The Flight Machine (1930)

Watch The Flight Machine (1930)

The Flight Machine (1930) was one of the first Secrets of Nature films to be filmed using sound. One of the more unusual films from the series, it demonstrates how the natural history genre could serve for a wide range of purposes, in this case as an exemplar of ‘applied science’. The film compares the flight of a airplane to that of several birds, including golden eagles and seaguls: “perhaps there is only one flight machine better suited for general purposes, and that machine is nature’s. Birds have the advantage over aeroplanes all the time”.

In one of the most accomplished scenes from the whole series, the mechanism of bird flight is shown in a slow-motion sequence where a group of seaguls are shown flying off a cliff edge, with a man walking along the cliff to emphasise altered speed. This was not enough for W. M. Warden, who, writing in the magazine School Nature Study, found that “the value of the increased knowledge gained by such devices may be lessened by the false ideas given by this alteration of time values”.

This is then contrasted with the propeller of an aeroplane, described by the film as “one of the most modern bi-planes built by the Air Ministry”. The film, which was directed by Mary Field, was shot at Northolt Aerodrome, and the plane in question was a ‘Fairey’ (possibly a Fairey Firefly IIM). Field made the film alongside Major Court Treatt, who had served in the RAF for six years. The connection between natural history and the airforce was not as unusual as it may seem at first. For instance, as Helen Macdonald has shown, birdwatching and airplane identification were closely linked activities in this period.

The Flight Machine was one of the Secrets films which was advertised as being ‘viewed and approved’ by the Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, whose landmark report The Film in National Life (1932) surveyed the state of British cinema and recommended the establishment of the British Film Institute. In this respect, The Flight Machine was meant to serve as an example of how film could be used as a medium foorr education. The film was used in multiple experiments and demonstrations, including the Middlesex Experiment, which aimed to test the reactions of schoolchildren to educational films. In the 1931 report of the experiment, Sound Films in Schools, the following was said of The Flight Machine:

This film had a very favourable reception from teachers, who nearly all noted the excellent commentary and unity of structure, the use made of slow motion, and the fact that it showed essentials which a teacher would find it impossible to describe equally well. “Film excellently arranged, subject appealed strongly to child”, wrote one teacher. Another stated: “A very favourable feature of the film was the repetition of … actions after the first view had been accompanied by an explanation.”

Only three schools, two of them girls’ schools, were of the opinion that this film could not be used in  class-room teaching. Five preferred it as a film of general interest. One stated: “Of great value in teaching… Undoubtedly the best film of the three groups educationally, and as a teaching instrument in itself.” The film was held to be extremely useful in the teaching of natural science and applied mechanics.”

In 1938, the film was reviewed in the Monthly Film Bulletin, by which time both the planes and some of the filmic techniques were deemed to be out of date. “There is perhaps a little too much aeroplane for the zoology student”, the reviewers noted, “while taken from the point of view of a student of aeronautics the mechanics of flight and the mechanism of the machine are not taken in sufficient detail”.

Review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 5, Issue 39 (1938)

Below is a list of further screenings of The Flight Machine that I have been able to trace:

  • G.T. Hankin used the film as part of a tour of South Africa in 1934, where he showed a series of educational films to school teachers.
  • Hankin also used the film as part of a vacation course for teachers at Bingley in Yorkshire, in 1936. Incidentally, Hankin and Mary Field would marry in 1944.
  • In September 1930, it was shown as part of a supporting programme of films at the Empire Theatre, Chatham. The main feature was a film called The Lone Star Ranger.
  • In 1930, the film was advertised as part of a programme of films shown at the Hippodrome in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.
  • In 1934, it was shown at the Belfast Museum (now the Ulster Museum), which hosted a weekly screening of educational films during the 1930s.
Image: Todmorden & District News, 10 October 1930. British Newspaper Archive

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