The Airship Destroyer

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(4/10) In a nutshell: An action-packed British short from 1909 depicting future warfare with missiles and airships. Marred by amateurish design, sloppy trick film and an uninspired script.

The Airhip Destroyer, 1909, UK. Written and directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban.  IMDb score: 6.2

Imaginative, but flimsily executed airships.

Imaginative, but flimsily executed airships.

One of the early innovators of British cinema was Walter R. Booth, working together with camera maker and producer Robert W. Paul in the late 19th century to create similar trick films that were being pioneered by Georges Méliès in France. In 1899 he directed Upside Down; or The Human Flies, where he made people seem to walk on the ceiling by simply turning the camera upside down. In 1901 he made the first film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and in 1906 he made Britain’s first animated film by drawing on the frames. In the same year he took his first foray into sci-fi with a 2 minutes long film about a motorist fleeing the police around the rings of Saturn with the film The ‘?’ Motorist – which he would expand on in 1911. But his first sci-fi film of any substantial length was he 1909 film The Airship Destroyer.

With ”substantial length” we here mean slightly over 6 minutes – not very long, considering Méliès was already making elaborate special effects epics over half an hour long, and other directors were making full feature length movies of nearly 90 minutes.

The invaders dropping bombs from mini-blimps.

The invaders dropping bombs from mini-blimps.

The plot of the film goes as such: An inventor works on a propeller-driven missile in his shed, and is about to ask his girlfriends father for her hand in marriage, when an invading fleet of airships start raining bombs over Britain. We only see them attacking a rural village in live action, but we do see a burning miniature of what is supposed to be London. The father of the bride to be is killed when a bomb hits his house, but the hero rescues the girl, and then finishes his missile, and successfully uses it to shoot down an airship. Everyone is happy and we get a kiss in the end. What happens to the rest of the attacking airfleet is unclear, since it was made pretty clear that the inventor had only one missile. But is that nitpicking? Clearly the the idea of throwing bombs off an airship is lifted from Jules Verne’s book Robur the Conqueror.

One could forgive a slight sloppiness of direction concerning the outdoor shoots, since they were probably difficult to control. But many of the studio-bound shots with models and cut-outs of airships are also quite shaky and inconsistent, and the continuity of the stop trick-effects are sometimes off. As opposed to the master of the genre, Méliès, Booth shot his films in a realistic style, which makes it hard to forgive the flimsy look of both the airships and the missile, as well as the amateurishly painted backdrops depicting clouds and hills. Some of the stop trick effects are very convincing, such as when we first see a bomb hit a car, the car exploding, and then a rattled man staggering out from the smoky debris. Other times airships suddenly jump from one place to another when cuts are made. Exploding houses and cars are often revealed to be little more than thin plywood, and the miniature work on the city is appallingly bad. On the other hand, this little piece is filled with action, drama and explosions, which does cover up for a lot of the flaws.
Booth followed this film with The Aerial Submarine and Aerial Anarchists, creating the first British sci-fi series.

The Airhip Destroyer, 1909, Britain. Written and directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban.
Based on the Jules Verne Novel Robur the Conqueror (uncredited).
Also known as: Der Luftkrieg der Zukunft, The Aerial Torpedo, The Battle in the Clouds.

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