Watching 1939: The Lion Has Wings (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Lion Has Wings (1939)

Release date:  Oct. 30, 1939

Cast:  Merle Oberon, Ralph Richardson, June Duprez, Brian Worth, Robert Douglas, Bernard Miles, Anthony Bushell, Austin Trevor

Studio:  London Film Productions and Alexander Korda Film Productions, distributed by United Artists

Director:  Adrian Brunel, Brian Desmond Hurst, Michael Powell

Primarily filmed as a documentary mixed with fiction storytelling, the film shows what life in England was like when the country was at peace and not at war. It continues to illustrate how life changed once Great Britain declared war on Germany, and how the English were continuing to keep a “stiff upper lip.” To represent the changes, Mr. Richardson (Richardson) and his wife (Oberon) adapt their lives because of the war. Mr. Richardson joins the RAF and becomes a wing commander. Mrs. Richardson becomes a nurse, and she and her friend June (Duprez) support each other while their husband and sweetheart are away.

1939 Notes:
• Considered the first propaganda film to be released during World War II, according to the British Film Institute and the book “Michael Powell: Interviews.”
• Released the about two months after Britain declared war on Germany
• One of three films Merle Oberon was released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Produced by Alexander Korda
• Flora Robson is listed in the cast, but she is only seen in archive footage as Queen Elizabeth I from “Fire Over England”(1937)
• The GPO Film Unit, a subdivision of the UK General Post Office, was commissioned to make this film before the war began. The title was to be “If War Should Come,” and the film made to reassure the public about the Royal Air Force, according to British War Films, 1939-1945 by S. P. MacKenzie.
• Narrated by E. V. H. Emmett of the Gaumont-British News.
• The British government received 50 percent of the film’s profits, according to S.P. MacKenzie’s book.
• The film only took 12 days to shoot and was already in production when war broke out, according to the British Film Institute (BFI).
• The film had three directors — Adrian Brunel, Brian Desmond Hurst and Michael Powell — because the Ministry of Information identified three RAF filming sites, which were shot simultaneously, according to the BFI.

Ralph Richardson, Merle Oberon in “The Lion Has Wings”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Documentary films have been around since the early 1900s — some were science films and others travelogues, showing faraway lands that some people would never see.

“The Lion Has Wings” looks and feels like a documentary or a newsreel but is categorized as a narrative film.

The film begins as a travelogue, showing scenes of daily life around the United Kingdom that all boil down to the fact that they believe in freedom and peace.

Newsreel-like clips show that they care about better housing, the education of children, and hospitals well-equipped to cure diseases. In the UK, they enjoy taking time for leisure and take holidays with pay. In the overview footage, we even see King George VI and his family (including young Queen Elizabeth II) singing with a group of people.

Then the clips compare the UK to Germany. They use  their “bodies for games and sports and not building armies.” And they like to win sporting matches, not wars, “but we can win those too.”

The overview of life in the United Kingdom lasts at least 15 minutes before moving into the fictional narrative with the stars of the film, Ralph Richardson, Merle Oberon and June Duprez. However, as soon as you think you are getting to the “movie” portion of the film, it leaps right back into that documentary storytelling.

While this type of film may seem odd today, the timing of “The Lion Has Wings” makes sense with the political climate of 1939. Released on Oct. 30, 1939, England had only been at war with Germany since Sept. 3, 1939.

“The Lion Has Wings” is considered a “propaganda” film. The film format isn’t different from war documentaries that came later. War documentaries generally followed the formula of providing the history of a country, showing footage of pleasant daily life, and then building an argument of why the country needed to go to war. Everyone across the globe still felt the effects of “The War to End All Wars,” and many were reluctant to go to war again.

“The Lion Has Wings” set the precedence and created this type of war documentary format.

This storytelling arrangement clearly inspired Frank Capra’s documentary “Why We Fight” series, which included films like “Prelude to War” (1942), “Report from the Aleutians” (1943) and “The Battle of Britain” (1943).

While viewed as propaganda, the film was used to bolster morale during an uncertain time for the United Kingdom.

But the “The Lion Has Wings” was also the first war documentary of World War II, according to director Michael Powell, making it an essential film of 1939.

I find the World War II-era documentaries interesting. However, when I went into “The Lion Has Wings,” I had no idea that I was watching a documentary mixed with fiction.

All I knew was that this was an English World War II movie I had never seen and was eager to catch it. But since I thought I was watching a fictional narrative, I was disappointed because I didn’t know what to expect.

Doing no research going into the film, I thought “The Lion Has Wings” was going to be a homefront movie starring Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson. The audience doesn’t truly see the two stars until 20 to 30 minutes into the film.

When I rewatched the film a second time (and knew what to expect), I appreciated it more. The mix of fictional storytelling is unique but helps break up the information given to the viewer.

Though “The Lion Has Wings” isn’t strictly a documentary, it is more a documentary than a narrative fiction film. If you know nothing about this film going in (like me), it may be a bit of a shock. But it’s an interesting piece of history when it comes to World War II.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at