks like the service of choice for the bold and daring.
A primer begging flying cadets to please, please stop wrecking aircraft through stupid mistakes. It goes at the problem from all sides, as an officer berates fools who don't look where they're taxiing or radically misjudge landings and takeoffs. With some pretty feeble (and thus hilarious) attempts at comedy relief. The officer involved is played by Ralph Michael, easily remembered as the man haunted by the mirror in the horror omnibus Dead of Night. No matter what idiotic error a cadet makes, Michael gives them the same unblinking dressing-down. Civilian pilots will love this one.
Fly Away Peter
An interesting film about the ferrying of replacement planes to far-off battle theaters in Africa and the Far East. Fliers collect their tropical gear in the freezing English cold, and are told to pay their commissary bill before leaving. Immunization jokes -- what more can you ask?
In the Drink
This short explains the contents of the small life rafts tucked into bomber planes in case they have to ditch in the English channel. The rubber raft has more gadgets and accessories than you'd think, plus rations, etc. We wonder how many of the features actually worked in real use. A framing story shows a crew ditching at sea and picked up by a destroyer. Well done.
An ode to a big bomber called the Avro Lancaster, the Brit equivalent (?) of our B-17 flying fortress. The film celebrates the factories and workers who make them as well -- we see female workers assembling many of the parts.
Quite a movie. David Farrar of the Powell-Pressburger films Black Narcissus and The Small Back Room advises some unhappy locals in a pub. They tried to rescue a downed pilot unconscious in his plane, but succeeded only in bashing him with an ax before the plane caught fire and he burned up. Bad show, that. Farrar explains how to trigger the cockpit latches and access doors on a number of planes and suggests the best way to remove injured pilots. The film is a testament to English trust in its citizens -- American military films would never suggest that a civilian approach a plane no matter how desperate the situation. At the end Farrar says that he doesn't mind trying to give some pointers and advice -- the pilot somebody saves may be him!
A cute, sinister little film narrated in rhyme. Some airmen relaxing in a pub make a date with two cute locals -- realistic young women, not picked starlets -- and then foolishly brag about "big doings" back at the aerodrome. Come Saturday night, the boys have been killed in an air raid instigated by info from their own foolish mouths. Effective propaganda, especially because the airmen -- friendly, ordinary guys with bad teeth -- are obviously the real thing.
A movie about navigation, spelling out the detailed map reading, landmark spotting and course correction skills needed to keep on course during low level raids on enemy territory. The route being investigated is in England, because "the enemy wouldn't cooperate". The movie makes navigating seem both exacting and nerve wracking, and some of the low flying looks very scary.
Another training film, this time for R.A.F. ground personnel and soldiers who defend the aerodromes from a German invasion, a possibility apparently not ruled out until late in the war. The training footage emphasizes the idea that these rear guard troops are vital as well.
Towards the Offensive
Both of these titles are morale builders stressing the message that England is no longer holding on by its nails but visiting a deserved retribution on the Germans. We see French, New Zealanders and Americans with Alabama accents joining in the round-the-clock bombing melee. Plenty of flying footage and extended aerial scenes of Berlin in flames. The returning fliers checking in with debriefers seem barely out of their 'teens.
Front Line Air Force
An interesting look at a North African air unit relocating to Salerno, and all the effort and planning that's involved. The point is stressed that airstrips need to be reestablished immediately so that the fighters can support the ground offensive. Interesting scenery and hardware, and good filmmaking.
Another morale booster showing how the R.A.F. bombers take the night shift to keep Germany under bombardment 24-7. Clearly assembled to give the civvies something to cheer about during wartime rationing.
Each disc also features a bonus newsreel showing the kind of morale messages that were being produced for the general public.
The films are all in fine shape, with only a couple taken from marginal source materials. The majority of them are in great shape and several are of excellent quality. Better yet, the soundtracks are all quite clear. As none of the actors are mumblers I had no trouble understanding all dialogue.
Menus are easy to read and follow and the inner disc holder has a contents index to help keep things straight. The Royal Air Force At War: The Unseen Films 1940-1944 is fascinating history and interesting non-fiction moviemaking. It's fun figuring out what problem each film is addressing, and evaluating whether or not it does its job.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2008 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.