The Airship Destroyer Was a Bridge between Two Decades of Filmmaking
Note: This is the fifty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1909 film, THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER, directed by Walter R. Booth.
THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER (1909) is a fine evolution of Walter R. Booth’s trick film wizardry, one that would ultimately culminate with his final (at least, final notable) film, THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST (1911). I’ve written previously about Booth and his 1906 film THE ‘?’ MOTORIST (1906), of which AUTOMATIC MOTORIST was a remake, and the angle of that essay was also how Booth was beginning to elevate the trick film concept.
I’d hate to retread old ground, but that very same evolution came to mind while I rewatched THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER. Booth just might be one of the few early prominent trick film pioneers who truly evolved his techniques, other than perhaps Segundo de Chomón. He’s become overlooked, however, likely due to the sheer obscurity of time. With THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER, Booth erred slightly in trying to ground his magic, but otherwise, the effects gave it flight.
THE AIRSHIP DESTOYER was originally about 20 minutes long, but the fragments that survive today total nearly seven. Nevertheless, a clear narrative picture is presented; it appears the romantic melodrama that is briefly shown throughout the film is the foggiest situation. That’s fine, as the interpersonal drama that does still exist is certainly the weakest link in the film.
Otherwise, the story of an invasion from ambiguously German zeppelins (mind you, this film was made in 1909!) is effective because of Booth’s visual flair. The specifics of the story aren’t clear because, you know, over half the film is missing. But clearly, some native Brits come together to fight off the invaders. The shot of two men looking at the blimps through binoculars is framed beautifully, with such strong visual acuity it feels like it’s out of a film made at least five years later. It’s brief, but it transitions into an incredible look at the cutout blimps flying through sky, framed within a binocular shape.
A scientist then scrambles to get his invention off the ground in an effort to stop the invaders. But destruction ensues, as shots of a bomber crew above in an airship drop their payloads upon the countryside. The explosions are impressive (it doesn’t necessarily look like they’re created with substitution splices) and on-location shoots give the film more dramatic weight.
A destroyed building displays the film’s incredible set design. And a dogfighting sequence contains impressive close-up shots of planes and their pilots passing in front of the camera only to swing around, miniaturized, and launch failed attacks upon the zeppelin.
Planes crash to the ground, fire rages through a quaint miniature town and the scientist finally shoots down the zeppelin in a fiery ball of glory; these scenes contain a tremendous sense of momentum for a 1909 film. Booth integrated trick film skills and ratcheted up the stakes, visually and narratively. THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER doesn’t feel like a thinly connected series of “look what I can do” moments, but instead a cohesive, futurist premise that could only be executed well with great special effects. Of course, production decisions are entwined, but the movie feels like it was built around a great idea, rather than tricks that need a plot contrivance.
THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER was an early invasion story in film, and an intriguing paleofuturistic look at a near future that was a little closer to a looming, grim reality than now feels comfortable. Its effects and the technical skill with which Booth pulled them off are commendable, and was a great example of the bridge between the old filmmaking style and the approaching Hollywood formula that would captivate the world.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.