The Airship Destroyer (1909)


UK. 1909.


Director/Screenplay – Walter R. Booth, Producer – Charles Urban, Photography (b&w). Production Company – Urban Trading Company.


Rural England is attacked by a flotilla of airships where the crews drop bombs on the buildings and vehicles below. An inventor escapes the bombing of his house to launch an attack back against the airships with a missile he has invented.

Walter R. Booth was one of the early film pioneers. Booth was a British contemporary of the much more famous Georges Melies and copied many of the special effects techniques that had been invented by Melies – mattes, superimpositions, stop-action cuts and various optical trickery. He made numerous trick special effects films in a career that started in 1899 – soon after the Lumiere Brothers made the first film – and lasted up until 1918, during which time he made some 165 short films. Booth’s genre works include Upside Down; or the Human Flies (1899), Artistic Creation (1901), Cheese Mites, or Lilliputians in a London Restaurant (1901), The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901), The Magic Sword (1901), An Over-Incubated Baby (1901), The Waif and the Wizard (1901), An Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903), The Voyage of the Arctic (1903), The Hand of the Artist (1906), which was Britain’s first animated film, The ? Motorist (1906) and The Automatic Motorist (1911). Most of these are only a few minutes long and serve to highlight a single trick effect.

The Airship Destroyer was a venture into the British invasion fantasy. These were popular during the late 19th Century with literary works that included the classic The Battle of Dorking (1871) by George Tomkyns Chesney, The Invasion of 1910 (1906) by William Le Queux and H.G. Wells’s The War in the Air (1908), which may well have served to inspire The Airship Destroyer. The most famous of these works was H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) wherein Wells extended the idea beyond terrestrial armies attacking England that most of these other works dealt with to create the first alien invasion story. A handful of these invasion fantasies spilled out onto film – especially after the Wright Brothers’ discovery of flight in 1903 – and we saw a number of fantasies set around the idea of aerial warfare. Indeed, Walter R. Booth made several of these aerial warfare fantasies with The Aerial Submarine (1910), The Aerial Anarchists (1911) and The Menace of the Air (1915).

Invasion by airships in The Airship Destroyer (1909)
Invasion by airships

Today The Airship Destroyer looks primitive and decidedly laughable, especially when contrasted to the realities of aerial warfare that came along only a few years later with World War I. The bombing of England by airship is conducted a group of men in goggles on a flimsy platform looking into what one presumes is a targeting device as another loads shells into a firing tube and lights their fuses. Perhaps the funniest invention is that of a tank, which is no more than a car of the era with a bolted metal box over the top of it that has a large round front window and a turret on top for the gun to poke out.

We get some scenes of aerial warfare as flying craft attempt to fight back against the airships, although these vehicles look so flimsy they seem more like kites than what we would regard as planes today – clearly a result of the fact that people were still caught in the thinking that planes would be nothing more advanced than what the Wright Brothers had conceived. Equally, the missile the inventor eventually fires back at the airship seems so fragile that it looks like it would take no more than a good sneeze to cause it to collapse.

The Airship Destroyer is also primitive in terms of what we expect of filmmaking today. It has essentially been made to illustrate the concept of aerial bombardment and warfare and nothing more than that. There is no backstory to any of this, as you would almost certainly get in a modern film such as who the aerial attackers are and why they are invading England.

What filmmakers of 1909 imagined a tank to be like in The Airship Destroyer (1909)
What filmmakers of 1909 imagined a tank to be like

The film also leaves much to be desired from a technical standpoint. The airships are awkward looking models – the shots of the squadrons that we see flying through the skies look like no more than cardboard cutouts passing in front of the camera. The inventor’s workshop has a view out on a river past what looks like cranes or industrial machinery, although this entire piece of scenery is later seen to be an obviously painted canvas with wrinkles in it.

Clearly nobody involved in making the film had ever been involved in real combat or shelling, as the bombs being dropped by the airships seem barely more efficient than firecrackers that raise a paltry cloud of smoke when they detonate. We do get some passably effective models during the scenes where we see the town and its buildings and churches on fire.

Full film available here

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