Q Planes

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Q Planes
Q Planes film poster.jpg
Directed by Tim Whelan
Arthur B. Woods
Produced by Irving Asher (producer)
Alexander Korda (executive producer)
Written by Brock Williams
Jack Whittingham
Ian Dalrymple
Starring Ralph Richardson
Laurence Olivier
Valerie Hobson
Music by Muir Mathieson
Cinematography Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by Hugh Stewart
Irving Asher Productions
Denham Studios
Distributed by Columbia Pictures Corp. of California, Ltd.
Release dates
  • 2 March 1939 (1939-03-02)
Running time
82 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Q Planes (also Foreign Sabotage and Clouds Over Europe") is a 1939 British comedy spy film starring Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Valerie Hobson. Olivier and Richardson were a decade into their 50-year friendship and theatrical collaboration and had just completed Othello with Richardson in the title role and Olivier as Iago, when this film was made.[1] The film was produced by Irving Asher an American, with British film impresario Alexander Korda as executive producer.[2] The name Q Planes may have been derived from the British "Q-ships", armed ships disguised as merchantmen, used in the First World War as decoys to lure German U-boats. The film was directed by American director Tim Whelan (Sidewalks of London and later in 1940, co-director of The Thief of Bagdad), who had been in Britain since 1932, working for Korda at Denham Studios. The film was also released in the US in 1939 by Columbia Pictures as Clouds Over Europe.


Advanced British aircraft prototypes, carrying experimental and secret equipment are vanishing with their crews on test flights. No one can fathom why, not even spymaster Major Hammond (Ralph Richardson) or his sister Kay (Valerie Hobson), a newspaper reporter, who is working undercover in the works canteen used by the crews at the Barrett & Ward Aircraft Company.

At first Major Hammond is seen as an outsider at the aircraft factory, especially by Mr. Barrett, the owner (George Merritt), who is working under a government contract but he soon finds a friend in a star pilot, Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier) who helps him try to solve the case. Hammond becomes convinced that Jenkins (George Curzon), the company secretary at the factory, is a foreign agent and mole but Jenkins is killed by unseen gunmen before he can give up the names of his contacts.

McVane returns to the aircraft factory, determined to make the next test flight. His aircraft, like the others, is brought down by a powerful ray beamed from the S.S. Viking, a mysterious salvage ship manned by a foreign crew (the German identity of the crew and agents aboard the S.S. Viking is only implied, as it was in all British films until the outbreak of war; in Britain, as in America, national censors refused to let Nazi Germany or Hitler be named in any studio film as a violation of their neutrality laws.)

Along with his aircraft, McVane and his flight crew are taken hostage on the ship, where he discovers many other missing airmen have suffered the same fate. Gathering up weapons, McVane leads the British survivors in an attempt to take control of the ship. Major Hammond learns the truth and directs a Royal Navy ship (HMS Echo) to come to their rescue. Kay and McVane form a relationship and Hammond learns, to his chagrin, that his long-time lady friend, whose plans with him are repeatedly being cancelled as the action escalates, has married someone else.



Airspeed Envoy

Period airports and aircraft including the Airspeed Envoy and de Havilland Tiger Moth are featured in the aerial scenes. The Brooklands racetrack, which also was an important aeronautical centre, was used as a backdrop for the aerial sequences on the ground.[3]

According to one film historian, the film's plot - and budget - were inspired by true events. In 1938, a revolutionary bomber, the Vickers Wellesley bomber prototype, which utilised the revolutionary geodesic construction method created by Barnes Wallis, disappeared over the English Channel during a test flight. [4]"The Air Ministry asked Lord Vansittart of Denham, chief of the British secret service, to initiate a search for the lost aircraft," writes Richard Edwards on his film blog."Part of the Wellesley’s wreckage was supposedly found in a garage in Kiel and it was suggested that the ill-fated plane had been shot down by a German U-boat." [5]

The British secret service were so sure of this that they partially funded this film to let the Luftwaffe know they had figured it out.  Lord Vansittart was, after all, a good friend of executive producer Alexander Korda.  After searching and finding pieces of the missing prototype, Vansittart asked Korda to make this film -- and made Secret Service funds available to help him do so.


Written and produced in September of 1938 just before Olivier sailed for America to star as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Q-Planes is historically interesting for its contrast to later British war films and to Olivier's later film career. Q-Planes might be called the last of the "neutral Britan" spy comedies, which Hitchcock had pioneered in The 39 Steps (1934) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), its tone blends a spy thriller with hi-tech villians, sophisticated romance and rapid-fire comedy. The British later excelled at this genre in the James Bond films from the 1960s on (and indeed one of its writers, Jack Whittington, went on to co-write Thunderball ) but here the comedic aspects are in contrast to the ardent, patriotic, more sombre films that the British made once war was declared and Hitler began to conquer all of Europe while Britain stood by, seemingly helpless, eventually his bombs dropping on them.

For Olivier scholars and fans, Q-Planes shows the dramatic difference his American work with William Wyler (Wuthering Heights) and Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca) made on his film acting. Here, Olivier's at the height of the glib, self-conscious acting style of the fifteen pictures he'd made before his work with the brilliant, emphatically demanding Wyler. Olivier writes that it was only then he learned to stop condescending to pictures as a mere paycheck between Shakespeare productions and instead master acting for the camera as its own form [6] All of his greatest film roles follow from his Oscar-nominated performance in Wuthering Heights; his autobiographies and many biographies often fail to mention Q-Planes at all. [7]

Released in the United States in 1939, under the grimmer title of Clouds Over Europe, Q Planes was a knock-off for Olivier, already bound for America and the prestigious filming of Wuthering Heights, but Richardson, who had encouraged Olivier to take the role of Heathcliff with his famous advice, "Bit of fame - do you good," [8] was always better at comedy and dominates much of the screen with a sardonic performance as a spy, either working for Scotland Yard or British Military Intelligence.

Q Planes opened as "Clouds Over Europe," in New York in June,1939 to a very positive review by Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times. Nugent was originally put off by the film's new opening which, unlike the British, now reflected their ever-darkening scenario of outright war with Nazi Germany, and, hoping to impress this on their then-reluctant American cousins (executive producer Korda was, after all, Churchill's designated agent in the filmic aspect of de-neutralizing America) [9] began with "shots of Commons, Parliament, the War Office, the India Office, No. 10 Downing Street and other imposing edifices," as Nugent describes it. "As an added touch of dignity and authority, a commentator's voice noted each building as it passed, spoke gravely of the burden of empire, of trade and population statistics, and of the might and wisdom of Britain's leaders..." (None of this is to be seen in the Q-Planes readily available on Youtube, which plunges right into a comic scene with Richardson)[10]

The New York Times reviewer is quite relieved when this made-for-America preamble turns into the whacky British comedy it originally was: "... one of the wittiest and pleasantest comedies that have come a capering to the American screen this season ..."[11]Variety reviewers also considered it had a "...refreshing tongue-in-cheek attitude; whole thing is bright, breezy and flavorsome." [12]

Also widely seen in Britian, Richardson's dapper, insouciant secret agent was named, years later, as the model for the bowler-hatted upper-class British spy John Steed in the 1960s hit "Spy-fi" television series The Avengers, according to The Avengers producer Brian Clemens.[13] C. A. Lejeune called the film

A bright, vigorous little picture, and Mr Richardson's Major is the brightest thing in it. You should see it. You'll like it. It has savour.

— C. A. Lejeune[14]

and in Halliwell's Film Guide for 2003, the film was called a "lively, lovely thriller distinguished by a droll leading performance.[15]

Screenwriter Jack Whittingham later collaborated with Kevin McClory and Richard Maibaum in the James Bond movie, Thunderball, adapted from Ian Fleming's novel Thunderball in which an evil mastermind hijacks nuclear warheads from an airplane.

Home release[edit]

The film was released on video by Carlton Home Entertainment in 1991, and on DVD in April 2007.




  1. ^ "An Autobiography (1982) by Laurence Olivier, p. 68
  2. ^ Aldgate and Richards 1994, p. 79.
  3. ^ http://publicdomainmovies.net/movie/q-planes
  4. ^ http://richardedwards.info/2012/08/11/alexander-kordas-real-life-spy-enigma/
  5. ^ http://richardedwards.info/2015/04/14/alexander-kordas-real-life-spy-enigma-2/
  6. ^ On Acting (1986) by Laurence Olivier, p. 255-261
  7. ^ Laurence Olivier On Screen by Foster Hirsch, On Acting and Confessions of an Actor by Olivier and the recent Olivier (2015) by Phillip Zeigler all fail to mention it
  8. ^ Spoto 1992, p. .110
  9. ^ Charmed Lives (1979) by Michael Korda, p.138-9
  10. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAjwD_e4mQI
  11. ^ Nugent, Frank S. "Clouds over Europe (1939); The Screen in Review: Comedy Lifts Its Head Again in 'Clouds Over Europe' at the Music Hall." The New York Times, 16 June 1939.
  12. ^ "Q Planes (UK)." Variety, 1939.
  13. ^ Chapman 2002, p. 61.
  14. ^ Halliwell, 2003, p. 678
  15. ^ Halliwell, 2003, p. 678


External links[edit]