Directed by William VanDerKloot
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Running Time: 74 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 24.95
Release Date: August 12, 2008
Review Date: August 3, 2008
Stories of underground or covert missions during World War II often make for riveting filmmaking whether they’re historical documentaries or fictional stories based on fact as in Jean-Pierre Melville‘s Army of Shadows. William VanDerKloot’s Flying the Secret Sky covers an aspect of the war probably known only to a handful of Americans, and yet its story is so compelling that its surviving participants literally gleam with pride when reciting anecdotes of their service. The film certainly sets to right the dangers and heroics of these fabled men involved in one of key operations at work during the years of the Second World War.
By early 1940, Germany was on the verge of winning the war, and only Great Britain was left to fend off the Germans on the western front. Prime Minister Winston Churchill realized that though the army and navy were both important, an efficient air force was going to make the difference in winning or losing the war. Unfortunately, there was no way that England alone could ready an air force capable of matching the skill and strength of the German Luftwaffe. A call for help brought thousands of volunteers from around the world willing to join in the aerial fray, but where would the planes come from? Thus was born the Ferry Command, a motley group of civilian pilots with assorted backgrounds willing to risk the hazardous first mission of taking seven Hudson aircraft (smuggled from the US and into Canada) from Montreal to Gander in Newfoundland and then across the treacherous North Atlantic to Pristwick, England. If even a few of these planes could make it through the hostile, icy winter weather without heat or radar, and with only a sextant, a protractor and the stars to guide them, then there might be hope to build up an air force that could compete against the Germans. Incredibly, all seven planes completed the first run, and thus was created the North Atlantic Ferry Organization. With the United States’ entry into the war, the elaborate means of secretly having Americans flying these missions became unnecessary, and thus was born the R.A.F. Ferry Command with hundreds of pilots, navigators, and radio operators from around the world manning these planes. Among the super secret missions the Ferry Command was designated to plan and execute involved carrying Winston Churchill from London to Cairo and then on to Moscow, all under heavy enemy fire. The story of this fabled mission makes for a terrific climactic anecdote in a film crammed with similarly amazing stories.
Quite a few of the pilots, navigators, and radio operators along with historians of the period weigh in with fascinating stories about their own involvement in this hazardous though lucrative wartime endeavor. (The men were paid a minimum of $1,000 a month, a hefty paycheck indeed but one that the men justly earned with the freezing temperatures, the conditions that always put the odds against a successful completion of a run, and with the dangerous German subs and aircraft always on the prowl. Many hundreds involved in the command did indeed lose their lives.) The documentary is also aided by very helpful diagrams showing the various aircraft from a variety of angles along with lots of vintage footage of the war effort and wonderful songs which adorn the soundtrack and bring the era into sharp focus: “Billy Boy, “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “White Christmas,” and “We’ll Meet Again.”
The important work of these brave individuals who literally flew by the seats of their pants deserves this eye-opening and well crafted tribute in Flying the Secret Sky. It celebrates their wartime efforts with pride and humility and is certainly a film worthy of viewing by all those with interest in a facet of the war which has for some reason been almost lost to the ravages of time. It is beautifully narrated by Carlo Rota.
The film’s 1.78:1 aspect ratio is reproduced on this DVD release but without anamorphic enhancement. The vintage footage, of course, varies in quality (no fault of the transfer), but the newly shot footage both of the interview subjects and the diagrams used to illustrate various planes and missions is beautifully shot and delivered. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The film’s Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is a rudimentary effort with strong use of the center channel but very little use of the fronts. For a documentary, it does its job with dispatch and utility but is not the strongest element of the transfer.
There are no bonus features on the disc.
Flying the Secret Sky is a documentary relating a hitherto unknown chapter in the saga of World War II, a group of pilots and personnel who literally saved the Allies from an early total loss of the Second World War. With excellent interviewees telling compelling stories, this documentary is very much recommended.