Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Stolen Airship (Carlo Ponti Cinematografica, Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, Filmové studio Barrandov, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the disappointment of Zeman’s Münchhausen, his The Stolen Airship (1967) was quite a pleasant surprise: made with similar techniques (including bits of cut-out animation that I suspect also influenced Terry Gilliam when he did the famous interstital bits on the Monty Python TV shows and movies) but a far more coherent script (by Radovan Krátky based on a couple of novels by Jules Verne, who seems to have been one of Zeman’s usual go-to guys for story material even though he lived and wrote in the 19th century) with delicious bits of anti-capitalist satire (they were working in a nominally Communist country, after all) and characters we actually care about. This time the intrigue concerns a stock manipulator, Findeys (Cestmír Randa), who has built a steam-powered airship (there are enough interesting devices with off-beat technology The Stolen Airship qualifies as a steampunk movie) and claims to have discovered a non-flammable gas with which to give it lift. He hasn’t — the thing is filled with notoriously combustible hydrogen — but he’s a good enough promoter he and his female partner are able to sell shares in the company. They also offer rides in the thing to paying customers, only at one point five kids who are the film’s central characters sneak into the airship’s gondola and extract a promise from Findeys that he’ll take them up in it for free. When he reneges, the kids steal the airship and fly it themselves to Verne’s Mysterious Island (The Mysterious Island, a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in which Verne revived the character of Captain Nemo and his super-submarine Nautilus, was one of the bases for this film), where it crashes and burns in sequences Zeman seems to have copied from the newsreels of the real-life destruction of the Hindenburg.

There are also various other characters, including a reporter desperate to expose Findeys as a fake — and who uses bizarre gimmicks, including a periscope so he can spy on people without their knowing it and an ear trumpet so he can essentially do the late 19th-century equivalent of bugging them — and the parents of the kids who stole the airship, who in one of the satirical subplots that give this film real power are put on trial and told they will be held both criminally and civilly liable for their kids’ theft of the airship — until it turns out that one of the kids who stole the airship is the son of the prosecutor in the case. The Stolen Airship is everything Zeman’s Münchhausen wasn’t: logical, coherent, genuinely amusing and fun to watch. It also contains yet another scene in which he seems to be ripping off Keaton’s The General: three good guys are able to leap their horse over a bridge across a canyon with a hole in the middle, while the first man in the much larger bad guys’ army tries to jump his horse across, misses the other end of the bridge and falls into the canyon. Though there are glitches — notably the really sappy theme in Jan Novák’s musical score whenever the kids are shown flying their airship and no one is pursuing them (actually through much of the movie quite a few people are pursuing them, including the reporter, who’s rented or commandeered an airship of his own, but one without an engine so he has to pedal, like a bicyclist, to make its propeller go) which makes the main theme from John Williams’ E.T. score sound like Stravinsky by comparison — for the most part The Stolen Airship is the sort of movie that you could take your kids to (except for the weird opening scene, obviously representing human evolution, in which a male ape boasts that there’s something he can do that the female ape he’s talking to can’t, which is piss on the fire to put it out — this was the basis of Sigmund Freud’s theory of “penis envy”) but also enjoy yourselves.