Final Cut: Ships with Wings (1941)

SIMON MATTHEWS on Sergei Nolbandov’s 1941 film Ships with Wings

It certainly isn’t fashionable anymore, but for a simple, unashamedly patriotic piece of entertainment, portraying the British Empire at a point when it still seemed indissoluble, the 1939 version of The Four Feathers takes some beating.

Based on AEW Mason’s 1902 novel it was the first colour adaptation, and a sumptuous production from the Korda brothers. Filmed partly on location in Sudan, it had an RC Sheriff script, and no expense was spared. It wound up costing £500,000. (£58m today. By comparison 2022’s Downton Abbey: A New Era came out at a mere £33.3m.) Sheriff followed the main themes of Mason’s novel – an officer declines to go abroad with his regiment, is ostracised, but eventually redeems himself in battle – with one significant modification. Mason set his book in the 1880’s reflecting the moral and geo-political debates about whether the UK should be in the Sudan in the first place. The Kordas ditched this and set the action around the British victory at Omdurman in 1898. You can understand why. With the clock ticking down to war in Europe, who wanted to see General Gordon et al being massacred in Khartoum?

It premiered in April 1939. Graham Greene cautiously judged: ‘It cannot fail to be one of the best films of the year… even the richest of the ham goes smoothly down, savoured with humour and satire.’ Reviews were good in the US, and a few months later it was warmly endorsed by Mussolini at the Venice Film Festival. (The timing of which wasn’t great: 1 September 1939.) No doubt Il Duce was pleased to indicate how much he understood fellow Europeans having issues in east Africa, and possibly that he was open for talks on these, and other matters, in the future.

As expected by Greene, UK audiences lapped it up, but despite the plaudits from US critics it failed to impress Hollywood. The Four Feathers didn’t obtain a single nomination for the forthcoming Academy Awards, where the Oscar for Best Actor went to Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr Chips, an MGM production shot in the UK from another RC Sheriff script. Which was a shame considering the acting on display in The Four Feathers. Providing audiences with a key early performance by Ralph Richardson, in the leading role of the troubled young officer, it made a star, at 29, of John Clements.

A year later its plot – young man leaves the armed forces, loses/alienates his colleagues and sweetheart and gets a chance at redemption, somewhere out east – was reworked in Ships with Wings. You can see why this was an attractive option. By late 1940 the threat of invasion and subjugation had been beaten off. But German night-time bombing, and the convoy battles in the Atlantic were taking their toll, and morale needed a boost. Churchill was considering a second front in the Balkans; one of many imagined soft-underbellies. Italy had chosen the other side/wrong side, but things had gone badly for her, particularly at sea. Here, the UK media were continually celebrating the exploits of HMS Ark Royal, whilst poking fun at Goebbels’s claims that it had been sunk.

The script almost wrote itself: a flag-waving war film, set in the Mediterranean with Clements, as a Fleet Air Arm pilot, reprising the role he played in The Four Feathers. His fall from grace in Ships with Wings comes from being court martialled after an accident and banished to lowly commercial flying between Greek islands. A handy location for what ensues. The Kordas’ profligacy had lost Denham to the tax man, so this was an Ealing production, the studio mixing George Formby and Will Hay comedies with realistic war films. It would be shot in black and white. There was no RC Sheriff script and no question of filming on location; sets would have to do, intercut with newsreel and documentary footage with lots of model shots and painted backdrops.

It begins in 1936. An aircraft carrier is being built on Tyneside. The top brass are sniffy, preferring battleships. One says it ‘looks like a block of tenements’. A sub-plot develops; a ’30s drawing-room rom-com involving Clements, fellow officers who behave like prep school boys, an Admiral’s daughter and a glamorous night-club singer. The scenes here are worth watching: luxurious set pieces, designed to dazzle working class and middle-class audiences agog with wonderment at the sophistication of their betters. The kind of class-based voyeurism typical of that purveyed by a great deal of pre-1950’s UK cinema. The women shimmer around in Norman Hartnell gowns. The men in full evening dress. There are lots of huge facial close-ups and Coward-style dialogue.

It is more than a little backward looking, given this would have been filmed April/July 1941, with no suggestions here about planning a better world. We soon move into full patriotic mode, diverting to the Mediterranean where we are re-united with Clements. National stereotypes are paraded. The Greeks are comic, sit around in the sun in front of classical ruins, drinking ouzo and playing music but are plucky when it comes to a fight. An Irish colleague of Clements is comic, helpful and sharp-witted, but ducks out when the shooting starts. A fat Italian general is also comic, twiddling his moustache, the message being that the Italians are basically okay, it’s just Mussolini who’s a wrong ‘un. But not the Germans, all of whom are irredeemable sadists. Clements says grimly ‘You can’t argue with Germans. You’ve just got to kick them in the pants.’ Then, in no time at all, we’re back on Ark Royal. Clements is soon at the wardroom piano, leading his colleagues in a couple of choruses of Kipling’s ‘The Ladies’ (1896, the more polite ones). He duly redeems himself in battle and the film closes.

It was ready for public screening in November 1941. Again, the timing was dreadful. British (and Empire) forces had been ousted from the Balkans and were struggling in Egypt. The Soviet Union was thought likely to collapse. Even worse, Ark Royal was sunk that same month in decidedly unheroic circumstances. Her crew abandoned ship 20 minutes after a single torpedo hit. She slowly flooded and sank fourteen hours later. No other navy lost a capital ship this way in the war. (It really had been tempting fate to have Ark Royal appear as HMS Invincible in the film, given that the previous HMS Invincible, a battlecruiser, had been sunk at Jutland in 1916 with immense loss of life, after coming under fire for 90 seconds).

Churchill thought it showed too many British casualties, and quibbled with the idea that one man (Clements) could determine the outcome of a key battle. He considered having the film banned, but relented, enjoying the performance from Jane Baxter, the actress playing the Admiral’s daughter, calling her ‘that charming lady whose grace personifies all that is best in British womanhood.’ Which was very generous, except that she was born in Bremen from minor German nobility. Her mother Hedwig von Dieskau, had been lady-in-waiting to the Kaiser’s sister pre-1914.

It finally reached audiences in January 1942, by which time the motley collection of aircraft shown in the film, biplane bombers and under-powered fighters, had been annihilated when they tried to fight the Japanese in the Far East. It did quite well, but circumstances like these would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier and illustrate perfectly how quickly the Empire went from celebratory triumph (1939) to humiliation (1942).

Ships with Wings was left on the shelves of the distribution libraries, sold to TV and then forgotten. Clements’s film career receded, but he became a stalwart of the theatre, for which he was duly knighted in 1968. Today the film’s interest is in the faultless drawing-room drama scenes and its valuable documentary record of the FAA at war, including material actually filmed on Ark Royal.

Which is not to say that the public’s appetite for colonial/imperial adventures diminished. The Four Feathers marched on, with remakes in 1955 and 1978, both of which include footage from Korda’s film (the 1978 version was also given a Royal Premiere) and a full 2002 re-imagining. Some things never change.

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