The Airship Destroyer/The Aerial Torpedo/Battle in the Clouds (1909) [unratable]
What Georges Méliès was to France, Walter R. Booth was to Great Britain. Like Méliès, Booth had been a magician before he was seduced by the cinematograph, and devoted most of his energy during the early years of his moviemaking career to a succession of conceptually simple trick films before graduating to more ambitious fare with the dawning of the new century. Booth made big things look little, and little things look big. He made chorus lines dance on ceilings, and beautiful girls turn into old crones. He had a few wizards, witches, and magical artifacts in his movies, too. But despite the similarities between their careers, Booth got deeply involved in a few things with which his French counterpart merely dabbled. Booth was among the pioneers of animation, and whereas the recurring theme of Méliès’s career was a sort of jolly diablerie, a perusal of Booth’s filmography seems to indicate an increasing interest in wondrous, improbable machines— robot chauffeurs, cars that can carry their drivers to Saturn, incubators that turn babies huge and bearded if you leave them in too long, that kind of thing. He was therefore a key figure in the formative development of cinematic science fiction, but nevertheless, the lighthearted tone that shows through most of Booth’s movies makes it rather surprising that he would be the one to produce some of the earliest known hard sci-fi films, a trio of shorts made between 1909 and 1911 dealing with futuristic wars fought mainly in the air. The Airship Destroyer was the first of these uncharacteristic one-reelers; it was followed at roughly yearly intervals by The Aerial Submarine (shades of Atragon!) and The Aerial Anarchists. Unfortunately, only The Airship Destroyer is at all readily available today. A print of The Aerial Submarine exists in a British film archive, but it has not seen commercial circulation in many decades. The Aerial Anarchists, meanwhile, is believed lost.
An unnamed nation (which it takes little imagination to see as a thinly disguised Germany) assembles a huge fleet of airships to bombard Great Britain. Despite their seemingly fragile construction and the small size of the bombs they carry, the flying machines cause tremendous destruction, and prove impervious to attack. They lay waste to a city, destroy the armored car dispatched to track their movements from the ground, and brush aside a counterattack from the heavier-than-air fighter planes scrambled to intercept them. However, one man has a weapon that might be able to stop the invaders. On the outskirts of the city under attack, there lives an inventor who has developed a form of flying torpedo controlled from the ground via wireless. He’s been having rather a bad day (his girlfriend’s father doesn’t want her seeing him anymore), but when his assistant comes to him with a pair of binoculars to show him what’s going on downtown, he realizes that here is the perfect operational test for his new machine. After rescuing his lover from the burning ruins of her house (her troublesome dad does not survive the collapse of the roof), the inventor readies his aerial torpedo for launching. The propeller catches for a moment as the experimental weapon takes off from its mooring, but quickly rights itself, and seconds later, the torpedo buries its warhead in an airship’s aluminized fabric float, sending the enemy vessel plunging to the ground in flames. Mind you, that doesn’t address the other 50 or so airships that should still be flattening everything in sight, but the inventor and his sweetie are much too busy hugging each other and exchanging rings to worry about a little thing like that just now.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin completed the first of his eponymous airships in 1900, while the Wright brothers got a heavier-than-air craft off the ground for the first time in 1903; the zeppelin and the Wright Flyer had all of the kinks more or less worked out by 1907 and 1905 respectively. The German military bought its first zeppelin in 1908, the US Army its first Flyer in 1909, and the first commercial airline went into business with a single example of the count’s airship in 1909 as well. In other words, the technologies that inspired Booth to make The Airship Destroyer had only just entered service, and the military applications to which he put them were nothing more than theoretical concepts and long-range plans at the time. Meanwhile, nothing resembling the tank-like vehicle that Booth has keeping tabs on the airship armada would exist until 1916 (although a German inventor did patent a design for an armored fighting vehicle in 1912), while the hero’s guided surface-to-air missile would remain purely in the realm of imagination until the waning months of World War II in Europe, and would not become a practical reality until 1953. I emphasize these dates for the simple reason that Booth’s predictions about the form of aerial warfare proved so accurate, even in detail, that the modern viewer is apt not to recognize them as predictions at all. The Germans really did use airships for bombing raids against British cities during World War I, because only the zeppelins had the range to get there and back while carrying a useful ordnance load. Air-to-air combat, on the other hand, was the exclusive province of heavier-than-air craft, because only they had the necessary speed and maneuverability, and the machine gun was their natural weapon because only such high rates of fire could ensure a decent chance of inflicting fatal damage on a swift, airborne target. It all seems perfectly obvious from where we’re sitting, a century ahead of Walter Booth, but all of it was still years in the future when he shot this film. Such prescience is astonishing, especially coming from a guy whose primary interest as a filmmaker was simply in coming up with stuff that looked cool— he’s even worked out the correct placement for the fighter’s machine gun, at a time when the only proven airplane in the entire world lacked the power even to lift a Maxim gun and its ammunition!
With one curious exception (which I’ll talk about in a bit), The Airship Destroyer is basically just a seven-minute succession of action scenes serving as a vehicle for Booth’s visual trickery— which at this point in his career, has definitely progressed to a level deserving to be thought of as special effects work in the modern sense. The models for the futuristic military hardware are crude, certainly, but they aren’t much cruder than the real planes, tanks, and airships that would fight in the First World War; the benefit of hindsight probably makes them more convincing to modern eyes than they seemed to first-run audiences. The overall design esthetic is solidly in the realm of what would today be called steampunk, but in 1909, there would have been nothing retro about it. The techniques employed include miniature models, full-scale mockups, forced perspective, editing trickery, and even a bit of animation. The best pieces of hardware are the model airships and the full-scale armored car; the miniature city used in the shot showing the devastation wreaked by the attackers is a little too obviously made of painted cardboard, and the cartoon bombs are actually disruptive in their conspicuous phoniness. At their best, though (as in the shot through the inventor’s binoculars, with the air armada lumbering over the city en masse), Booth’s effects manage to reach the exalted status of cooler-than-real.
Now as for that non-action sequence, it turns out that there’s one more way in which The Airship Destroyer is strangely prophetic. As would happen so often with sci-fi movies in later decades (the 1950’s especially), this film somehow finds room for a pointless and irritating romantic subplot, even with a running time of just seven minutes. It’s incredible. One moment, we’re looking at an airship lifting off to rain destruction on the British Isles, and the next, here’s the inventor and his girlfriend coming home from a tennis match, and getting into a scrap over who knows what with her old man. The transition seems to be an attempt at building suspense, which would be a startlingly modern bit of cinematic storytelling to see in a movie of this vintage, but on the extremely compressed running time, it merely serves to break up the action before it’s even gotten properly started. It also looks like an attempt at dramatic irony when the inventor’s girlfriend’s father is killed in the raid (we think he’s going to be won over by the inventor’s heroism, only he never lives to see it), but the rapidity with which both characters seem to forget his death— or worse yet, to welcome the simplification of their love-life that comes with it— undoes whatever the scene had achieved. All we get out of the subplot in the end is— that’s right— the final-shot romantic clinch that would dog cheap sci-fi flicks for twenty-odd years in the second half of the century, together with a stretch of dead time in a movie that can ill afford any.
This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal roundtable focusing on the olden days, when you had to bring along your reading glasses when you went to the movies, but never had to contend with the booming of the explosion flick in the auditorium nextdoor intruding upon your enjoyment of the sensitive relationship drama you were trying to watch. Click the link below to peruse the Cabal's collected offerings, and don’t mind the smell— that’s just the nitrate in the film stock rotting away to vinegar vapor before our noses...