The Aerial Submarine

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1910_aerial_submarine_003(4/10) A man and his daughter are kidnapped by pirates in a flying submarine in this 1910 British action adventure. Walter R. Booth’s story is too ambitious for its budget, and even a great cinema pioneer like he can’t work miracles with plywood and cardboard. 

The Aerial Submarine. 1910, UK. Written and directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban for Kineto Films. IMDb score: 5.6. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

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 filmed the first film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and in 1906 created Britain’s first animated film by drawing on the frames.  Booth was to Britain what Georges Méliès and Emile Cohl were to France, only in one person, as he was both a pioneer of trick film and visual storytelling, as well as British animation. Booth was interested in horse carriages, automobiles, airships, electricity and all things new, fast and modern, and often used these in his films. He 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). In 1906 he left Robert W. Paul and joined the American-born British film pioneer Charles Urban at the Charles Urban Trading Company, where he made his subsequent films, although many of his fictional films were produced by the off-shoot Kineto Films.

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Walter R. Booth.

Booth sprinkled the 1900’s 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, review) was the first of the three, released at a time when Germany was rattling its nationalism and building up its army, complete with the monstrosity, the Zeppelin. The film was re-released during the German bombing of Britain during WWI as The Aerial Torpedo, to boost public morale.

The second film was The Aerial Submarine (1910) and the third Aerial Anarchists (1911). The last one is unfortunately lost. However, The Aerial Submarine was rediscovered by a German collector and is new readily available on Youtube. The trilogy was inspired by the literary subgenre invasion fantasy, a genre that was highly popular in Britain around 1910. For centuries Britain had relied on its insular geographic location and its unbeatable marine to keep the country safe. A ruthlessly imperialist country, it was Britain that did the invading, and not the other way round. But these assurances 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.

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The family on the beach spying on the submarine in The Aerial Submarine.

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 released in Britain. William Le Queux, Saki, John Buchan, Erskine Childers and H.G. Wells were other popular authors of the style. Playing into the genre was also French author Jules Verne, who in 1886 published Robur the Conqueror about a terrorist with a propeller-driven airship, which he followed up in 1904 with The Master of the World.

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From The Airship Destroyer.

While Booth’s first invasion film The Airship Destroyer was heavily influenced by H.G. Wells’ 1907 novel The War in the Air, The Aerial Submarine has no clear literary base, although it is perhaps more in line with Verne than Wells. The film tells of a family on a leisure-stroll in the beach spotting a submarine docking for supplies. A man and a young girl (his daughter?) get up close to take pictures of the sub, but are subsequently kidnapped by the returning crew, who turn out to be pirates, led by a woman, no less, tapping into another popular trope at the time, namely that of the suffragette movement. The submarine dives, but the two captives don’t seem to be very badly treated, as they spend most of their time marvelling at the passing marine life through a window. Later, however, the pirates torpedo an ocean-liner, drowning passengers and crew, and emerge in diving suits to collect the ship’s valuable cargo from the bottom of the ocean.

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Pirates in their diving suits – actual diving suits, from the looks of it.

Meanwhile, the family on the beach discover the camera which the young man has used to take pictures of the sub, and turn it over to the authorities. After developing the pictures, the royal submarine takes chase. But just as the pirates are about to be captured, their submarine emerges from the ocean and takes flight to the skies, leaving the befuddled pursuers behind. Alas, pirates will be pirates, and that is their own undoing. A drunken pirate lights a cigarette and carelessly throws the burning match into the engine, resulting in an explosion. The aerial submarine crashes to the ground, and the captives manage to flee before the authorities arrive in their own airship and bomb the shit out the pirates. The End.

Film scholar Luke McKernan points out that 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.”

The film has a strange feel, as it sits somewhere squarely between the stage-bound theatrical films of Georges Méliès and a modern style of filmmaking with realistic on-location shots, medium shots and close-up inserts. Still in 1910 there lingered a tradition in films that movies weren’t supposed to show reality as it was, but that for example sets and backdrops were there to represent reality by symbolism, just like in most stage plays. Thus we still get badly painted rocks with a clear line where one piece of canvas is glued next to another, and a submarine that is quite clearly just a flat piece of painted plywood, even in close-up scenes with actors. Just like in The Airship Destroyer, the painted backdrops are pretty crappy, especially the underwater scenes are marred by childish paintings of medusas and reefs.

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Fighting by the plywood submarine.

The miniatures are well-made, even if the handling, filming and lighting betray their miniature nature as soon as they appear on screen. The handling of the miniatures also make them look less flimsy than in The Airship Destroyer. But what makes the bad painted backdrops and obvious miniatures so jarring is that these shots are juxtaposed with a modern and realistic style of cinematography, such as a clip with stock footage of an actual submarine, and a clever close-up of photographic plates of the sub being developed in a dark-room. There’s also the dramatic scene at the end with the bombing of the aerial submarine, where a three-dimensional set-piece is used for the submarine instead of the two-dimensional cut-outs used in previous shots, and a segment showing the deck of the ocean-liner, where a replacement matte has been used to substitute a live-action backdrop of the ocean in the background. This mish-mash of badly painted two-dimensional plywood sets and Méliès-style stage shooting, with on-location footage, modern close-up and editing techniques and live-action mattes, creates a confusing collage.

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The painted torpedo hatch of the submarine.

But 1910 and the coming few years were indeed rather confusing in film in general. On the one hand, film studios were still trying to make money from the sort of féerie-styled fantasy films conjured up by Méliès in the late 19th century. But on the other hand, new directors and producers were creating a whole new language of film, trying to advance moving pictures as an independent narrative medium, breaking free from the idea that films were only able to convey simplistic and familiar stories. The old tales of Cinderella, Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ, Faust, King Arthur, Vilhelm Tell, and the works of Dickens, Verne, Twain, Shakespeare and Dumas had been told and retold numerous times. Both movie-makers and movie-goers were hungry for something new. Germany, Denmark and Italy were challenging French and UK dominance on the European and international market with realistic films containing high production values, that were getting ever longer. In fact, by 1910 Denmark’s Nordisk Film was well on its way to becoming Europe’s largest film company, and Italy had already started churning out sword-and-sandal movies with epic scales.

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Being kidnapped on a sub doesn’t seem too bad.

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.

After leaving Paul, Booth made his own garden studio, and the sort of half-hearted attempts at realism that he dabbled in is described by one of the leading cameramen in early British cinema, F. Harold Bastick: “The very settings used were fakes. In the case of an interior, the entire room would be painted in black and white on a backcloth, the big camera focused on it, and real furniture set in positions to tally with the perspective of the backcloth. Realism was added by cutting a slit in the canvas and pushing a real table half way into the hole to match up with the painted half-table on the cloth!”

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Aboard the ocean liner – notice the live-action matte in the top right corner.

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. Booth’s sci-fi films can be viewed with the same loving tongue-in-cheek attitude that the films of Ed Wood produce: Booth was determined to get his stories to the screen using whatever means available. So what if the cardboard cutout submarine looks nothing like the one in the stock footage? The viewer won’t worry about the details! It’s the magic that counts! That is not to say that Booth was as bad a filmmaker as Wood (who in my opinion was better than his reputation), just that he shared the same passion for telling stories with film.

The Aerial Submarine is a fun little film at eight minutes in length, and narratively it is more coherent than The Airship Destroyer. I like the fact that there is no contrived love story attached, as well as the idea of the female pirate captain, a novel choice at the time.

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The underwhelming backdrops for the underwater scenes look like something from a grade school art project.

During his career Walter R. Booth made a number of short trick films verging in science fiction, involving robot drivers, freezing potions, sped-up movements enhanced by electricity and all sorts of extraordinary appliances and vehicles, both land-based and flying. Most of these short films have been lost, as have many of the less widely spread and copied early films of the period. Booth released two more ambitious sci-fi movies in 1911, The Aerial Anarchists and The Automatic Motorist, but then focused mainly on comical short subjects involving animation and trick film, often derived from his stage magic background. In 1915 Booth seems to have parted ways with Urban, and focused on making commercials, while Urban was active in British propaganda pictures during WWI. IMDb has no films listed for Booth after 1918, and to quote basically all biographies found on the internet: “Little is known of his subsequent career and he died in Birmingham in 1938”.

Janne Wass

The Aerial Submarine. 1910, UK. Written and directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban for Kineto Films. 

 

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