CONQUEST OF THE AIR is one of Alexander Korda’s experiments, an hour-long dramatized documentary history of manned flight. Typically of Korda, it’s “directed” by whoever happened to be around, especially if they were Hungarian (brother Zoltan is one of the troupe of what I’ll call “nauteurs”), leaving it to editor and narrator Charles Frend to tie the whole shambles together. Frend was later a dependable maker of staunch war dramas, staunch police dramas, staunch Antarctic expeditionary dramas…
What caught my eye was the fact that the film is based on a book by John Monk Saunders, aviator and screenwriter (WINGS, THE LAST FLIGHT), and I’m a bit of a Saunders completist. He’s one of the few Hollywood specialists — his best scripts always hinge on aviation, just as Maurine Dallas Watkins’ always trot out women in prison. As long as the key element is in place, the entertainment is assured.
An experiment such as this could only be put over to a British public skeptical of home-grown product by the deployment of star power, so it’s odd that the jaunt through history throws up so few familiar faces. My favourite grouchy Dundonian of the period, Hay Petrie, pops up as Tiberius Cavallo, and I glimpsed an uncredited and dubbed Francis L Sullivan as Nero, witnessing a spectacular failed levitation. Asides from those, it’s left to Laurence Olivier to impersonate Vincent Lunardi in amusingly showy fashion.
Olivier is a beast of quicksilver, sometimes sluggish, sometimes fleet and sparkling. David Mamet cites his performance as a French Canadian trapper with what sounds like a Pakistani accent in 49TH PARALLEL as the one bad performance in an Archers’ film (he needs to pay closer attention to Bob Arden in AMOLAD). Here, he manages to sound convincingly like an Englishman pretending to be French, which I assume was his intention. Quashing a heckler, he declares his intention to “soar over the heads of groundlings like you,” and flashes a cheeky smile. He’s a star, even if Lunardi’s ballooning lacks some of the dash and derring-do of early flight by virtue of its being conducted safely indoors.
The early part of the film is one long succession of deluded hopefuls crashing earthwards from high places (so few of them seem to have considered launching from a runway, rather than a tower/bridge/wall). Frend seems unaware of how comical this all is — the only unfunny entry is the Scottish one, which fails both as aeronautics and comedy, because the guy lived (although he gets points for landing in a dunghill). This sequence seems like a clear influence on Terry Gilliam’s early toon THE MIRACLE OF FLIGHT ~
And a later mention of Baron Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus suggests Korda’s influence on British comedy may be greater than previously assumed.
And then there’s this image of Italian peasants fleeing a stray bag of hydrogen, which seems to anticipate Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. “Aaargh! It’s the Devil!”
By curious coincidence, Marvelous Mary just dropped in for a cup of herbal infusion and told me about the nineteenth century zookeeper, George Wombwell, whose animals seemed to have spent a lot of their time loose and rampaging. “It’s the devil!” was the cry uttered by a poor housewife, fleeing her home, which had become occupied by a stray kangaroo…