February 26, 2017


Ships with Wings – 1941 | 103mins | War | Drama


Plot Synopsis

Ships with Wings

Ealing’s pathway towards finding a form for its war films veered off course with Sergei Nolbandov‘s Ships with Wings, premiered in November 1941. The mixing of commercial entertainment values with documentary-like realism was not easy to accomplish. Hollywood, with America still neutral, was providing plenty of escapist fare, and the films that used the war as a background did so with a calculated regard for the box office – the dashing Tyrone Power as A Yank in the RAF, for instance, in which the ending was changed so that he could fly back from his bombing raid on Berlin into the arms of Betty Grable. Ships with Wings had excellent opportunities for a realistic portrayal of the war – one of the cameramen, Roy Kellino, had sailed on the British aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, and obtained some fine actuality footage – but it suffered from a storyline that was every bit as novelettish and absurd as the worst that Hollywood could produce.

The plot centred on John Clements, who once again played a young officer under a cloud who redeems himself by volunteering for a dangerous mission and dies a hero, crashing his aircraft into a dam that must be destroyed. Much unconvincing model work marred the battle sequences, particularly the raid on the dam, but a real life carrier-based action against the Italian naval base at Taranto occurred between the completion of the film and its release, which offered an opportunity for the publicists to make something from little. The suicidal heroics of Clements and his colleagues, played by Michael Wilding and Michael Rennie, with Leslie Banks and Basil Sydney as senior officers (Cecil Parker, of all people, was cast as a German commander), worried Winston Churchill, who felt that the poor showing by the Fleet Air Arm in the raid at the end of the film would cause alarm and despondency, for they only achieved their objective after losing an entire squadron. He attempted to delay the release, and get the film shelved. This official reaction was conveyed to Balcon while he was hosting a lunch party at the Savoy for several senior naval officers, including Lord Mountbatten, to launch the film.

Luckily for Balcon, Churchill allowed the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, to make the final decision, and he permitted the film to go out; but it was not to be the last time that Churchill, whose favourite film was Korda’s lushly romantic evocation of the Nelson era, Lady Hamilton, would attempt to interfere with a picture’s release. There was another footnote to the Ships with Wings affair. During shooting Stage 2 was hit and badly damaged by German bombs – a warning, some said, that this was not the type of film Ealing should be engaged in producing.

ExtractŠ George Perry: Forever Ealing.

Production Team

Sergei Nolbandov: Director
Wilfred Shingleton: Art Direction
SC Balcon: Associate Producer
Eric Cross: Cinematography
Roy Kellino: Cinematography
Wilkie Cooper: Cinematography
Mutz Greenbaum: Cinematography
Robert Hamer: Editing
Geoffrey Wright: Music
Michael Balcon: Producer
Sergai Nolbandov: Script
Diana Morgan: Script
Patrick Kirwan: Script
Austin Melford: Script
Diana Morgan: Songwriter


John Clements: Lt Dick Stacey
Michael Wilding: LtGrant
Michael Rennie: Lt Peter Maxwell
Leslie Banks: Admiral Wetherby
Ann Todd: Kay Gordon
Cecil Parker: German Air Marshall
John Laurie: Reid

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