Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Comedy & Espionage: Q Planes (1939)

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In the BBC radio program about The Avengers that I linked the other day, Brian Clemens1 mentioned the 1939 movie Q Planes as a film in which the prototype of John Steed first appeared.
So I went and watched the movie.
Because, John Steed.

That, in this specific case, is called Major Hammond, and is played as a suave upper class twit by Ralph Richardson.
Only he’s no twit at all, of course, being a tough and smart operative in the British intelligence.

The plot in a nutshell: German2 agents are using a sort of “death ray” to capture experimental aircraft and appropriate the top-secret technology. An ace pilot is caught up in the plot, and joins forces with a spy and a plucky journalist.

Here’s the first eight minutes – and a perfect introduction to the Richardson character…

 

I guess in 1939 the mix of sophisticated, borderline-screwball comedy and espionage was something new and unexpected. The dialogue is fast and quirky, the plot as lightweight as a meringue, the resolution properly two-fisted.
The plot – with its ship using mysterious technology to intercept airplanes and force them to water-landing – might also remind some of Thunderball, the 1965 Bond movie… that was co-scripted by Jack Whittingham, who also co-scripted Q Planes.

Fresh out of playing Othello, Lawrence Olivier is the ace pilot Tony McVane.
Richardson steals the show as the gentleman spy, perpetually bantering verbally with his counterparts. With his hat and umbrella, he is indeed wery Steed-like.
Valerie Hobson3, in the role of the journalist (and, incredibly, the sister of Richardson’s character) is beautiful and a perfect graduate of the Lois Lane School of Journalism – the sort of journalist that publishes the name and the photo of her secret agent brother because “the readers have a right to know!”

More silliness can be found scattered around the movie – my favorite is certainly the machine gun that manages to kill people without damaging the scene behind them.
But this is nitpicking, and is, in the end, unfair – like much cloak and dagger fiction, this is fantasy, and so we can accept magic bullets, flippant spies and plucky journalists.
A lean 78 minutes, Q Planes (released in the U.S. as Clouds Over Europe), is a fun time-waster – but in 1939 the idea of foreign spies and of impeding doom was of course providing a whole different background to the public.

And it turns out that the movie was, after all, based on a true story: the disappearance of the prototype of the Vickers Wellesley bomber, that in 1938 was lost while crossing the Channel. Part of the plane’s remains were found in Kiel – the plane had been supposedly shot down by a U-boot.
Indeed, some have proposed that the Q Planes movie was in part financed by the British Secret Service, as a way to let the Germans know they had been caught.

Aircraft enthusiasts will love to see some footage of three wonderful planes of the time: an Airspeed Envoy, a de Havilland Dragon Rapide and a full brace of de Havilland Tiger Moth.

A passable copy of the movie can be found on Youtube.
It is quite obviously an old movie, and I am not sure it aged so well after all – The Lady Vanishes, from the previous year, plays the same mix of comedy and spy story, and holds much better when viewed eight years on.
But it’s still a fun little film.


  1. a man whose impact on the development of my tastes in fact of fiction has been enormous 
  2. we assume they are German because they have German accents – the connection is never explicitly made. 
  3. aka Baroness Frankenstein in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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