Monday, February 16, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Angels One Five" (1952)

"Angels One Five" is one of those war movies in which it's fairly difficult to capture an actual glimpse of war.

Except for a few aerial combat scenes toward the end -- poorly staged with static planes superimposed against a background, models and repetitious shots of an aircraft turning into the camera -- you'd barely know the pivotal Battle of Britain was occurring before our very eyes.

Mostly, "Angels One Five" concerns itself with the grounded portion of the lives of British air pilots at one airfield along the English Channel, particularly the daring squadron that dubs itself the Pimpernels. They drink enthusiastically -- often right before taking to the air -- carouse with whatever few women are on hand, and engage in a whole lot of high-spirited banter in between missions.

When one of their number perishes, which is fairly often, his passing is barely commented upon, beyond him being a good lad who put on a good show before spiraling in.

Indeed, when we first meet the squadron they are literally wrestling like boys at the officers' club, piling onto each other in their shirtsleeves and socks like preadolescents at day camp. This includes their boss, Group Commander Captain Small (Jack Hawkins), known universally by his call sign of "Tiger." Except, of course, he doesn't fly anymore,

There's some vague intimation of him being grounded by injury, and the Tiger appears to leap at any opportunity to prove his manhood, such as challenging pilots 20 years his junior to a footrace, or literally shoving aside a machine gunner when the field is under attack so he can "poop off" (his words) at some jerries,

Hawkins, of course, was a very big deal in English cinema roundabouts 1952, and one of the movie's biggest problems is it can't decide who it wants the protagonist to be. The Tiger would seem to suit the bill, but he disappears for large stretches of the movie, and of course he never gets airborne. (Not that the actual pilots seriously outdistance him in this regard.)

I think the real main character is supposed to be T.B. Baird, soon callsigned "Septic," the new squadron pilot whose upper lip is stiffer than most, even by British war film standards. Played by John Gregson, he's a medical student who gave up his studies to fight in the war, and seems to have studied the operations manual backward and forward without ever gaining a real grasp of what it's like to be in combat.

His arrival is inauspicious. He's flying in one of three badly needed replacement Hurricanes. But a veteran pilot returning from a combat mission with an inoperable radio lands cross-wind of him, forcing Baird to pull up to avoid a collision and consequently crash-land on the doorstep of Barry Clinton (Cyril Raymond), the good-natured chief of the operations center. This is the underground HQ that dispatches orders to all the flights and charts their path on the inevitable gargantuan map we always see in this type of war picture.

For mysterious reasons, Baird is blamed for damaging the airplane (and himself, slightly) and ordered to take a seat in the operations bunker with Clinton. During that time he gets to know his superior officer and his wife, Mrs. Clinton (Dulcie Gray), who is stout and resolute and will invariably be referred to as "a remarkable woman."

The remarkable woman also sets Baird up with another one of her kind, Betty Carfax (Veronica Hurst), who drives an ambulance for the war effort. In two scenes they manage to fall in love, about par for the course in this kind of movie, and you just know somebody is doomed.

For all the considerable mayhem, the characters remain annoyingly chipper. I realize this is the image the Brits like to present of themselves, particularly in times of turmoil. But even by that standard the people seem so oblivious to the horrors of what's transpiring that they begin to seem dumb, or at least smashingly callous.

The Blitz was not exactly tea and biscuits, you know.

Peter Moon (Michael Denison) competes for screen time as Clinton's predecessor as head of operations, who later gets promoted to commander of the Pimpernels after the old one buys it. There are actually a great deal of similarities between him and Baird -- both earnest, tightly-wound men who suffer during their time on the ground, eager to get into the skies and prove their stuff. I'm surprised director George More O'Ferrall and screenwriter Derek N. Twist didn't combine the characters.

The enemy remain faceless and vague, just a few references during strategy meetings to let us know how badly the Brits are outnumbered by the Germans (five planes to one) plus the fleeting glimpses of bombers and a (very) few fighters during the brief, unconvincing combat sequences.

I've never been in war, but I've watched a lot of war movies and thus I know the first thing you have to do for them to be effective is establish the foe, or at least the circumstances lined against the heroes, as distinct and formidable. With all these smiling Englanders having a grand time talking about combat but rarely engaging in it, "Angels One Five" fails its first lesson and (nearly literally) never takes flight.

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