Called The Way to the Stars in the UK and Johnny in the Clouds in the USA. This outstanding World War Two drama focuses on the lives of RAF bomber pilots during the course of the war. It shows the progression of new and improved aircraft being tested and flown into battle. Whilst following the day to day routine of the pilots responsible for flying them awaiting their next mission. Moving through the years of 1940 to 1944. It was released in the UK in June 1945 a few months before WWII had finished and overseas in the US during November.
The film follows rooky pilot Peter Penrose (John Mills) as he arrives at the RAF Station Halfpenny Field airfield. With just 15 hours flight time under his belt in the Bristol Blenheim, he’d been assigned to join the bomber pilots of 720 squadron. On meeting his superior Flight Lieutenant David Archdale (Michael Redgrave) he soon discovers he will tallying up those hours, real fast.
Peter Penrose – “I’m afraid I’m strictly amateur.”
Flight Lt. David Archdale – “There aren’t any amateurs and professionals anymore, just good pilots and bad pilots. The good pilots stay alive and the bad ones don’t. And that’s not true anymore either!”
Flash forward a year and we find Peter has become a first class pilot now flying bombing raids and carrying out reconnaissance onboard the US manufactured Douglas Boston A-20 Havoc. And of course, after such missions it’s always good to unwind at the local, the Golden Lion Hotel, which served lashings of pints and brandy. You could guarantee a good sing song around the piano but when last orders come, landlady Miss Todd (Rosamund John) doesn’t take any nonsense.
Over the next few months a lot changes for our Peter. He’s fallen in love with Iris Winterton (Renee Asherson), been grounded and assigned ground controller. This coincides with the arrival of the United States Army Air Forces taking over the airfield for their B-17 Flying Fortress bombardment squadron. Peter becomes friends with the American crew, Captain Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) and his Lieutenant Joe Friselli (Bonar Colleano) and what else to do rather than flying? Yep you got it, drink loads of pints down the old boozer. It’s not long before Captain Johnny and his squadron head out on their bombing raids and Peter is back, this time flying the Avro Lancaster. Who will return from these treacherous missions? Can you make friends or even fall in love during such dangerous and difficult times? The Way to the Stars deals with this dilemma in this expertly observed war time drama.
A few things.
- Directed by Anthony Asquith. I’ve featured a few of his films on here before like The Browning Version and Orders To Kill. Feel free to recommend others by him.
- Written by Terence Rattigan who’d been a Flight Lieutenant himself in the RAF. At first writing his experiences for a play called Flare Path in 1942. The movie was produced by Anatole de Grunwald.
- I think I prefer the title Johnny in the Clouds, especially as the film centers around the poem “For Johnny” an ode to Royal Air Force pilots written by John Pudney.
- The eye eagled with spot Bill Owen aka Compo from the long running British comedy series Last Of The Summer Wine. It’s amazing to see he looks as old in this as he does 40 plus year later!
- Look out for Trevor Howard, in his first credited role, playing Squadron Leader Carter. His next film would be Brief Encounter!
- Every year in my home town of Bournemouth there’s an airshow on the coast. Sally B the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a regular flyer and she’s a wonder to watch. Incredible sound. She’s the last airworthy B-17 in Europe. You can read about her story on the official website Sally B
There’s a few things that really set this film aside. It’s brilliant to see, especially as the war had not yet ended, the way all the different aircraft are introduced through the years. Starting with the lighter bombers and moving on to the more famous named heavier bombers that were essential for the strategic bombing campaign.
The other standout was the way death on the air base was revealed. We see no battles as we are grounded on the base but we wait with binoculars and bated breath and count the returning aircraft. Left to see who walks back through the door. Who’s come back? It’s simple and extremely effective. You can only imagine that is what it would of been like. You mutter the words “Bad show old boy” pick up your kit and carry on, with a cup of tea, of course.
The film feels like a grand tribute to the allied bomber pilots that risked their lives throughout World War Two. It’s a very recommend watch if you haven’t seen it. Thanks for having a read. All the best.. Mikey Wolf