Britain’s heraldic coat of arms features two creatures, a lion and a unicorn, which have often been taken to symbolize the qualities of strength and imagination. As Britain stood on the threshold of a long-dreaded war in 1939, Alexander Korda decided to show what cinema could do to rally the nation and win support around the world.
The Lion Has Wings was an extraordinary achievement, a feature-length film that traced how Britain came to be at war with Germany and showed how the first battles of that war, one offensive and the other defensive, might be fought—all done in less than eight weeks. This feat was accomplished through the combined styles of two very different men: Korda, with his flamboyant love of big gestures, and Ian Dalrymple, whose quiet diplomacy as an editor and producer pulled it together in record time.
War in Europe had long been expected, in spite of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s desperate effort to strike a deal with Hitler in September 1938. A year later, after Czechoslovakia had been swallowed, Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on Poland, and Britain issued an ultimatum that expired on September 3. A week before this, Korda had gathered his key staff at Denham Studios and told them he had promised Winston Churchill—newly recalled to government and a politician whom Korda had supported during his “wilderness years”—that he would produce a propaganda film within a month of war being declared.
Michael Powell was at that meeting, having just completed his first feature for Korda, The Spy in Black, and currently one of the team of directors working on The Thief of Bagdad. The Lion Has Wings would employ a directorial team as well, including Powell and Adrian Brunel and Brian Desmond Hurst, and would borrow other crew from The Thief of Bagdad, notably Vincent Korda, coordinating design, and William Hornbeck, as chief editor. Powell recalled how they switched from the Technicolor fantasy to war propaganda literally overnight, with a Royal Air Force officer coming to see him at the studio while he was working on the flying-carpet sequence and promising to show him some “real flying.” Powell’s account in A Life in Movies of being flown over the barrage balloons that were London’s only defense—“more dangerous for our chaps than for the Jerries, but good for civilian morale”—and of nearly getting to fly on the real bombing mission that is re-created in the film captures the extraordinary casualness and bravado of this period, which would soon be known as the Phoney War.
No one really knew what to expect, except that this would be a war fought mainly in the skies. So the theme of the film had to be reassurance that Britain was ready to meet this challenge, despite the lack of preparation that many suspected. Alexander Korda had already promoted awareness of the terrifying potential of bombing in his futuristic Things to Come (1936), based on H. G. Wells’s warning about the danger of unlimited warfare. And he had created a patchwork film about the history of aviation, Conquest of the Air (1936), which may have provided a rough model for the strange mixture of documentary and drama in The Lion Has Wings.
Powell, at any rate, was in his element, using the fuselage of a damaged Spitfire fighter for close-up shots of his gallant fliers, with “lighting effects, back projection, recordings of gunfire, propmen throwing firecrackers,” all mounted on a movable platform in a big studio at Denham. He couldn’t have known that he was in effect anticipating the Battle of Britain in late 1940, when the German Luftwaffe was repulsed by the efforts of Britain’s Fighter Command. He did know, however, that Britain’s latest invention, radar, was destined to play a major part in the coming war, and he worked hard to hint at this—without knowing how it would actually operate—in the later part of the film, as German bombers are beaten back.
While Powell and Hurst were busy trying to create aerial combat sequences, Ian Dalrymple and his editors were working on what would prove to be the most effective and innovative part of the film. This is the sequence of newsreel and documentary images that follows the opening declaration: “This is Britain, where we believe in freedom.” The task was new to everyone, although by the end of the war every Allied nation would have developed ways of explaining “why we fight”—which was the title later used for America’s propaganda film series, overseen by Frank Capra. But in September 1939, Dalrymple’s team had to construct a history and an argument to explain why Britain was reluctantly going to war.
For this they were able to draw on the work of the General Post Office film unit, created by John Grierson, which had been making short films about Britain throughout the 1930s, employing some of the liveliest creative minds of the era. The images of peacetime achievement, of slum clearance, new schools and hospitals, in The Lion Has Wings would all come from GPO documentaries. But the humor—some of it dangerously close to self-parody, as when the king is seen trying to take part in a novelty-song performance—probably came from Adrian Brunel, who had made some spoof travelogues in the 1920s. More effective by far was the mockery of Hitler and his Nazi ceremonial, which intercuts folk dancing and donkeys on the beach with sound effects that deride the now familiar ranting of Hitler’s rallies. Here the use of irony as a weapon against Nazi pomposity drew on the tradition of the German satirist John Heartfield and antiwar filmmakers such as Henri Storck and Norman Maclaren.
Korda and Dalrymple were on shakier ground with their use of material about Britain’s rearming and aircraft production, since some of this footage came from a 1937 film called The Gap, which had exactly the opposite message—that Britain was not ready. At least one critic, the novelist Graham Greene, and a proportion of the eventual spectators remembered what the earlier film had argued and were distinctly unimpressed by this reuse of the images. Equally ill-advised was Korda’s own contribution, the scenes between Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson, who plays a wing commander in charge of the defense against German bombers. When Richardson, then one of Britain’s leading stage actors and soon to become a Fleet Air Arm pilot (and to make a recruiting film with Powell, The Volunteer), returns from duty, he and Oberon, then Korda’s wife and a Hollywood star, share an unlikely picnic breakfast. Their dialogue would call forth much scorn, especially Oberon’s claim that Britain was fighting for “freedom, truth, beauty—and kindness.”
It is probably this bathetic concluding line that has given the film its reputation as a failure—along with the somewhat bizarre appearance of Queen Elizabeth I, in the shape of Flora Robson as she appeared in Korda’s 1937 Fire over England, making her speech before the arrival of the Spanish Armada. The thinking behind both of these scenes is clear enough: Korda doubtless felt his film needed a “woman’s angle” and some appropriately patriotic romance. And as Gore Vidal testifies in his memoir Screening History, films such as Fire over England had played a major part in winning over many Americans to a pro-British position. Korda would also go on to make one of his most effective contributions to the war effort with a full-blooded historical parallel, That Hamilton Woman (1941), starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, with Lord Nelson as an all-too-human national hero. But in 1939 the stiff, upper-class heroics with Richardson and Oberon struck a false note.
So was Korda’s grand gesture worthwhile? That he believed in what he was doing is beyond doubt. He had no financial help from the government and, according to Dalrymple, actually paid for the film by pawning his life insurance policy. Surprisingly we know more about the reception of The Lion Has Wings in Britain than about that of most films, from a public opinion survey carried out in December 1939. Korda had followed through his production initiative by dropping all normal distribution rules to make the film as widely available as possible, and this had led to a massive 55 percent of the survey sample having seen it, with 71 percent saying they had liked it. There was criticism of the lack of a story and dislike of the propaganda line, but considering the absolute novelty of what Korda and his collaborators had undertaken, this is a remarkably good response. And the reaction in America, still uninvolved in the war, was apparently even better. Everyone who participated would go on to hone their propaganda skills during the next six years—with Korda delivering the best Christmas present possible for a beleaguered nation in 1940, with The Thief of Bagdad—but they could all take comfort from a fine start to the battle of the screen.
Ian Christie is a professor of film and media history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a fellow of the British Academy. He has written and edited many books on Russian, British, and American cinema, including The Film Factory (coedited with Richard Taylor), Scorsese on Scorsese (coedited with David Thompson), and Gilliam on Gilliam (editor). He wrote Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and coedited, with Andrew Moor, the 2005 centenary tribute The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker. He is currently director of the London Screen Study Collection at Birkbeck.