Clouds Over Europe (1939) (a film retrospective/review by Mark R. Leeper).

In a plot similar to ‘You Only Live Twice’, new British planes being tested are being plucked out of the sky and are disappearing without a trace. A British intelligence officer rejects the leading theory that the plane disappearances are coincidence. He goes off looking for the truth. Meanwhile, a test pilot also thinks that there is more to the losses than meets the eye and does his own investigation.

1939 is considered the high point of the golden age of filmmaking. Films made that year include ‘Gone With The Wind’, ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, ‘Stagecoach’, ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’, ‘Ninotchka’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’, ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’ and ‘Of Mice And Men’. One British film of that year that has nearly been forgotten was called ‘Q-Planes’ in Britain and called ‘Clouds Over Europe’ in the US. Though rarely recognised as such, ‘Q-Planes’ has a plot too similar to that of later James Bond films to be attributed to coincidence. Ideas from the film are very similar to the early James Bond films in general and to ‘You Only Live Twice’ in particular.

British planes with new secret embellishments seem to be disappearing all over the map. The planes go up in test flights and are seemingly being plucked out of the air never to be heard of again. British Intelligence is mystified and attributing the dozen or so disappearances to coincidence. One agent who is not convinced is the debonair, umbrella-brandishing Major Hammond, played by Ralph Richardson. Hammond is convinced everyone else is wrong about the disappearances and that he is right that there is some villain who is behind the vanishings. Actually, there is one other person who has drawn the same conclusion. It is star test pilot Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier).

Clouds Over Europe (1939) (a film retrospective/review by Mark R. Leeper).
Clouds Over Europe (1939) (a film retrospective/review by Mark R. Leeper).

Much (too much) of the film centres on McVane who in a comic sub-plot has a love-hate relationship with Hammond’s attractive sister Kay (Valerie Hobson). Meanwhile, McVane is anxious to take up a new and valuable test plane to see for himself what has happened to the other missing aircraft. I will not say what was discovered about the missing planes but the conclusion of the film was very much the 1939 equivalent of just so many spectacular battles at the end of James Bond films.

Actually Hammond is not so much a James Bond type. He much more seems of the mould of John Steed of the British TV series ‘The Avengers’. Like Steed, the earlier Hammond does not wear a bowler as Steed did but his hat is very similar to Steed’s. This film is more of a comedy than an ‘Avengers’ story and certainly more than a James Bond film, but one would have to be blind to miss the ideas of ‘Q-Planes’ that were recycled into early Bond films and ‘Avengers’ episodes.

If the name Valerie Hobson is familiar it may be because she plays Lisa, the wife of ‘The Werewolf Of London’. Also, she had the title role in ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’ (assuming that Frankenstein was the scientist and not the monster). In 1963, she was married to Government Minister John Profumo when his sexual relationship with a 19 year-old model shook all of Britain.

This film was made in 1939. Most of it was shot before war was declared so, with a German market in mind, the characters carefully avoid suggesting what country is behind the evil deeds. However, by the time the film was nearly complete war had broken out between Britain and Germany. There was time to get in only one reference that it was Germany who was behind the nasty bit of espionage.

‘Clouds Over Europe’ (seemingly a more popular title than the original title, ‘Q-Planes’) shows up every few years on Turner Classic Movies. As of this writing, it can also be found on YouTube.

Mark R. Leeper

(c) Mark R. Leeper 2016

One thought on “Clouds Over Europe (1939) (a film retrospective/review by Mark R. Leeper).

  • Hello Mark
    With bowler hats and suits, this was the standard dress of the Whitehall civil servants and their ilk and so also percolated through both British films and TV series as people from ‘the Establishment’.


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