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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Foreshadowing the 50s (in 1909)

I recently discovered this silent "scifi" short which turned out to have some uncanny parallels to 50s sci-fi. The 50s are famous, of course, for Cold War tension, invasion themes and are famous visualizing a (then) contemporary phenomenon: flying saucers. The Airship Destroyer (TAD) has those things too, in its own way, but in 1909. Without a bit of background history, though, the average 50s sci-fi fan might not realize what a neat mirror it is. More on that in the Notes section. The movie is only 6-plus minutes long, so follow this YouTube link and watch it yourself.

Quick Plot Synopsis
An unnamed foreign power launches an air fleet of small airships. An English inventor asks his sweetheart to marry him, but her father says no. Dejected, the inventor returns to his shop. His assistant bursts in to announce the arrival of the menacing air fleet. The airship crew begin dropping bombs on the countryside. A lone armored car putters around firing back up at the airships, though ineffectually. The airship crew continue to drop bombs. The bombs narrowly miss a train, but hit the armored car square on. They also hit a house, injuring the wife and husband within. Panic in the streets. An airplane is dispatched to do battle, but it strikes an airship and falls to earth. Enter our lovelorn inventor. He has an aerial torpedo. His assistant fires it up. The inventor controls it with a huge radio set, guiding it to an enemy airship. The torpedo hits. The airship burns and falls to earth. Inventor and sweetheart embrace, his heroism having softened daddy's heart. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Knowing how many of 1950s sci-fi stories were set, this battle of (at that time) "fantastic" cutting-edge technology is fun to watch, from the smug seat of 100 years in the future.

Cold War Angle
TAD is an expression of an earlier era's version of the Cold War. It is fascinating how some things stay the same.

Pre-Cold War -- Before World War One, there was a decade or so of an earlier Cold War, of sorts. Rivalry between Great Britain and Germany had simmered in the background, since 1903 or so, and several times threatened to boil over into a "hot" war. (Tangier Crisis 1905, Annexation Crisis, 1909, Agadir Crisis 1911, etc.) Both Britain and Germany vigorously engaged in an arms race. In 1909, the Naval Scare was in full steam.

Super Weapons, Mark 1 -- Before A-bombs, there were battleships. They were both a symbol of prestige and (in theory) a deterrent. (Sound familiar?). The British navy was supreme, but in late 1908, the German passed funding for four new dreadnoughts. This sparked the great "naval scare". British scaremongers whipped up worries that the Germans would achieve superiority. The empire would be doomed. This generated a mood of worry and alarm.

Super Weapons, Mark 2 -- Count von Zeppelin had gotten his third prototype to fly in 1906. His airships were fairly weak and fragile, but there mere idea of airships sent a quiver of panic through the British public. Being an island no longer provided security. H.G. Wells published his novel "The War in the Air" in 1908. It featured attack fleets of airships. England wasn't attacked by Germany in Wells' story, but the edgy British could connect the dots.

Invasion Mentality -- This mood of worry and suspicion found expression in popular entertainment. Several popular spy novels of the day visualized what the public worried about. William Le Queux was a popular novelist of the invasion genre, penning potboilers like: The Invasion of 1910 (1906), and Spies of the Kaiser (1909). TAD fits this literary period perfectly. It was a purely English production but pretends to be a German story, with it's title: "Der Luftkrieg der Zukunft" (The Air War of the Future).

Proto UFOs -- In the Spring of 1909, several people around the British Isles reported seeing phantom airships at night. One man even claimed to have seen strange men from one of the mystery airships, who spoke in a language he did not recognize. UFO-ologists like to think of these mysterious airship sightings as early UFO visitations. Without a "flying saucer" model, the public imagined the mysterious lights as airships -- most likely German ones, given the tensions of the day.

THIS is the context in which the little movie "The Airship Destroyer" was created. The 50s had The Cold War. 1909 had the Anglo-German Arms Race. The 50s had nukes to fear. 1909 had airships. The 50s had flying saucers haunting the night. 1909 had mysterious scareships.

Bottom line? As a movie alone, TAD is not spectacular, but as a parallel to the 50s' invasion themes, and techno-fantasy, it's great.


ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Been following your blog while searching for Mysterians movie. Fantastic postings.

Nightowl said...

Hi Andy,
Glad you like the site. The Mysterians is a cool movie. No beating around the bush that time. They were clearly after our women!


Mike Scott said...

Cool antique sci-fi! Thanks for digging that up! Not sure I see the '50s alien invasion angle, though. More like future warfare.

Nightowl said...

Hi Mike,
The invasion angle was more blatant in other literature of the day. "Riddle of the Sands" was a novel about thwarting a German invasion. "Invasion of 1910" was the story OF that invasion. "When William Came" was a story of England after losing to the German invasion. There were many others. A common thread among them was a great battle which England was ill-prepared for and lost. This opened the door to the invaders. The fleet of airships bombing England were that attack. Note too, the sizable fleet of airships which the inventor sees. The skies of London were filled with the alien ships. :-)