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Friday, April 5, 2013

Project M-7

The original title for Arthur J. Rank's 1953 British film was The Net. For it's American release in very early 1954, it was retitled, Project M-7 (PM7). The film is essentially a spy thriller, with romantic subthreads, and a big shiny MacGuffin. Most of the cast are obscure to Americans. James Donald stars as the obsessed designer, Michael Heathley. Donald would be better known to American audiences in war films like Bridge over the River Kwai and The Great Escape.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Professor Michael Heathley chafes at the plodding pace his research program is allowed. He wants to fly his supersonic float plane, Project M7, but the director refuses. The next stage will be radio control from the ground. No pilots in danger. That night, however, the director takes a fall from one of the slipways and is gravely injured. Dr. Bord deliberately withholds medicine, and the director dies. Sam, the security chief worries about classified info leaks. Heathley's wife Lydia worries that her husband is more obsessed with his work than about her. Alex, the chief engineer, has designs on the lovelorn Lydia. Other love dramas exist too. In the confusion, Heathley bamboozles the team into thinking they have approval for a piloted test. He flies the amazing M7 through its paces. Pushing it too far, however, causes Heathley and his copilot to black out. Only a feeble switch to ground control saves them and the M7. Perhaps the pressure suits failed under stress. More drama and intrigue. Alex makes moves on Lydia, who doesn't resist too hard. Dr. Bord is clearly the spy. The government man, Sir Charles, appoints young Brian (the copilot) to be the new director. This outrages Heathley. Dr. Bord convinces Heathley that the new director doesn't take charge until the next day, so he should take the M7 up again. He, Dr. Bord will come along as copilot to make sure the pressure suits don't fail. They zoom up before anyone can stop them. While in flight, Bord draws a gun on Heathley to hijack M7. Heathley dives at the ground as a game of chicken. Bord caves and drops the gun. They still struggle. While reaching way back for the gun, Bord breaks his oxygen hose, screams and dies on the controls. Lydia pleads with him to recover. Heathley regains control and reports that he's coming back (to her). Happy triumphal ending.

Why is this movie fun?
PM7 is primarily a romance drama, but the technology manages to assert itself in a sort of gee-whiz mood about jet airplanes. The airplane model is kind of cool in a 50s ways. The aerial model shots were actually well done for the day.

Cold War Angle
The dark-side thread in PM7's plot is espionage and attempted hijacking by "Them." While the sponsor behind Dr. Bord is never mentioned, the directions he gives Heathley for where to fly the M7, is towards Russia. The M7 itself is a sort of analogue to a nuclear bomb.

British Title -- Originally released with the title The Net, this seems a sort of double reference. Early in the script, Heathley complains that the director and all the high-security measures were stifling his urge to make progress. He felt like he was trapped in the bureaucrat's "net." (visual metaphor with the wire mesh fencing he stands behind.) The second allusion is the enemy spy's "net" of intrigue. The spy almost catches Heathley and the prized M7 in his net, but again, Heathley and the M7 get away.

Delta The Future -- When released, PM7 was cutting-edge techno stuff. The British were especially keen on the delta-wing configuration for their ultra-modern jet aircraft. The Avro 707 and its big brother, the Avro Vulcan (seen here at an airshow in late 1953) were THE latest thing in ultra-modern aircraft design. The model of the M7 (shown here "in flight") was right in line with what the British public imagined the future would look like. Though, it is an odd bit of anachronism that the M7 was configured as a flying boat, amphibious aircraft. Perhaps this was a melding of British air-enthusiasm with it's centuries of naval tradition.

For Good or Evil -- The M7 is a second-generation stand-in for the bomb. It has "nuclear motors" so we've already got nuclear power used for something other than bombs. However, that doesn't solve the perennial problem. At one point, Heathley is telling his wife how he hopes the M7's speed will bring the peoples of the world closer together and foster peace. On the other hand, if it fell into the wrong hands, it would be a terrible weapon. There's your nuclear conundrum. A tool for peace, or a weapon of war. The debate continues.

Overshadowed by Gill Man -- PM7 is not all that well remembered, but this may be because it was marketed as the B-feature to Creature from the Black Lagoon, in early 1954. While PM7 is a reasonably well-made film with some appeal, it could not compete for "mindshare" with the unforgettable Gill Man. It's rather a pity. Had PM7 been released a little sooner, or later, it might have caught more of the public's attention.

Bottom line? PM7 is a nice little story about an advanced technology. The human drama in the technology team is the intended focus, but for sci-fi fans, the zoomy M7 is a fine co-star.


Randall Landers said...

Will have to track this one down. James Donald, to me, is most memorable for his role as Dr. Roney in Five Million Years to Earth. Very competent actor.

Kavya Bharat said...

Me too. Heard this is one of his best performances.