The year is 1940, and the Second World War is well underway, with Britain’s leaders concerned that now the Nazis have made such progress on the Continent they have their nation in their sights. They’re entirely correct, and so begins a fight in the air as the Luftwaffe commence bombing raids, first on the convoys at sea, and then over the United Kingdom itself, leading the Air Force to become the first line of defence against the attack. One air base in Southern England, close to the Channel, is commanded by Group Captain Small (Jack Hawkins), known as Tiger to his pilots and staff, and he is always seeking men to take to the skies to defend the country, men such as Officer Baird (John Gregson)…
Alas, Baird proves a bit of a problem when he arrives in his aircraft, has to manoeuvre to avoid a Spitfire blundering across the runway, and crashes into the house at the end which happens to be owned by Squadron Leader Clinton (Cyril Raymond), one of his new bosses. Crucially, we can see it wasn’t his fault but he is blamed, which has us sympathising with him: this was important for what occurs later on when he really does mess up, but the message was the same, no matter how wayward the pilot could be, he would still be relied on and expected to do his duty. This would have been perfectly understandable to the contemporary audience, especially the British one who made Angels One Five one of the biggest hits of its year, of its decade in fact.
Much of that success was down to the public wanting reminders throughout the nineteen-fifties of what they were supposed to have been fighting for, as rationing and austerity continued to bite into the quality of life for much of the population. Little wonder they flocked to cinemas showing war movies where things seemed a lot more cut and dried, where you knew what you had been battling for and why you had to suffer ever since now peacetime had arrived. There were better movies on the war made during this era, but this was one of the most direct, mixing lighthearted moments and more tragic incidents with a dose of action to conjure up the mood of the period as the troops always had to keep their collective chins up in the face of the horrendous reality of the Nazis and their plans.
Who could ask for a better leader than Jack Hawkins, in that case? Like everyone involved in the cast, and behind the scenes as well, he had served in the military during the war, he being stationed in India, mostly organising the much-needed concert parties, but something about his firm but fair attitude and persona lent itself well to men in positions of power, and this was one of his first really major roles. Nevertheless, it was an ensemble cast as we were privy to the experiences of an array of important cogs in the machine, so Gregson was perhaps more of the main character, if there was one, as he muddles through with stiff upper lip well intact, tentatively trying romance and endeavouring to be one of the guys when they kick back in between attacks, whereupon they’re serious once again.
This detailed the point in the Battle of Britain where the airfields were being bombed in an attempt to cripple the Air Force, and the one we see here was no different, indeed more or less the whole movie is concentrated on that location, on land at any rate, the skies being another matter. Even so, it’s only at the climax that we see most of the airborne combat, possibly because director George More O’Ferrall (a television pioneer who dabbled in the big screen throughout the fifties) wanted to build up to it, or possibly more likely because he didn’t have the budget to do much more than that when he had to stage the raid on the base, with explosions, buildings collapsing, planes taking off and Hawkins manning an anti-aircraft gun single-handed. Quite the heady brew, and the professionalism is emphasised at all times, thrown into relief when that slips for whatever reason, then reasserting itself every time. The sobering ending was hard-hitting for what could have been a series of gung-ho heroics.
[The Studio Canal DVD features a fully restored print, so it looks very nice, and has a lecture on the war at the time the film takes place as a scene setter, a restoration comparison, and the trailer. A really good treatment for this popular title.]