The Pirates of 1920
R: David Aylott, A.E. Coleby. P: Cricks & Martin Films. UK 1911
Print: BFI National Archive
“A rip-roaring adventure tale with a nod to Jules Verne, as a band of futuristic cut-throats and their black-bearded captain forsake the high seas for the wild blue yonder, terrorising the skies in their trusty airship. After bombing a liner and stealing gold bullion from its hold, the band of ruffians try to make good their escape, with only a valiant naval officer and his sweetheart to bar their way.
The film only survives in the BFI National Archive in an incomplete form, with the last four minutes missing. A synopsis that exists in a contemporary journal indicates that the missing footage shows the naval officer and the police arriving in the nick of time while the airship is still grounded to rout the pirates and rescue the heroine.”
“Although, in the term ‘science fiction’, the second word qualifies the first, it’s tempting to tot up the success rate of guesses and Pirates of 1920 scores well. The silent, black-and-white short imagines ‘air pirates’ who use balloon-driven vessels to bomb ships, with the lofty brigands then sliding down ropes to take hostages. Within three years of the release date, there would be a world war in which the Germans used airships against ships, although this prophecy was not entirely the film-makers’ – H G Wells, the begetter of so much in this genre, had published a novel, ‘The War in the Air’, in 1908, anticipating the elevation of the battlefield. The movie did show its own prescience, though with a longer perspective. The attackers from the earth’s atmosphere are a kind of hijacker and, in this sense, the film foresees a tactic of terrorists between the 1960s and, with a mass-suicidal-homicidal twist, 9/11. Modern viewers may also reflect that, with tighter aviation security in the 21st century, sea piracy and hostage-taking were revived as weapons of terror. The scenes in which the invaders threaten the captain eerily resemble those in a movie released more than a century later, Captain Phillips, with the exception that, whereas Paul Greengrass’s camera rarely stops moving, Aylott’s and Coleby’s hardly starts.”
New Statesman, 5. Dec. 2014
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