Q Planes (1939)

Q Planes (Clouds Over Europe)


If you thought that British espionage stories started with a certain dry martini-drinking superspy, then you are missing out. Our neighbors across the pond have a long history of some excellent espionage in both film and print, featuring a whole host of literary heroes who were spying for Queen (King) and Country long before Mr. Bond was out of diapers (nappies).

Q Planes (released in America as Clouds Over Europe) is a British spy film made in the early days of World War II. In fact, the film was released mere months before Britain declared war on Germany. As such, there’s an urgency to the film that undercuts its otherwise breezy quality in a charming story of spies, sabotage, and fly-boys.

Q Planes stars Ralph Richardson as the fedora and umbrella-sporting British spy Major Hammond, assigned to figure out just what has happened to a number of planes that keep vanishing on their test flights. These planes are carrying expensive experimental equipment which we are assured another power would be happy to get their greedy little hands on. Hammond heads to the airfields of Barratt & Ward and enlists the aid of dashing pilot Tony McVane (a young and wavy haired Laurence Olivier) to discover just what has happened to those planes. Along for the ride is Hammond’s journalist sister Kay (Valerie Hobson), whom McVane just happens to be falling for.


Despite a middling plot, the film flies along on the strength of its main cast. Olivier plays slightly against type as a brash and noisy young man more likely to run headfirst into trouble than to hang back and make a plan. Hobson, meanwhile, has little to do beyond gazing into Larry’s eyes. She was an interesting, wide-eyed beauty of the time period, perhaps best known in America as Dr. Frankenstein’s titular bride Elizabeth in The Bride of Frankenstein. She does make the most of her screen-time here, though, as noisy and opinionated as her male counterparts.

The star of Q Planes is Ralph Richardson’s dapper Major Hammond, and the reason why I watched this film in the first place. Hammond is a secret agent prototype, waving his umbrella about, making fun of his superiors, insubordinate without being improper. He’s also one of the inspirations for the character of John Steed which, if you pay any attention, might explain why I gravitated towards this film. Hammond’s vitality make the film fun to watch, and you only need to check out any one of his scenes to understand why. What could have been a somewhat stodgy little war thriller is energized through Richardson, a serious actor having a lot of fun.

Q Planes proves that Britain did war thrillers just as well as Hollywood, and sometimes even a bit better. While it shan’t win any awards, it’s a nifty little film, wholly enjoyable for its entire 1 hour 18 minute run-time.