Screening the knock-out blow

Last year I gave a lecture where I said that Things to Come, the 1936 Alexander Korda production of H. G. Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come, was not a very popular film, that not many people would have seen it. I had to retract that, but I then said that

I stand by my other point, however, which was that Things to Come is actually very singular, at least in British feature films: there are very few depictions of a city being turned to rubble by air attack

Now I have to retract that too, as since then I've compiled an -- admittedly short -- list of interwar British films which do depict cities being destroyed by bombing, or at least coming under the threat of air attack.

Some of these I did know about, such as The Airship Destroyer (1909). It's now available on YouTube, under an alternate title, Battle in the Clouds. In it, an airship bombs a city, which is last seen in flames. I'm not sure if either of the sequels, The Aerial Anarchists and Pirates of 1920 (both 1911) had anything comparable.

There's a long gap after that. The Flight Commander (1927) climaxes with Sir Alan Cobham bombing a Chinese village, which was filmed at the RAF Pageant, but that's more air control than strategic bombing. In High Treason (1928), written by Noel Pemberton Billing, an aerial war is threatened, but averted. There were a few American films set during the First World War which showed Zeppelin raids on London, including The Sky Hawk (1929) and Hell's Angels (1930), but they're, well, American.1

Things to Come (1936) was actually, I think, the first proper (i.e. scary) depiction in a British film of the effects of a truly devastating air raid. But there were others over the next few years. A pair of short instructional films, The Gap (1937) and The Warning (1939), have long piqued my interest, but unfortunately I didn't get to see them while in London. The Gap was a recruiting film for the Territorial Army, which manned Britain's anti-aircraft guns. London is hit by a surprise air raid, and because there are not enough AA gunners it is devastated. The Warning was aimed at drawing in volunteers for air raid precautions, and portrays the terrible aftermath of an air attack on Nottingham. Air defences swing into action, but do little to prevent the carnage.

Midnight Menace (1937) was based on a story by D. B. Wyndham Lewis (though I don't know where it was originally published). An alternative title, Bombs over London is pretty suggestive, but like High Treason the punches are pulled. A cabal of arms manufacturers, bent on preventing a major disarmament conference from taking place in London, try to bomb the city with radio-controlled aircraft. As you do.

Then there's The Lion has Wings (1939), another Korda production, and the first film produced during the Second World War. It was an explicitly propagandistic effort, designed to show that the RAF was able to defend Britain against the Luftwaffe. In the third act, three German air raids are turned back from London: one by Spitfires, another by combined fighter and AA defences, and the last by a balloon barrage (and are then savaged by Spitfires on the way home).

The last one I know of is An Englishman's Home (1939 or 1940). This was an adaptation of Guy du Maurier's highly successful 1909 play of the same name, which was about a German invasion of Britain and its effect on one English family.2 The film version sounds like more of a spy drama, but it also showed an air raid on a city (not sure if it's London), with air defences being almost completely ineffective.

So -- leaving aside The Airship Destroyer, which is too short to be anything but impressionistic -- air raids on cities featured in at least four British films, and were threatened in three others. All but one of these were made after 1936, which is exactly when fear of the knock-out blow was greatest. It's interesting to compare the three most obviously propagandistic films, The Gap, The Warning and The Lion has Wings. Superficially, they are quite different in terms of the damage done by bombing. Because the first two were recruiting films, it makes sense that they would emphasise the potentially catastrophic effects of bombing, but also that there were ways to mitigate them (AA or ARP). Their imagery was disturbing, but in order to motivate their audience to take action: join up today and you can make a difference if war comes. The Lion has Wings, on the other hand, was aimed at a more general audience, and was clearly designed to sooth public anxieties about the prospect of being bombed. Hence its refutation of the 'bomber will always get through' ideology, which to an extent was certainly justified, but here it's been turned into 'the bomber will never get through'. The success or failure of bombing in these films must reflect the desires of their makers as much as their fears: a hypothetical Fighter Command recruitment film made in 1937 probably would have been almost as optimistic as The Lion has Wings.

The other movies were made to entertain. With a high-minded (and well-documented) production like Things to Come, we can be fairly sure that there was a serious belief in the danger of bombing, at least on the part of Wells. But An Englishman's Home, for example, seems altogether fluffier, and the use of bombing may have just been a way to update an old story for a new audience, or to add some adrenalin to an otherwise overly-stagey piece.

Of course, the intentions of film-makers are one thing: film-watchers made up their own minds about what they've been shown. In 1940, some audiences for the re-release of Things to Come laughed when fleets of enemy aircraft crossed the coast, and the unconvincing models in An Englishman's Home had a similar effect. But sometimes the reaction was silence or even hysteria. How watching the knock-out blow on screen prepared these people for the Blitz is unknown.

Most of these films I have not seen, and am relying on various synopses on the internet, and in Michael Paris, From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun: Aviation, Nationalism and Popular Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995) and S. P. MacKenzie, The Battle of Britain on Screen: 'The Few' in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

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  1. I think one or the other of these was the source of a similar scene in a British film from the 1930s or 1940s, or perhaps it was from the Korda documentary Conquest of the Air (1936, but not released until 1938). I can't for the life of me remember what film I saw it in, but the scene was too short and too lavish to have been made specially. []
  2. It was previously adapted in 1914, presumably more faithfully. []

6 thoughts on “Screening the knock-out blow

  1. Weirdly, I noticed yesterday that the bylaws of Hampstead Heath include a truly odd provision to stop you from landing or taking off in any aircraft, except from such landing ground provided for Air Defence exercises. And the whole document was signed by the Home Secretary and also the Secretary of State for War, with the last revision apparently being 1932.

    Surely no-one in 1932 thought that RAF fighters would be based on the heath? I mean, WW1 biplanes had fairly minimal runway requirements, but still.

  2. Chris Williams

    At firs glance it looks like an intervention from the Department for Allowing For Improbable Contingencies to me. A bit like the Bloody Code of the C18th, really.

    On the other hand, in 1932 the RAF was still a biplane force, and they had very short take-off runs: the Fairey Flycatcher, for example, could take off from the lower deck hangar of HMS Furious.

    PS - Brett, I heard today that Melbourne-based historian David Philips has died. Sorry to hear about that: he was a nice man and a brilliant researcher.

  3. Post author

    I wonder if the reference to 'Air Defence exercises' is the key -- in the late 1920s and 1930s ADGB ran annual exercises, usually simulating an enemy offensive against London. Perhaps one year they tested the feasibility of using Hampstead Heath as an emergency aerodrome?


    Yes, it was very sudden, I had no idea David was ill. He was actually my supervisor for part of 4th year, so I should write something, probably closer to his memorial service week after next.

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  5. Post author

    I think one or the other of these was the source of a similar scene in a British film from the 1930s or 1940s, or perhaps it was from the Korda documentary Conquest of the Air (1936, but not released until 1938). I can’t for the life of me remember what film I saw it in, but the scene was too short and too lavish to have been made specially.

    Conquest of the Air (a 1940 version with extra defiance) was on TV here tonight and the footage I referred to was definitely not in it. While there was a great montage of WWI air combat, including bombing (how much was real? not much, I'd imagine but some of it looked convincing) but no Zeppelin bombing.

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