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Ships with Wings (1941)


Main image of Ships with Wings (1941)
DirectorSergei Nolbandov
Production CompanyEaling Studios
Produced byMichael Balcon
Associate ProducerS.C. Balcon
Screen PlayPatrick Kirwan
 Austin Melford
 Diana Morgan
EditorRobert Hamer

Cast: John Clements (Lieutenant Stacey); Leslie Banks (Vice-Admiral Weatherby); Jane Baxter (Celia Weatherby); Ann Todd (Kay Gordon); Basil Sydney (Captain Fairfax); Edward Chapman (Papadopolos); Michael Wilding (Lieutenant Grant); Michael Rennie (Lieutenant Maxwell)

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Stacey, a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, is disgraced when he recklessly causes the death of a colleague. Later he is given the opportunity to redeem himself.

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The arrival of documentarists Alberto Cavalcanti and Harry Watt at Ealing in 1941, signalled a new commitment to realism in the studio's output, particularly from 1942's The Foreman Went to France (d. Charles Frend) and The Next of Kin (d. Thorold Dickinson). Ships With Wings (d. Sergei Nolbandov), released just a few months earlier at the end of 1941, seems a world away from those films in style and content.

Where the later films concentrated on collective heroism, Ships With Wings is a story of personal redemption, as John Clements' pilot is given an opportunity to atone for the act of recklessness that caused the death of the admiral's son - and brother of the woman he vainly loves - and led to his court-martial.

The film begins two years before the war and, although its opening scene depicts the launch of the new aircraft carrier HMS Invincible (in reality the famous HMS Ark Royal), the first 40 minutes are played out as much in the upmarket nightclubs and drawing rooms of the officer classes as in the cockpits and mess rooms of pilots Stacey (Clements), Grant (Michael Wilding) and Maxwell (Michael Rennie). The three friends find themselves in competition for the affections of Celia Wetherby (Jane Baxter). It is in a vain effort to impress Celia that Stacey agrees to take her brother on a test flight, despite warnings that the plane is unsafe.

Disgraced, Stacey joins a tiny civilian airline in Greece, where he runs up against a British businessman - really a German spy - and his fellow pilot, also a Nazi. Stacey fights his own small-scale war - "get up, you filthy Hun, I want to hit you again", goes one hilarious line - before the death of his lover spurs him to rejoin his old comrades. Later sequences offer some suspense, particularly when the Invincible is bombed, and a series of pilots attempt, with variable success, to take off and land on her damaged runway.

Churchill took issue with the film, which, he felt (with some justification), suggested that the survival of the fleet rested on one man's act of self-sacrifice. But he was persuaded not to ban it, and Ships With Wings was a popular success at the time. Nevertheless, it was the last example of stiff-upper-lip propaganda from Ealing. Nolbandov's only other film for the studio was Undercover (1943), set in the very different milieu of the Yugoslavian resistance.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. The Admiral's daughter (3:14)
2. Tragedy strikes (4:58)
3. The day has come (3:34)
4. Invincible is hit (4:24)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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