They Flew Alone

cast: Anna Neagle, Robert Newton, Edward Chapman, Nora Swinburne, and Charles Carson

director: Herbert Wilcox

103 minutes (15) 1942
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Ian Sales

They Flew Alone

Amy Johnson may be forgotten by all but aviation enthusiasts these days, but she played an important role in the early years of British aviation. She set a number of long-distance records, often, as suggested by the title of this film, flying solo. At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the air transport auxiliary, which was responsible for transporting RAF aircraft from the factories to the airfields. Many of the ATA pilots were women. Sadly, Johnson died in 1941, when the plane she was flying crashed. They Flew Alone (aka: The Wings Of A Woman) covers Johnson’s life from school to death, all with rousingly patriotic good cheer.

The film makes clear that Johnson was a remarkable woman – from a Yorkshire childhood, she went onto university, graduated, held a succession of jobs, and then learnt to fly. Sadly, Anna Neagle struggles to get Johnson’s character across. Her somewhat variable accent doesn’t help, not does her un-emotive acting. Neagle may have been a star in her day, but it’s not obvious why – except, perhaps, that her husband was Herbert Wilcox, the producer and director. The flying scenes in They Flew Alone are mostly passable, although one or two are too clearly models to be convincing.

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And, despite her travels all over the world – indicated by that old movie standby of the animated line across a map – little effort is made to present those far-off places as realistic. The world is all set-dressing.

Johnson’s husband, Jim Mollison, is played by Robert Newton (best known as Long John Silver from Treasure Island). It’s hard to know what to make of the man. His achievements in the air often matched his wife’s, but Newton plays him as louche, lazy, and overly partial to drink; an ironic touch given Newton’s eventual end.

They Flew Alone seems to revel more in its Englishness than it generates any patriotic fervour which might act as a recruitment poster for the British forces. Johnson gives a rousing speech on her arrival in Australia, but it’s more the fact she is an English heroine, an iconic figure in a time of need, which seems paramount. Unfortunately, the gender politics of the time being what they were, presenting Johnson as an independent woman is not an acceptable narrative. As a result, she spends much of the film cast as a long-suffering wife, as if her achievements are the price her husband paid. Indeed, the British title of the film, They Flew Alone, shows that this is not a story about Johnson alone; unlike the US title: Wings And The Woman, which at least alludes directly to her.

And yet there’s plenty to rally the troops in Johnson’s life. Not merely her own accomplishments, but also her career with the ATA. The women pilots of the ATA were the first instance in British history of women earning the same as men for performing the same job. What they were is as remarkable as what they did. While they did not fly in combat, they piloted aircraft without radar or weaponry, often having to find their way using landmarks on the ground.

Many ATA pilots were lost in bad weather, as was Johnson herself. (Although there is some suspicion she may have been shot down by an over-eager British anti-aircraft crew.) Despite these restrictions, the women of the ATA did what was seen at the time as a man’s job. And they did it well. That they could be treated seriously in such a role is in part due to pioneer aviatrixes such as Amy Johnson. It’s a shame, then, that They Flew Alone seems more concerned with her tempestuous marriage to Jim Mollison than it does her pioneering role in sexual equality, or indeed her fight to overcome prejudice and become a heroic figure that could be of benefit during wartime.