The Airship Destroyer

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(6/10) An action-packed British short from 1909 depicting future warfare with missiles and airships. Walter Booth directs with typical energy and audacity and some of the physical effects are very impressive for their time. However, the design of the film is amateurish, the model work crude and the substitution splices sometimes sloppy. 

The Airhip Destroyer, 1909, Britain. Written and directed by Walter R. Booth. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The War in the Air. IMDb score: 6.2

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French poster.

One of the early innovators of British cinema was Walter R. Booth, working together with camera maker and producer Robert W. Paul in the late 19th century to create similar trick films that were being pioneered by Georges Méliès in France. In 1899 he directed Upside Down; or The Human Flies, where he made people seem to walk on the ceiling by simply turning the camera upside down. In 1901 he made the first film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and in 1906 he made Britain’s first animated film by drawing on the frames. Booth was to Britain what Georges Méliès was to France. He was interested in horse carriages, automobiles, airships, electricity and all things new and modern, and often used these in his films. Booth was a decent trick filmer, but perhaps more interesting because of his need for speed and his love for reckless, audacious characters. He had a morbid and twisted sense of humour, as seen in An Over-Incubated Baby (1901, review) and loved to have his characters run over by anything moving, see The ‘?’ Motorist (1906, review). Booth sprinkled the whole decade with science fiction films, and finished with an aerial trilogy at the turn of the decade. The Airship Destroyer (sometimes called The Battle in the Clouds) was the first of the three, released at a time when Germany was rattling its nationalism and building up its army. The film was re-released during the German bombing of Britain during WWI as The Aerial Torpedo, to boost public morale. 

There’s differing information on the film’s original length: some sources claim 20 minutes, others 11 minutes. The only existing print is cobbled together from fragments to a duration of six minutes, and considering how well it holds up dramatically, my guess is that the original was 11 rather than 20 minutes long.

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Bogies in the sky, a mix of models and cutouts.

The plot of the film goes as such: An inventor works on a propeller-driven missile in shed, when an invading fleet of airships start raining bombs over Britain. The nationality of these ships isn’t given, but to anyone watching the film in 1909, it was clear they were German, as Germany was at the time banging its war-drum, and had just a few years previously perfected the Zeppelin.  We only see them attacking a rural village in live action, but we do see a burning miniature of what is supposed to be London. There’s a counter-attack from British forces involving an armoured car, long before such a thing actually existed, and from British airplanes, when such were still more or less in experimental phases. But none can match the effectiveness of the not-necessarily-German bomb-dropping dirigibles.

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Behold the mighty tank.

We get a ton of footage involving explosions, cars exploding, planes exploding, houses exploding and collapsing, dead people rolling out of collapsed cars and houses. When the British army seems all but defeated, the inventor finally finishes his aerial torpedo, along with a friend, and fires it against one of the Zeppelins. It penetrates the balloon of the dirigible, and down goes the enemy! Victory for Britain!

There’s also a romantic subplot here: the film starts with our hero and his girlfriend walking along a forest path. The young man asks his girlfriend’s father for her hand, but he violently refuses. In a tragic scene we later see the father getting killed in one of the bomb raids, and the film ends with the young couple getting married. The subplot adds to the feeling that we are seeing a dramatic story, and not just another trick film. It is, however, slightly out of place in this context.

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Airship.

To a modern viewer the effects of this film look outlandishly amateurish. The armoured car wobbles like the plywood heap it is and the dirigible chassis look incredibly flimsy. The miniature dirigibles are actually pretty cool-looking, but the handling of the wire-work leaves something to be wished form, and the aerial battles look exactly like the toy puppetry that it is. The model work is clumsy and shaky, and the continuity of the stop trick-effects are sometimes off.  However, the destruction with bombs, explosions and fires on the ground are incredibly impressive for the time, even in the substitute splits are a bit off sometimes, even if Booth tries to hide the cuts with smoke.

Booth shot his films in a realistic style, which makes it hard to forgive the flimsy look of both the airships and the missile, as well as the amateurishly painted backdrops depicting clouds and hills, something one could get away with using Méliès’ theatrical style (and Méliès’ work with miniatures and backdrops was consistently better). Some of the stop trick effects are very convincing, such as when we first see a bomb hit a car, the car exploding, and then a rattled man staggering out from the smoky debris. Other times airships suddenly jump from one place to another when cuts are made.

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The hero buidling his one and only missile.

The problem with rating the film is to try and overlook some of the flaws and try to look at it from a contemporary angle. At the time the movie was made, nothing of the sort had ever been seen in films. This was a major film, which clearly made an impact on its viewers, since it got re-released as a morale booster during WWI. Even in its shortened form the story holds up, which points to a strong dramatic narrative. The tacked-on romantic framing feels out of place, though. For 1909 the film feels visceral, fast-paced and explosive even it a modern viewer might find it a bit slow. But back then, this was a kinetic an action film you would find anywhere in the film industry. However, the effect is somewhat lessened by the fact that Booth still doesn’t use any other shots than wide-shots and the camera is constantly static, at a time when there was already pans and tilts widely in use.

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The invading fleet of cardboard cutouts.

Now, even though a lot of the flimsiness of the props and the miniatures can be overlooked because of the budgets and technology of the time, it still feels like a better job could have been done with the set-pieces and some of the miniature props with a good carpenter, just simply giving the film a more sturdy feel. As it is, it feels like everything in it would fall apart if you sneezed in its direction. A slightly better painter could have made the miniature shots feel more realistic, instead of giving the feeling that great aerial battles are being fought against aunt Helga’s ghastly landscape paintings, as would the simple act of placing the backdrops a little further away from the action and the camera, now the airships almost crash into the canvas at times.

So while this is, for its time, an impressive film in many ways, and certainly would have wowed many audience members, it still doesn’t quite climb the ladder to become a great film.

The film has been credited with being inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Robur the Conqueror, but this is probably bunk. Partly the film was inspired by current events, such as the military build-up and weapon rattling of Germany, and partly by British invasion literature, which was in the mode at the time. A ruthlessly imperialist country, it was Britain that did the invading, and not the other way round. But these insurances were cracking at the turn of the century, starting with the German invasion of France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when Britain saw the Prussians beat the world’s strongest army in only two months. New technological breakthroughs also added to the fears. Experiments with airplanes and airships frightened the Brits, as an aerial invasion would render the British fleet null and void as the invaders could simply fly over it. Further adding to the mix was a growing anti-imperial sentiment growing among socialists and anarchists, satirising British military pride by turning reality on its head: making Britain the object of invasion, rather than countries in Asia or Africa being colonised by Britain.

The literary subgenre was born with George Tomkyns Chesney’s 1871 novel The Battle of Dorking, and some figures say that between 1871 and 1914 over 400 invasion novels were releases in Britain. The most prolific of these invasion authors was William Le Queux, who wrote close to a hundred novels in his career. His first invasion novel was The Great War in England in 1897 (1894), and his best remembered book is probably The Invasion of 1910 (1906). Naturally, the genre also found its way to the theatre stage, with Guy du Maurier’s play An Englishman’s Home the best known example. One extremely popular author whose works often had more of a satirical, but no less serious, tone, was H.G. Wells, who in 1898 published The War of the Worlds, which gave Britons the idea of what it would be like to be invaded by an army greatly superior technology and weapons, on the run through mud and cold, hunger tearing you apart as you lie hidden under collapsed houses, afraid to go out in the open.

Most of all, The Airship Destroyer seems to take its inspiration from H.G. Wells’ 1907 novel The War in the Air, where Wells envisions a double whammy of air invasions against Britain and the US from Germany and “Asia”. The book follows an intelligent, but unambitious “kind of bicycle engineer of the let’s-‘ave-a-look-at-it and enamel-chipping variety”, who by accident becomes a war hero when he rescues a British inventor’s drawings of a simple but effective airplane with which the Anglo-American allies take up the fight against the overwhelming armies, guerrilla style. The airplane is described as cheap and easy to make, meaning small resistance groups can build them for themselves, thus turning the tide of the war. The film features a torpedo, but the idea is the same. The novel also contains the romantic frame story seen in the film, further giving credence to the idea that Booth based the film on the Wells book.

However, as the ever brilliant film scholar Luke McKernan points out, one of the most popular books on the invasion trope was P.G. Wodehouse’s 1909 spoof on the genre, The Swoop!, or How Clarence Saved England. McKernan writes: “Booth’s invasion films are closer to Wodehouse than du Maurier. They are not spoofs of the genre, and can be viewed as exciting adventures (which is how undoubtedly they were viewed by many at the time), but they have a homely, English quality, which accentuates the absurdity and suggests that Booth had his tongue in his cheek when making the films. […] In all three films the homeland is threatened by foreigners flying in futuristic contraptions. Aerial anarchy hangs over homely English places, and unassuming heroes who might on some other afternoon be happiest playing a game of tennis in the garden take to the skies in their flying machines to tackle this dastardly intrusion of misapplied modern technology. There is a quaint realism to the films, with their country lane backgrounds, that contrasts interestingly with the science-fantasies of Méliès which take place in a never-never world of the stage.”

Booth followed this film with The Aerial Submarine (1910, review) and Aerial Anarchists (1911), creating the first British sci-fi series. The second film exists in a fairly good print, but the third is unfortunately lost.

Walter R. Booth was certainly among the topmost science fiction directors in the world in the first twenty years of cinema. Still, that isn’t necessarily a major feat, considering there were five people that could be called science fiction directors during that period, meaning they made more than one science fiction film: Georges Méliès, Ferdinand Zecca, Segundo de Chomon, Gaston Velle and Walter R. Booth. Of these four, Booth continuously had the worst production values in his movies, that often come across as slightly amateurish compared to the French counterparts. Booth’s films often seem sprawling and scattered between styles and techniques, and you get the feeling on many an occasion that his vision greatly surpasses both the technology and the resources available. It’s as if he is trapped within a theatrical style of filmmaking that he’s constantly trying to break out from, but is forced to return to again and again because that’s the only way he’s going to get his movies done within the time-frame and the budget that he’s allocated. The best moments in his films are always when he’s been allowed to shoot live-action on location, and build things full-size, often to blow them into smithereens. Unfortunately there are much fewer moments like this on display in The Aerial Submarine than in The Airship Destroyer.

While it would be easy to excuse the shortcomings of Booth’s movies with the caveat that the effects/sets/artwork/etc “would surely have seemed amazing at the time the film was made”, it’s simply not honest. While they were most certainly amazing to many viewers, an international comparison shows that things could be done better in 1910. The Aerial Submarine and The Airhsip Destroyer lack the artistic finesse of Pathé, the superb puppetry of Méliès and the live-action production values of Danish and Italian cinema. This doesn’t mean that Booth’s movies are bad: in a world of cinema that was still growing at a rapid pace, and where all filmmakers were still sort of finding their feet in an ever-changing reality, Booth was without doubt among the most talented and the most daring risk-takers, trying to push the medium forward in ways that his meagre Charles Urban budget just wouldn’t allow.

Janne Wass

The Airhip Destroyer, 1909, Britain. Written and directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The War in the Air.

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