The Battle of Britain (1943)

Frank Capra’s famous World War II propaganda series Why We Fight has been justly praised for its high drama and impact. I have previously written about The Nazis Strike, the second part, and the turn has now come to part four, The Battle of Britain. I have seen most of the series, and in my humble opinion, this part is perhaps the best of the lot.

The Nazi whale about to devour Great Britain in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

There are several reasons why I like this film. One is the large amount of genuine aerial footage, both from British sources and from captured Nazi propaganda films. Another is the exciting story it tells. Not the least important reason is the excellent narration by Walter Huston, with brilliant lines like this one: “The Nazi plan called for the RAF to be knocked out of the air, but the men of the RAF hadn’t read the Nazi plan.”

Sure, this is propaganda. It cannot be trusted for historical facts. But it will give you at least a partial glimpse of the reality behind the facts and figures of World War II.

If you are interested in some more facts about the series as a whole, do check my post on The Nazis Strike.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in old combat aircraft. The pictures do not lie about these magnificent machines and their performance in the air.

Spitfires in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

The Battle of Britain
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Year: 1943
Running time: 53 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Today, many people argue that the best thing about Hell’s Angels is the dramatic and well produced flight sequences. That may be true, but even though the film would have been pretty much forgotten without the airial stunts, the plot and character portraits hold enough interest to make the film worthwhile. One section of the film, as well as one special effect, are in colour. This was not unique for the time, but due to the high costs it was only seen in high-budget films, so this is another reason why the film remains special.

James Hall, Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

In Hell’s Angels, we follow the destinies of two brothers, Roy and Monte, during the course of World War I. Their personalities are extremely different, so there is plenty of room for conflict, and especially so when they start to compete for the same girl. Or perhaps it should rather be said that she makes them compete, for reasons known only to herself.

Hell’s Angels is an early sound film, and much of the silent aesthetics remain, for good and bad. Indeed, the film was first intended as a silent, and much material had to be reshot (with the female lead replaced) when the decision was made to produce a talkie. There are even some title cards left for translating the German airmen’s conversation, where subtitles would be the norm today. On the plus side, it is certainly refreshing to hear German spoken in the first place. Most Hollywood war films in the following seventy-plus years were to use English in place of foreign language dialogue.

If you are used to Hollywood film from the 1940s and 1950s, you will find that Hell’s Angels is surprisingly overt in terms of sexuality and strong language. This is because it was made in the period before Hollywood’s self-imposed production code was created. Indeed, the decades following the early 1930s were to become much more bland and boring in some ways.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of aviation or war movies. The aerial battles are truly spectacular, and there is plenty of the drama that only the backdrop of war can create. Hell’s Angels is a classic in its genre that is not to be missed.

Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

Hell’s Angels
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Year: 1930
Running time: 2 h 11 min
Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding, Fred Fleck
Stars: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Second World War saw on both sides of the conflict a considerable rise in the quality of its cinematic propaganda material. One of the driving individuals behind the American material was William Wyler, who in 1944 helped direct and produce both The Memphis Belle, about a B-17 Flying Fortress in action over Germany, and The Fighting Lady.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver over USS Yorktown aircraft carrier during World War II in The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Fighting Lady tells the story of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The ship is unnamed in the film, but most of the scenes were filmed on board the USS Yorktown. The film stresses the difference between the boredom of everyday routine, and the dangerous bursts of action during a battle. An effective and dramatic contrast is thereby reached, which together with authentic combat footage helps to make this one of the better American documentary/propaganda productions from the war years.

Typical of Wyler’s films, there is no attempt to hide the losses of human lives caused by the war. On the contrary, the US casualties are held up as tragic but also heroic. No doubt, this helped to strengthen home front morale, as long as the audience were also told that the terrible cost was paid back in full to the enemy.

If you like this sort of film, you may also want to take a look at Wyler’s Thunderbolt (1947), about the P-47 Thunderbolt and the action it saw during the campaign in Italy.

This film is best enjoyed for a better understanding of one of mankind’s most terrible conflicts ever fought, not forgetting that it is in many ways propaganda and not foremost a historical document.

Aircraft landing on carrier deck during World War II in The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Fighting Lady
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: Edward Steichen, William Wyler
Stars: Robert Taylor (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.8 G)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The border between fiction and reality is often a very thin one. Take the World War II film The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress for example. It is often labeled as a documentary, yet in many aspects, it is little more documentary than the almost entirely fictional Memphis Belle (1990), which it helped to inspire.

Captain Robert K. Morgan and Captain James A. Verinis before their B-17F Flying Fortress in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a documentary, sure, but like any good documentary, it was made with a certain purpose. That purpose was home front propaganda (the plane and crew were used to sell war bonds after they returned to America). In order to achieve that propaganda, the important thing is the drama and authenticity. Actual facts will have to take a back seat, unless they can help to raise abovementioned drama and authenticity.

Certainly, the film does contain many documentary elements: much of it was indeed shot during live combat missions over enemy territory, and you can see that the crew members are real humans, not actors, in the ways that they react to the cameras. But it does not portray the plane’s final mission, as stated. The film was shot during a number of different missions, some of them made with other aircraft than the Memphis Belle. One of the cinematographers is said to have been killed during the filming when the bomber he was on board was shot down over France.

Another example of how the film skillfully mixes real and fictional elements is that all sound, including the crew members’ on-board dialogue, was recorded and added during post production. Some people find it fascinating that they show wounded and dead crew members (of other aircraft) in a propaganda film, but this was common during the period. That way, the courage of the fighting man is shown to be even greater, because the audience is made to realize that the hazards of combat flying are very real.

Perhaps I make it sound like I disapprove of all the short-cuts that directory William Wyler and his crew have taken in the production of this film. That would be far from the truth. The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a great film, captivating and inspiring, not in spite of the fictional elements, but perhaps moreso because of them. Without the fiction, the story would be bland and boring.

This film is best enjoyed for its large amount of actual combat footage and for its considerable story-telling qualities. For the historical facts, you need to go elsewhere, though as a documentary of a combat crew’s situation on board a B-17, the film does have many fine qualities.

B-17 Flying Fortress formation in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress
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Year: 1944
Running time: 43 min
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Eugene Kern (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

It is perhaps tempting to believe that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in a contemporary setting is a recent idea. Not so. That gimmick has been used at least since the 1940s, when the American producers of new Sherlock Holmes films deicded to enlist Holmes and Watson for the ongoing war effort. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, as well as several other films from the war years, they help fight Nazi spies in England. This in spite of the film being based on an original Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1945)

The film begins in Switzerland, where an inventor has constructed a new revolutionary bomb sight. He wants to offer it to the English government, but the Nazis are wise to his intentions, and so the chase begins. The rest of the film depicts the efforts by both sides to gain control of the inventor and his plans. Professor Moriarty naturally turns out to be the leader of the Nazi spies, and the thing turns into a battle of wits between the two master minds.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was Basil Rathbone‘s fourth Sherlock Holmes film, but only his second by Universal Studios (the first two were made by 20th Century Fox), and the oldest of his Sherlock films available at the Internet Archive.

Fans tend to be divided regarding Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. Many see him as the classic Watson, but others, myself included, think he is way too thick-headed, contributing very little beyond cheap comic relief. Still, it must be admitted that Nigel Bruce was a competent actor, and he did the best he could under the circumstances.

This film is best enjoyed because of Basil Rathbone’s usual excellent performance. His Sherlock is possibly the coolest and most laid-back. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes on screen does not get more classic than this. As an added bonus, Lionel Atwill does a very sinister Professor Moriarty.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (656×496)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.2 G)

Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Plenty of good old movies at the Internet Archive are practically forgotten today. Many deserve to be so, but others are better than their non-existing reputation would suggest. Murder in the Clouds is such a film.

Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds has a somewhat convoluted and improbable plot, yet not without a certain charm. Our hero is the hot-shot pilot “Three Star” (Lyle Talbot). He has been grounded for reckless flying, but gets another chance when an extremely important flight must be made, delivering a secret explosive device which can change the nature of warfare (someone invented the atom bomb that early?). “Three Star” is also in love with Judy (Ann Dvorak), whose brother is to be his co-pilot on the important flight. But of course, things happen; further entaglements involve friends who may not be who they seem, a mountain cabin and a fateful bar fight.

Compared with similar aviation B movies, such as Danger Flight (1939) or Q Planes (1939), Murder in the Clouds has much better flight sequences. There is a pretty ugly mid-air explosion, but otherwise the aerial scenes are both varied, elegant and well filmed. They were mostly shot at and around Grand Central Airport outside Glendale, California. The airport is long since gone, but the runway has been converted into Grand Central Avenue and some of the buildings also exist.

Ann Dvorak is mostly remembered today for her role two years earlier in the classic original version of Scarface. She was a good actress, and even though her initial shots in Murder in the Clouds are a bit too tightly strung, she improves as the movie rolls along, and is excellent for the most part.

This film is best enjoyed for the high quality aerial stunts.

Travel Air 4000 in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Stars: Lyle Talbot, Ann Dvorak
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (498 M)

Atlantic Flight (1937)

In one of my first posts on this blog, I wrote about the 1937 film Non-Stop New York, and how that film had been influenced by real-world events, namely the first commercial transatlantic roundtrip, made by pilot Dick Merrill.

Merrill became something of a hero and celebrity after his flight, and Non-Stop New York was not the only film based on his trip. In fact, Merrill starred in the film Atlantic Flight. Not only did he play the pilot Dick Bennett on a mission which is suspiciously similar to his own celebrated flight, but his real-world co-pilot played his fictional co-pilot as well, and they even used the same plane for some scenes. The character Bennett was perhaps named after the airfield Floyd Bennett Field, where Merrill landed after his return flight.

Dick Merrill as Dick Bennett in Atlantic Flight (1937)

Merrill actually made several transatlantic flights, and the first two are often confused with one another. The first was called the Ping-Pong Flight, because thousands of ping-pong balls had been crammed into empty spaces in wings and fuselage in order to make the plane float if it had to land on water. The balls were later sold as memorabilia. The second flight, Coronation Flight, was that first commercial roundtrip flight. The cargo was news photos of the Hindenburg disaster (going east) and George VI’s coronation (going west), allowing newspapers on both sides to scoop their competition, since photos could not be sent by cable back in those days.

As far as I understand, the flight dramatized in the film is a mashup of the two flights, using dramatic elements from both. The purpose of the movie flight, however, is entirely original, involving bringing back a serum to save a person’s life. The film’s rather thin plot centers around this achievement.

It has often been stated as a fact that actual in-flight film from Merrill’s real flight was used in the making of the movie, but even if that is true, it is only a matter of a few seconds of film from the take-off and/or the landing. The rest is mostly model and studio shots, along with some stock footage. All in all, the flight scenes must be considered to be acceptable considering the film’s budget and production time, but they would not be reason by themselves to watch the film.

This film is best enjoyed for its connection with historic events. Frankly, it is not a good film, and Frank Merrill is terrible in his role, acting with the entire repertoire of a brick. Non-Stop New York, while also a B movie, is a far better movie, but Atlantic Flight remains an interesting film because it is much more closely interwoven with Merrill’s real flight. If you want even more of the real historical connection behind the film, the Internet Archive contains a Pathé news reel which not only covers the George VI coronation and the Hindenburg disaster, but also news about Amelia Earhart’s fateful last flight. Earhart went missing around the same time that Atlantic Flight was produced, and she used the exact same model aircraft (Lockheed Model 10E Electra) as Merrill did for Coronation Flight, though both planes had been considerably altered.

Lockheed Model 10E Electra in Atlantic Flight (1937)

Atlantic Flight
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Year: 1937
Running time: 59 min
Director: William Nigh
Stars: Frank Merrill
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)