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  Conquest of the Air, The A Wing And A Prayer
Year: 1940
Director: Zoltan Korda, etc
Stars: Frederick Culley, Laurence Olivier, Franklin Dyall, Henry Victor, Hay Petrie, John Turnbull, Charles Lefeaux, Bryan Powley, Alan Wheatley, John Abbott, Winston Churchill, Charles Frend
Genre: Documentary, HistoricalBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: History is littered with people who wanted to emulate the birds and defy gravity to take to the skies, but as the legend of Icarus demonstrated, simply strapping on a pair of wings wouldn’t necessarily lead to flight. Indeed, as with that mythological figure, it resulted in many deaths down the centuries when so many failed, leaping from the top of cliffs or tall buildings with their equipment only to be killed when they hit the ground below, their makeshift wings not enough to support them. But this did not stop the fascination with the subject, and there were time after time foolhardy souls taking their lives in their hands, from the days of Emperor Nero who witnessed a prototypical scientist come a cropper, to the medieval era when you could be locked up for trying to go against what was perceived to be the word of God. But try they did, try, try again…

This history of manned flight was accused even at the time it was belatedly released of merely recreating a school lesson only with illustrations in the form of re-enactments and actual footage of the events in question, and Charles Frend’s narration was often held up as the way not to perform that courtesy, a dry schoolmaster rather than inspirational tutor. That said, there was an authority to the presentation that could be quite engaging, and there was humour, so it wasn’t a dead loss by any means, it was more that The Conquest of the Air was a compromised effort that escaped onto British screens three years after it had been created, only with new footage to acknowledge that now it was 1940, there was another war on. Therefore Sir Winston Churchill was crowbarred in between the flight sequences, sitting at a desk to deliver a comment so brief you wondered why he bothered at all.

Obviously at this stage any lack of reference to this second global war was going to look pretty odd since that’s what everyone in the nation was concerned with, but it did sum up the rushed, thrown together tone of the documentary. It shouldn’t have been this way at all, for it had been concocted by Alexander Korda, possibly the most influential man British cinema ever saw, as part of a series of lavish films taking travel on land, sea and air as their subjects; this was the only lasting result of that, and even then it had sat on the shelf seemingly because nobody quite knew what to do with it. It opened with a succession of actors in period garb throwing themselves to their doom – what else could you say about those early years other than they were fumbling steps towards a goal that would not be reached for centuries to come? But once we get past Leonardo da Vinci (whose face, oddly, is never shown throughout his segment, an almost religious reverence) ballooning establishes itself and the Montgolfier Brothers make their presence felt.

The only really famous face as far as the cast went was Laurence Olivier, playing extravagant balloonist Vincent Lunardi, and he had barely a minute of screen time, the result of the editor apparently wanting what would have been an epic feature to be over with as soon as possible. This did make for a breezy race through history, but you felt they were glossing over details that could have fleshed out the personalities involved: Otto Lilienthal (Henry Victor) looks to have been built up as a real hero in from what remains of his section, but makes a minor impression in the final cut. By the point of the twentieth century they had actual footage to use, though the Wright Brothers were still portrayed in re-enactments by two actors who looked almost nothing like them, and they were keen to point out the contribution of the European pioneers who laid the groundwork. After that, there was a skip through the later big names like Louis Blériot, Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart and so forth, with such clips as the World War I aerial dogfights and the still-unexplained Hindenburg airship disaster, though the toll the practice took on lives was never far from the film’s thoughts. From what was left, a lightly eccentric rush through history, but diverting for all that.

[Network's DVD has a better picture than the public domain versions, and a gallery as an extra.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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