Monday, April 29, 2013


There was something in the air in the early 1940s -- Messerschmidts, primarily -- that must have caused studios on two different continents to release documentaries involving the history of flight in peace and war. From Britain came Conquest of the Air. Hollywood's contribution was Victory Through Air Power, a Walt Disney movie whose lasting fame is right up there with his other productions like Moon Pilot, Savage Sam and Nikki, Wild Dog of the North.

It's no secret that for many years -- oh let's just come out and say it: decades -- the UK film industry was far behind Hollywood's both technically and creatively. So Conquest of the Air -- originally released in 1936 but re-released in an expanded version four years later to cover the war with Germany -- doesn't differ much from something you'd have slept through in history class. Flat black & white cinematography, crude historical recreations, monotonous narration and hollow audio dubbed-in after the fact take up much of its 70-minute running time. (That some scenes are slightly better than others testifies to five directors being involved.) 

Oh yeah, that'll work.
The most fascinating fact Conquest of the Air presents is that there were a lot of idiots back in the pre-Renaissance day who thought that if they strapped on 50 pounds worth of phony wings and jumped off a tall building, they could fly. I mean a lot of idiots. Like generations worth. The only one who begged to differ was a budding Superman who thought a cape would do the trick. I think they're still scraping pieces of him off a piazza somewhere.

One odd directorial choice is keeping the face of the actor playing Leonardo DaVinci away from the camera at all times. Was the budget too low to afford a phony beard?
"Get-a your tootsi-frutsi ice cream!"
Then there's Laurence Olivier playing foppish hot-air balloonist
Vincent Lunardi with the zaniest Italian accent this side of Henry Armetta. Olivier might have killed onstage in his salad days, but he ignored the "less is more" flag waving on the movie set. I mean, he makes Lionel Barrymore look like Warren Oates. On the other hand, with his two-minute cameo he's the only memorable actor in Conquest of the Air, so maybe he knew what he was doing. Attention must be paid and all that. 

"We should begin our descent
in approximately 144 hours."
Where Conquest of the Air really shines is the documentary footage of early flying machines. A weird contraption -- it looks like a Volkswagen Beetle -- spins over what appears to be Central Park, just waiting to be declared illegal by Mayor Bloomberg 75 years later. Interesting facts abound -- the narrator is astonished, for instance, that it was possible to fly from London to South Africa within a week. Today, it takes that long just to get through Security.

The footage of the Hindenburg explosion nicely illustrates, I'd say, the pros and cons of using hydrogen for fuel. (Although I think it was a conspiracy involving the Illuminati, the World Bank and the Fox Movietone Newsreel wanting an awesome exclusive.) British war planes are shown getting ready for battle while the narrator sadly warns us that peaceful usage for flying will be on the shelf for the duration. Winston Churchill reminds his fellow Brits that their war with Germany was going to be won by air power.  

Nobody had to tell that to Col. Billy Mitchell, who, in the 1920s, urged the U.S. Army to focus on air power in future combat and was court-martialed for his trouble. Russian-born-turned-naturalized-American Major Alexander DeSeversky was so impressed by Mitchell's arguments that he published Victory Through Air Power not long after our involvement in the War. Walt Disney, in turn, was so impressed by the book that he decided to make a feature-length adaptation. Today, the jokers who run the studio would ask, "Where are the vampires?"

As with Conquest of the Air, Victory Through Air Power opens with a history of Man's attempt to fly. Unfortunately, its silly animation appears to be aimed at your average mentally-challenged two year-old chihuahua. Stung by the failure of Fantasia three years earlier, Disney was now moving into the middle-of-the-road crap that had already neutered the once-anarchic Mickey Mouse.

So what follows couldn't be more of a contrast -- a live-action lecture by DeSeversky interspersed with chilling animation that brings to life the perils of underestimating the Axis' strength. As with Billy Mitchell, DeSeversky seemed to have been in possession of a crystal ball few took seriously. Among the very first words he speaks:

As soon as the airplanes that are already on the
drafting boards of all the warring nations take to the air, there will not
be a single space on the face of the earth immune to attack. [...]
The distinctions between soldiers and civilians will be erased. And I believe
that it is only a matter of time before we here in America will suffer
our share of civilian casualties.

Major DeSeversky explains it to you
with a really big globe.
Give that guy a Purple Heart for Prognostication. 9/11, drones, Syria, Chechnya -- it's all there in Technicolor. As obvious as it seems now, this was heady stuff in 1943. It makes you wonder who the Pentagon is ignoring today.

DeSeversky was blessed with the gift of taking rather complex military theories and presenting them in such a way that the average idiot (e.g., me) could understand. His soft Russian accent has just enough of a lulling effect to draw you into what he's saying without putting you to sleep -- except to audiences in 1943, but more on that later. 

Uh oh.
The animated sequences that accompany the lecture aptly bring to life the need for air power over the more conventional ground combat. Whether talking about Germany or Japan (Italy gets short shrift here, apparently being the kid who goes along with whatever his big brothers suggest), DeSeversky explains clearly how our goals will be reached with current warfare techniques vs new thinking. 

I prefer my Japanese octopus with
sticky rice.
The war with Japan, for example, would last until 1948 by merely hopscotching from base to base until finally reaching Tokyo. Or we could shorten the war via "long range air power" -- bigger planes with more fuel. The ultimate solution, he believed, would be building airbases in Alaska from which our bombers could take off. Brilliant thinker that he was,
DeSeversky never considered a weapon like, oh, the atomic bomb to get the job done. 
Disney explains what an airplane is to
Major DeSeversky.

Typical for World War II animation, the bad guys are thoroughly raked over the coals in a way that would make today's p.c. crowd weep. There's something refreshing, even liberating, to see evil portrayed as evil. Now if someone would only do the same thing with Jeff Zucker, we'd be making progress.

Disney thought he was doing his patriotic bit by producing Victory Through Air Power. At the same time, he was first and foremost a businessman, which explains why he was hedging his bets when it came to promoting it. Posters, like the one a few paragraphs up, played up the war angle (albeit with the slogan, "There's a Thrill in The Air!", which would fit quite well with a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald operetta). 

If Louella says it's so, it's so.
Critics, recognizing something special, got behind Victory Through Air Power in a big way. Newspapers and magazines provided free promotion. Everything was in place for audiences to sit enraptured. Everything, that is, but the audiences.  Ultimately, all that Walt Disney had to show for his efforts were an Academy Award for Special Achievement and $400,000 in red ink. Coming on top of the almost $2,000,000 loss Fantasia suffered, Disney would later call Victory Through Air Power "a stupid thing to do."

It doesn't seem that way now. Victory Through Air Power is probably the most fascinating movie Disney ever made, a fine example of what live action and animation were capable of. It probably plays better on home video than it did on a big screen in the middle of the War when escapism, not a lecture on technological warfare, was the entertainment choice of the day. As with his other cinematic experiments, Disney put monetary considerations on the back burner, certain that audiences would appreciate what he was doing -- no matter how often he was proven wrong. 

The current Disney regime has certainly learned, though. Upcoming releases include Jungle Cruise (based on the Disneyland ride), Monsters University (a prequel to Monsters, Inc.) and National Treasure 3 (no explanation needed). Unseen and forgotten since its original 1943 release, Victory Through Air Power made its DVD debut in 2004 in a limited edition of 250,000 copies. Nine years later, unopened copies can still be found on Amazon. We're not going to be seeing Victory Through Air Power: The Drone Years any time soon.


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