Saturday, March 16, 2019

Mission of Honor: The Story of the RAF’s Polish Fighter Pilots

They survived the Battle of Britain, only to be killed during the so-called peace. Like so many of their Home Army comrades, a high percentage Polish RAF volunteers were purged and executed after returning to a Communist dominated Poland, despite their critical contributions to the victory over fascism. Their history of fighting for freedom made them a potential threat to the new socialist regime, whereas former Nazi collaborators could be trusted to have the right attitude towards power. That fact (forthrightly acknowledged) makes the heroics of the Polish fighter pilots ironically poignant in David Blair’s Mission of Honor (a.k.a. Hurricane), which is now showing in select cities.

Even though he is part Swiss, Jan Zumbach opts to continue fighting the National Socialists occupying his country as an RAF pilot. Like his commanding officer Witold Urbanowicz, he too fears for the safety of the woman he left behind in Poland. Unfortunately, they will not rejoin the fray as soon as they would prefer. Frankly, the RAF chain of command is not sure what to make of their Polish volunteers. With the exceptions of Zumbach and Urbanowicz, the Poles’ fluency in English is iffy at best. However, the Germans have been shooting down RAF pilots at an alarming rate, so they need reinforcements badly.

Of course, the Polish RAF pilots exceeded expectations quite swimmingly. Yet, they remained keenly aware of their outsider status. Still, they had the support of their British flight commander, John Kent, as well as many of the women serving in non-combat capacities. In fact, screenwriters Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith do a nice job giving overdue credit to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), primarily represented by Phyllis Lambert, who rather catches the eye of Zumbach.

Iwan Rheon might be Welsh, but he does a credible Swiss-Polish accent as Zumbach. He portrays the Polish ace with an appropriately heroic bearing but also gives him a dark, intense edge. Rheon also develops some smart, mature chemistry with Stefanie Martini as the surprisingly sexually frank Lambert. Milo Gibson comes across reasonably authoritative and Canadian as Kent, making his evolution from skeptic to honorary Pole pretty believable. Frankly, Zumbach and Lambert are the sharpest drawn characters, while Rheon and Gibson disproportionately carry the dramatic load, but Marcin Dorocinski adds some authenticity as the steely Urbanowicz.

Granted, Mission cannot match the technical accomplishments of Dunkirk, but its flying sequences look considerably better than those in Air Strike. Indeed, it is superior to Xiao Feng’s clunky anti-Japanese propaganda piece in just about every way.

According the closing titles, 56% of UK public opinion supported repatriating exiled Poles, even though it meant certain oppression and likely death. They also turned Winston Churchill out of office, but at least they were able to correct that sad mistake in 1951. Frankly, you have to give the film credit for ending on such an honest and bittersweet note, because most of the guts of Mission are generally stirring stuff. Recommended for fans of stiff-upper-lip British war films, Mission of Honor is currently screening at the AMC Arizona Center in Phoenix and is also available via VOD.