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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bombs Over London

This movie might seem like a non-sequitur for the present study, but it's not. Bombs Over London (BOL) was as British film, released in 1937 ('39 in USA) which was essentially a spy intrigue film with a sci-fi element as the MacGuffin. This formula was getting more common in the sci-fi of the mid and later 1960s. (see Notes section for more on this). The two 1968 films coming up next in this study were exactly this pattern -- spy stories with a nominal sci-fi item as MacGuffin. BOL is included here as an historical precedent, though by no means the only one.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A consortium of armament tycoons celebrate the death of an over-inquisative newspaper journalist. Briant, a co-worker of the dead reporter suspects some foul play because he said, just before his death, that he was onto something big. Graham Stevens (the dead man) was covering a big, but lackluster disarmament conference. A primary delegate to the conference, a man named Peters, talks up a peace treaty and dedicates a statue to the event. Peters meets with the arms tycoons and tells them his plan is to wreck the conference for his own revenge reasons. The tycoons benefit from new wars to sell more bombs. Briant uncovers some obscure clues in Stevens' office and works the mysterious word SASKA into one of his editorial cartoons. This begins to rattle the conspirators and entangle Briant in their web. Peters has employed a scientist named Dr. Marsh, who has created long-range remote control devices for aircraft. Peters' plan is to have these robot planes bomb key targets in London. The act of aggression would be blamed on other countries in Europe and a larger war would ensue. Briant and Mary Stevens get closer to uncovering the plot. Both get captured by Peters and his men. Briant escapes and alerts the authorities. Mary is kidnapped and taken to Dr. Marsh's secret control lab beneath a newspaper shop. The planes land in England that night. (November 5th) They take off under Marsh's remote control and bomb the first of five targets: an oil storage yard. Troops surround the newspaper shop. A firefight erupts between the soldiers and Peters' henchmen. More targets are bombed. Briant sneaks into the shop and Marsh's lab, looking for Mary. He finds the remote control console and smashes it. The bombers fall from the sky before Whitehall and Parliament are bombed. Mary is rescued. Briant is a hero with his editor. Peters commits suicide by poison. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Pre-nuclear sci-fi has a freshness to it, for viewers raised on two decades of nuclear themes. The picture phones (called "television") as well as the remote control apparatus are charming "high tech", but must have been pretty cool in their day.

Cold War Angle
Being 1937, BOL is pre-Cold War. It's pre-Hot War, for that matter. Yet, the bugaboo of its day -- militarism and the threat of war -- provided the impetus for the plot, just as Cold War themes did after the war. Where 50s and 60s sci-fi gave allegorical voice to Cold War themes, BOL is an example of the same being applied to conventional war themes. . In 1937, the drum beat for a looming European war was impossible to ignore. BOL gives some voice to that era's concerns.

Fawkes Redux -- The date of the plot in BOL, November 5th, would be instantly significant to British audiences, but probably not for American viewers. "Remember, remember the fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot..." goes the 17th century poem. The Gunpowder Plot was an uncovered attempt to blow up King James I and parliament in 1605. The infamous (and captured) conspirator was Guy Fawkes. Some three centuries afterward, November 5th is still known as Guy Fawkes Day. There were bonfires, fireworks and the burning-in-effegy of Guy Fawkes. BOL is a modernization of the plot meme, using the symbolic day to cement the parallel.

Robot Pilots -- The science fiction element is BOL was pretty high tech for its day. The planes fashioned by Dr. Marsh amount to modern Predator drones, 50 years ahead of their time. In 1937, even human pilots had trouble navigating by radio beacons. The 1941 movie Robot Pilot would continue the dream of remote control flying. In it, Forrest Tucker is a pilot/inventor who develops a workable remote control for aircraft. Enemy agents are out to steal his invention.

Blitz Preview -- Imagery in BOL presages Goering's Luftwaffe campaign of just a few years in the future. London by night, searchlights crisscrossing the sky, planes droning overhead and bombs falling on the panicky citizenry, fighters dispatched to shoot down the night bombers, etc. Yet, the writers and director were not entirely visionary. London was bombed during World War One, though with far less impact. German Gotha bombers raided by night in late 1917 to avoid interceptor fighters (though not always successfully). This was the imagery BOL was keying off of.

Plane Crazy -- Admittedly trivial, the scant footage of the real airplanes (not the models) appear to show the Miles Magister, slightly disguised with landing gear fairings. The Magister was a low-wing monoplane trainer first used by the RAF in early 1937. Spitfire pilots who would battle the Luftwaffe over London would have trained in the Magister. For the movie's day even the modest Magister had an ultra-modern look to it. Compare with the RAF biplane fighters sent up to intercept the bombers. The Hawker Fury II was typical of the late 30s, but a design only slightly updated from the days of the Red Baron.

Bottom line? BOL is a quaint and somewhat obscure example of pre-war sci-fi. It is primarily a spy mystery with the typical plucky journalist as the man uncovering the plot. The props are modest, but reasonable for the time. The special effects (models of the planes) are weak, but sufficient. BOL makes an interesting foil for more sophisticated films in the 50s. Much of the plot structure and characters are the same. Just replace conventional weapons with saucers or things nuclear. Compare and contrast (as the teachers say) with 1968 films such as Bamboo Saucer and The Destructors.


Quintin said...

How do we watch these movies from your website? Thanks

Nightowl said...

Hi Quintin,

The movies themselves are not on my website -- cool as that would be. There'd be copyright issues for sure.

I've collected them over the years, in a variety of media. Some are DVDs, some are old VHS. Some are public domain on others' websites. A few are on YouTube in some form or another. Some of the really obscure ones, like Bombs Over London were torrents from others' private collections.

It has been an adventure unto itself, trying to collect all these films (or at least, view them)

Take care!