Spies of the Air

Spies of the Air (also known as Spies in the Air and The Fifth Column) is a 1939 British adventure film directed by David MacDonald and based on the play Official Secret by Jeffrey Dell. The film stars Barry K. Barnes, Edward Ashley and Felix Aylmer. Spies of the Air involves espionage in the period just before the outbreak of war in Europe that spawned a number of similar propaganda films linking aeronautics and spies. Films in both Great Britain and the United States centred on "... spies and fifth columnists (as) the staple diet of films made during the first year of the war."[3][Note 2]

Spies of the Air
Theatrical poster (Note: the US title on the theatre lobby card was Spies in the Air.[1]]
Directed byDavid MacDonald
Produced byJohn Corfield
Written byBridget Boland
A.R. Rawlinson
Based onOfficial Secret by Jeffrey Dell
StarringBarry K. Barnes
Roger Livesey
Felix Aylmer
Music byRonnie Munro
CinematographyBryan Langley
Edited byDavid Lean
Distributed byAssociated British Film Distributors (UK)
Film Alliance of the United States Inc. (US)
Release date
  • 1 March 1939 (1939-03-01)

  • 4 June 1940 (1940-06-04)
[Note 1]
Running time
62 min.
78 min. (original UK release runtime)
CountryUnited Kingdom


Before the outbreak of the Second World War, British test pilot Jim Thurloe (Barry K. Barnes) is involved in an illicit love affair with his employer's wife (Joan Marion). He is caught up in an elaborate scheme to steal secrets from Houghton's (Roger Livesey) aviation company. Jim is suspected of betraying his country to a foreign power. Scotland Yard Inspector Colonel Cairns (Felix Aylmer) is aware that the plans of a top-secret aircraft would be of great interest to an enemy.



Filming took place at Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England, UK. The Air Ministry was interested in the production and allowed the latest Royal Air Force aircraft to be filmed from a commercial aircraft.[5] A Percival Vega Gull (G-AEYC) and Miles M.14A Magister I/Hawk Trainer III (L6908) were featured in the film.[6]

Made in 1939 and released in March 1939 in the United Kingdom, by the time Spies of the Air was in widespread release, war had already been declared.[7] For its US release in a much abridged form, the film was originally going to be re-titled as The Fifth Column, but Ernest Hemingway sued the production company, as he felt that the new title infringed on his The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories anthology released the previous year. Hemingway won the suit, and the film reverted to its original title, although it also appeared as Spies in the Air.[8][9]


Spies of the Air was quickly relegated to "second feature" status, as the release of the similar themed Q Planes (1939), with a much better known cast, overshadowed the more modest production. Hal Erickson wrote, "The flight sequences blend stock footage and newly-shot aerial scenes with acceptable expertise."[10]

After the lawsuit by Hemingway had been settled, Spies in the Air had its US premiere in New York in 1940, and was reviewed by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times: "David MacDonald has purloined a page from the book of Alfred Hitchcock, but without the latter's sense of timing or knack of pointing a climax."[11]



  1. Spies of the Air has been variously listed in sources as both a 1939 and 1940 release.[2]
  2. Although the foreign power is not named, the implication is that Germany is engaged in stealing the secrets from a British aircraft company.[4]


  1. Brownlow 1997, p. 745.
  2. "Technical Specifications: Spies of the Air (1940)." IMDb. Retrieved: 18 September 2014.
  3. Murphy, Robert. "War: The triumphs and tragedies of battle." BFI Screen online, 2013–2014. Retrieved: 18 September 2014.
  4. Mavis 2001, p. 1078.
  5. Warren 1984, p. 103.
  6. "English aircraft seen in movies." Aeromovies (films d'aviation) [French]. Retrieved: 18 September 2014.
  7. Mackenzie 2003, p. 25.
  8. "Spies of the Air (1939)." TV Guide. Retrieved: 18 September 2014.
  9. "Spies of the Air (1939)." British Film Institute. Retrieved: 18 September 2014.
  10. Erickson, Hal. "Spies of the Air (1940)." AllMovie, 2014. Retrieved: 18 September 2014.
  11. Crowther, Bosley. "At the Rialto: Spies of the Air". The New York Times, 4 July 1940.


  • Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. New York: St. Martins Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-31216-810-0.
  • Mackenzie, S.P. British War Films, 1939–45. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003. ISBN 978-1-85285-258-0.
  • Mavis, Paul. The Espionage Filmography: United States Releases, 1898 through 1999. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2001. ISBN 978-1-4766-0427-5.
  • Warren, Patricia. The British Film Collection 1896-1984. London: Elm Tree Books, 1984. ISBN 0-241-11327-X.
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