By Sarah Wood

aerograd-aleksandr-dovzhenko.jpgAerograd, 1935

Film and flight have long exerted a profound influence on each other

"The aeroplane and the motion picture share the same centenary: the autumn of 1903 which witnessed the attainment of powered flight (Orville and Wilbur Wright on December 17th) and the birth of cinematic narrative (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery). Throughout the following sixty years, from Kittyhawk to the Apollo Space Programme, aviation was frequently termed ‘the story of the 20th century’, a contemporary myth of progress and transformation propagated largely on film – the dominant medium of the age; one of the most pervasive, certainly the most persuasive, mode of mass entertainment, exerting a profound influence on other arts, high and low, including literature, painting and design. From the synchronised camera/machine guns first fitted on to biplanes in the First World War to the laser satellites of Star Wars, the technologies of cinema and aviation have developed in parallel and interdependence with a far-reaching impact on modern war and peace, on multifarious aspects of contemporary society and culture, on ‘the shape of things to come." –  Sorley Macdonald


It’s the First World War. It’s early days; amateur footage captures planes taking off from an airbase. There’s been a lot of spiffing jollity on the ground. Somewhere in a sunny Home Counties summer some female volunteers roll out flimsy light weight fighter planes and polish up their brasswork. A pair of pilots looks deep into the camera. The planes take off. Chocks away.

The person filming on the ground tries to hold the planes in frame as long as possible. They fly further and further into the distance. The whiteness of the screen is huge. It’s fragile: the shakiness of the camera, the smallness of the planes, the enormity of the sky, the way the planes are bombarded now by the scratches and flecks on the surface of the film print.

It’s an image of hope. It’s an image of death. Flight is already a beautiful but deadly means of killing. Cinema observes. It’s only the second decade of the realisation of both brand new industries and they’ve already gone to war.


James Dean was obsessed with the pilot adventurer Antoine de Saint Exupery. He gave all his friends copies of The Little Prince.

living-in-paradise-bourlem-guerdjou.jpgLiving In Paradise, 1998

The Pilot is a hero. The spitfire pilot who patrolled a sleeping British Isles against a raging Blitz, the Aviatrix, glamorous arrival of the twentieth century independent woman, the commercial pilot eliciting a cheer as he touches down on a sunny strip. Majorca, Ibiza, Marbella – the ease of travel unfurls. Flight isn’t about death. Flight is about life. Anyone can afford the price of a ticket.

Somewhere off the coast of Ceylon, kamikaze pilots dive bomb British troop ships. My grandfather remembers watching from the beach as plane after plane explode into the sea. He couldn’t understand how anyone could do that.

It’s 1946. Jane Russell appears on screen at the premiere of The Outlaw. Russell’s modelled to impress, her dress displays her magnificent cleavage. ‘Bombs away’ shouts a man in the crowd. A new fantasy is born. The sex bomb appears. Gilda, the experimental nuclear bomb, explodes over Bikini Atoll in the same year as Rita Hayworth’s Gilda lets down her red hair in King Vidor’s film. Bombs away! The pilots filming the explosion burnt out their eyes.

Cinema and aviation swap roles.


"As for freedom, it will soon cease to exist in any shape or form. Living will depend upon absolute obedience to a strict set of arrangements, which it will no longer be possible to transgress. The air traveller is not free. In the future, life’s passengers will be even less so: they will travel through their lives fastened to their (corporate) seats." Jean BaudrillardCool Memories

dial-history-johan-grimonprez.jpgDial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 2003

At the beginning of the twenty first century we have developed a heightened fear of flying. People said watching the destruction of the twin towers was like watching a disaster movie come to life. The fantasy was over. The time was right for the re-emergence of the real. Complexity was a new adversary.


Sorley Macdonald, the unsung programming powerhouse behind the Cambridge Film Festival, died at the beginning of last year. He left behind full plans for a season of films, ‘Memories of the Future’, about the story of flight through film.

His programming was based on the principle that cinema was about ideas and communication rather than two-dimensional entertainment and commercialism.

He created glorious full retrospectives of film makers like Kieslowski and Pasolini, stirred up Cambridge audiences with the daring of Monika Treut or the wit of Peter Wintonick, unafraid to offer critical space to the subversive, the challenging, the complicated. He knew that film programming was a moral act: that you could use the multi-voiced possibility of an intelligently curated film season to reveal dimensions in an idea. His last three seasons over three years had, for instance, scrutinised the response in French cinema to the second world war – teased out the uneasy romanticisation of the Resistance, the ambiguity about Occupation and collaboration, the colonial aftermath. The brochure for the last season in the series had on its cover a still from Boulem Guerdjou’s Living in Paradise, the image of a girl carrying an Algerian flag looking defiantly into the camera. The season launched just as the British government began to debate the invasion of Iraq. In an age of sound bite, here in this season was vital context.

When context is missing, ideas are lost. In a place like Cambridge, which stands in our culture as a symbol of learning and critical thought, it is frightening to watch the draining away to nothing of debate and ideas. The season Sorley left behind was only partially realised after his death in a collaboration between the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and the Imperial War Museum. Even the partial realisation was unusually good. The shaky First World War footage that started this writing reminded viewers of a different approach to the Future in British culture. A chance to see Howard HughesHell's Angels showed what a dog fight was really dangerously like. Without this kind of detail, this kind of context, proper thought is lost.

The partial season was exciting, but the full season would have been tremendous. As proposed, it included guest speakers such as Paul Virillio, J.G. Ballard, Gore Vidal and Sven Lindqvist. The true history of the modern world, told and told again in the detail of the films lined up: 80 features from Aerograd via A Matter of Life and Death to Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y; 20 documentaries, archive footage, children’s films: a full rounded antidote to the simplification of multiplex viewing. It was brave and thorough, intelligent and questioning. Visionary work like this is rare. If we don’t watch, we’ll miss the point. We certainly miss the full complicated understanding of serious people like Sorley and his cinema of enquiry and ideas.

Sarah Wood is a writer and independent film programmer. She is currently developing a proposal for a book based on Sorley Macdonald’s ideas as outlined above.