Watching and writing about each of these Ealing films there is often a struggle between considering them as individual entries, and linking them to an overarching and dominant narrative of what Ealing did, or was capable of. It is one of the reasons that Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios and George Perry’s Forever Ealing books are the main points of reference, as they do try and encompass the whole of the studio’s output, and make a coherent argument about the studio across the twenty-one years of activity this blog covers. Yet there are times – and watching Ships with Wings is one of those times – when the focus on the content of an individual film complicates its place within that larger hierarchy.
Here, for example, Barr notes the film seems ‘amazingly dated,’ that Churchill threatened to postpone the film’s release (because its climax could be seen as a disaster for the dramatised Fleet Air Arm), and states the ‘wildly romantic’ triumph lacked ‘anything... for general audiences to associate with.’ (Barr 1980, 24-5) Barring the Churchill note, these are a troubling claims, largely because they see the film in relation only to Ealing’s other wartime productions, and the themes of community, pulling together and inter-class cooperation that are seen to dominate the best British wartime films. The following discussion is, therefore, not an attempt to easily reclaim this film (it remains highly problematic in its depiction of the enemy, and of women, for example) but to think about it as a film in its own right.
Covering four years in the life of aircraft carrier HMS Invincible (the fictional name for the HMS Ark Royal – the ship gets a starring credit after the actors in the opening titles), the film is initially less interested in the ship’s crew, and more in three heroic pilots, Lt Dick Stacey (John Clements), Lt Maxwell (Michael Rennie) and Lt David Grant (Michael Wilding), who will serve on the carrier. Although we see them ‘at work,’ the focus falls on their relationships, notably with the Wetherby family: Admiral Wetherby (Leslie Banks), his daughter Celia (Jane Baxter), who carried a torch for Stacey, and son Mickey (Hugh Burden), who wants to be a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm on the Invincible. Wetherby is an older officer, who dismisses the carrier as ‘a floating garage’ and ‘a block of tenements’: in one sense, he is the film’s Colonel Blimp-style figure who thinks a naval battle should be fought in traditional ways, with big guns, not with fighter planes and bombers.
Lt Stacey falls for Celia, now she’s older, and breaks it off with girlfriend (and famous singer/actress) Kay Gordon (Ann Todd). But the competition between the three pilots for Celia reaches its pitch when, to impress Mickey, Stacey takes him up in a test plane that has a dodgy wing. With the wing threatening to break loose, Stacey tells Mickey to bail out; then does so himself – but Mickey, obsessed with being a pilot, stays onboard, and attempts to land it. His death, and Stacey’s determination to fly a plane he’d been told needed repairs, is enough to get Stacey dismissed from the Navy.
As should already be clear, the first half of the film is more interested in romantic dilemmas than professional ones: and this continues, as the film follows Stacey as he retreats to a Greek island, working as a pilot-for-hire for ‘Papa’ Papadopoulos (Edward Chapman). The outbreak of war has little immediate impact on Stacey, but the arrival of Kay (and some German spies) on the island soon brings the war home to him. Again, the emphasis is on romance and character psychology – Stacey wants to reenlist (Wetherby turns down the request, despite support from Invincible’s captain Fairfax – Basil Sydney), but it is the death of Kay and Papa at the hands of German agents that really propels him back into the war, and back into the seat of a fighter plane.
The final act of the film, an aerial attack by the Fleet Air Arm, when naval passage is blocked by a minefield, brings Stacey back to the beginning, meeting up with Maxwell and Grant (now married to Celia), and (with losses mounting up) ordered back into action by Wetherby. At first, Stacey is absent, left to sit in the mess room while all the other pilots head out and engage the Germans. Inevitably, he is asked to go up in support of his friends on a final raid on the German base. Yet the centrality of Stacey as a character means he is motivated by individual psychology rather than broader wartime concerns – he wants revenge on the Germans for killing Kay and Papa, as much as this is the right thing for Britain. In fact, the film may be unsure how to deal with that kind of individualism, given that Stacey’s fate is dying in a suicide run, flying himself (and a German bomber) into a dam, wiping out a German airfield, armoured division and harbour. Barr’s note that this is a ‘wildly romantic’ ending, while accurate, ignores the fact that the whole film has been romantic, rather than logical. In many ways, it feels like a Hollywood film in places, emphasising the individual contributions of one heroic individual rather than the communal success that British war films would become known for.
But what of the claim this might make the film ‘amazingly dated’? Some elements of the schizophrenic narrative have not weathered well: Kay is underdeveloped, and has two song sequences that feel out of place in the larger film (she appears to have walked in from another film, one about fashion and opulence in London society – the film’s treatment of her big song, a Christmas piece about Santa, could be from a musical, the filming style feels so different); the portrayal of the German, Italian and Greek characters is rooted in stereotype (while Papa gets a hero’s death, standing up to the German invasion of his island, the Italians are derided – often by the Germans – and the British view is simply that ‘You can’t argue with Germans, you just have to kick ‘em in the pants’); but overall, the film stands up at least as well as San Demetrio, London (1943), even if its aims are drastically different.
Ealing’s emphasis on strong location shooting remains prominent here, making a star of the Ark Royal with on-site filming of planes landing, wings folding up, and moving up and down on hydraulic platforms within the ship. Yet this is also another strong outing for Ealing’s special effects department: yes, the effects can appear dated, but that would be an unfair (and retrospective) assessment that ignores how strong such work would have been in 1941. The film’s combination of documentary-style footage of the Ark Royal, and its planes, is (mostly) well-matched with solid model work depicting dogfights, bombing raids, and – towards the end – an attack on German airfield, dam, and battalions of German tanks and vehicles. The special effects are clearly models, but sparingly intercut with the other footage, they do create tension and scale which, again, stands up well in comparison with other Ealing war films.
The final assessment of the film, therefore, returns to this notion of its status as an individual film or part of a larger Ealing war effort. There are obvious links with later Ealing productions: where The Cruel Sea would discuss men being wedded to their ships, Maxwell and Fairfax are both described as being ‘married to an aircraft carrier;’ the focus on officers rather than the broader crew ties in with post-war interest in that specific class; and despite the presence of two female characters, the film is largely uninterested in developing them beyond bland love interests. However, in its focus on the character of Stacey, and the domestic life of the officer class, the film remains interesting in the choices it makes about depicting wartime endeavour and loss.
Next time, the music hall beckons for Harry Secombe and Davy (1957)...