The men of the Finnish air force push their planes to their limits in long-distance tests, and train in preparation for future conflict. Pilots Jarmo (Joel Rinne, who would star three decades later as Inspector Palmu in the movie series of the same name) and Kalle (Fritz-Hugo Backman), are ahead in the distance challenge, but are forced to put their sea-plane down outside Vyborg for repairs. They are helped by local girl Kerttu (Marta Kontula, in legally actionable hotpants), with whom Jarmo soon falls in love. Kerttu happens to be the sister of his fellow pilot Erkki (Kaarlo Angerkoski), who himself is sweet on the starey-eyed Aino (Irja Simola, who looks at him the way a hungry dog looks at a sausage roll).
The pilots are roped into air reconnaissance during a forest fire, during which Erkki saves Aino’s sister Mirja from a burning building. In the process, he is hit on the head by a falling plank, and dreams of a future air assault on Finland. He wakes up to discover that all is well, although the storm clouds of war are gathering.
The first of the films included in the monster 232-disc Suomen Filmi Teollisuus box set, Our Boys in the Air, Us on the Ground (1934, Meidän poikamme ilmassa – me maassa) was actually the third in a trilogy of propaganda films made by director Erkki Karu, following on from Our Boys (1929) and Our Boys at Sea (1933). It presents a fascinating glimpse of Finland in the inter-war period, but has an impossible hill to climb in narrative and technical terms, since it was made in the shadow of Wings (1929), an American film on a similar topic, rightly lauded for incredible achievement – the winner of history’s first Oscar.
Karu had been forced off the board of Suomi Filmi, the company he had run for over a decade, unjustly carrying the blame for a slump in cinema attendance brought on by the Great Depression. With plenty to prove, he leapt back into action for his newly formed company with Our Boys in the Air, although it would prove to be one of his final films; he died in 1935, aged just 48. One of his leading men, Kaarlo Angerkoski, would not last much longer, dead from a heart attack at 33 four years later – the press blamed cigarettes and coffee.
Our Boys in the Air was made during the tense 1930s, during which the smart money in Finland was sure that the Soviet Union would stage an attack. It is hence less of a war film than a pre-war film, informing the population about military preparations and developments in technology. Under the guise of a lecture attended by the pilots, what appears to be an actual military training cartoon about relative bomb strengths is spliced directly into the film. Made with the cooperation of the actual Finnish Air Force, the film features prolonged aerial sequences, including a beauty pass across Hamina, the symmetrical, radial streets of which make for an attractive view, and Finland’s second city of Vyborg, fated to be lost to Russia in WW2.
There are many elements that mark the film out as a product of its age. The cast occasionally spring into song in exactly the same way that Finns don’t. The soundtrack is oddly lacking, with silent engines, slamming doors that make no noise, and very little foley – sometimes, all you hear are the actors’ voices. There is also a clear demarcation between actors trained in the theatre, who mug and twitch like they are on drugs, and stiffer amateurs who, ironically, come across as more naturalistic. One of these is Miss Finland 1933 (and Miss Europe 1934), Ester Toivonen, who was a teenager working in a bread shop only a couple of years earlier, but has been propelled in front of the camera by her beauty-queen career, and here plays a nurse, ahead of her first true starring role the following year, in Karu’s Scapegoat.
The film was praised in its day for the flying sequences, which even critics unswayed by its preachy nature had to admit were compelling. Today, however, it is most remarkable for the 25-minute dream sequence in its final act, in which the unconscious Erkki experiences a prophetic vision of bombing raids, anti-aircraft batteries, civilians in gas masks running for an air-raid shelter, and firemen digging survivors from the rubble.
“Thank God it was just a fever-dream, and not real,” observes Erkki’s father when he wakes, although it would all prove to be far too real in 1939, when Soviet planes bombed Helsinki. They are not bombs, joked the Russian minister Vyacheslav Molotov, they are just bread baskets. The Finns would respond in kind, claiming that the petrol bombs they threw at Russian tanks were just cocktails for Molotov.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.