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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Walter R. Booth's "Airship" Trilogy

By 1909, Scientific Romances were well established in film. The "Romance" part often overshadowed the "Scientific" part, however. Georges Méliès, one of the most innovative minds in movies in the first decade of the 20th century, was most interested fantasies with a Vernian gloss rather than a straight attempt at serious speculative storytelling. In many cases, science was merely a just-so explanation for phenomena that would otherwise be attributed to magic or ghosts. For example, The Electric Hotel (1905) by Segundo de Chomón is an otherwise typical haunted house trick film, only this time it's electric conveniences gone awry.

Walter R. Booth was a magician turned trick filmmaker, like Georges Méliès in many respects. with the same preoccupations. 1901's The Magic Sword, for instance, is a straightforward fantasy story. An Over-Incubated Baby from the same year is more of a trick film with a mad science premise. But come 1909, Booth was interested in a much different project. Rather than a humourous trick film, The Airship Destroyer is a remarkably serious and prescient attempt at Scientific Romances in the vein of H.G. Wells' War in the Air, published the preceding year.        

This film is a remarkably prophetic one-reel opening chapter to a trio of conceptually similar films that includes The Aerial Submarine and The Aerial Anarchists. In it, a thinly-veiled Germany descends on the British coast with a fleet of invincible dirigibles which can only be brought down by the genius of an inventor and his guided aerial torpedo. More authentically like Verne and Wells, Booth's prognostications were based on solid projections of existing technology, as both Zeppelin's and the Wright Brothers' crafts had debuted and entered into commuter and military service by 1909. A scant few years thereafter, Europe would descend into violent mechanized warfare and The Airship Destroyer would become horrifying reality. It was even re-released in 1915 to boost morale. 

Extract from The Airship Destroyer.

A year later, Booth released The Aerial Submarine, in which a pair of children are kidnapped by high-tech pirates inspired loosely by Jules Verne's Robur. From beneath the waves they strike out at passing cruise ships, looting their cargoes. When the submarines of the Royal Navy catch their scent, the pirates take to the air and drop shells on their hapless pursuers. It is only when a careless engineer causes disaster that the world has a hope of salvation from the aero-pirates. It is much less serious than The Airship Destroyer, returning to the cinematic genre's more fanciful trends.

Extract from The Aerial Submarine.

Unfortunately, the third film in the series, The Aerial Anarchists (1911), is a lost film. No footage is known to exist, and all that is known is a vague synopsis that mentions a bombing of St. Paul's Cathedral and the destruction of a railway over a chasm.

Both The Airship Destroyer and The Aerial Submarine can be viewed from British ISPs on the BFI Player website.

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