‘Johnny in the Clouds’: A Powerful War Drama That Stays With You

A WWII war drama about the sacrifice of pilots and how it impacts those on the ground.
‘Johnny in the Clouds’: A Powerful War Drama That Stays With You
Pilot Peter Penrose (John Mills, R) begins to show signs of battle fatigue, in “Johnny in the Clouds” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Ian Kane

NR | 1h 27m | Drama, Romance, War | 1945

Psychological trauma that soldiers experience in warfare is often referred to as "battle fatigue." Due to the tremendous amount of air power wielded in the past world wars, many airmen experienced this trauma.

One of the first films to address battle fatigue was the 1938 World War I drama “The Dawn Patrol,” directed by Edmund Goulding, about inexperienced pilots flying against the Germans and the effect their deaths had on their ground-based cohorts.

“Johnny in the Clouds” (1945), alternately titled “The Way to the Stars," is a great World War II movie about the air war between the British and the Germans. Whereas “Patrol” featured some truly revolutionary aerial combat scenes, “Johnny in the Clouds” doesn’t feature a single dogfight. Instead, the film focuses on the interpersonal relationships of Allied airmen, their friends and families, and the psychological and emotional effects that war had on entire communities.

An early metaphor in the film manifests when the Germans perform a surprise bombing raid on a British Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield. Although the airmen try to fill in the bomb craters left behind, the ground is still scarred under the covering, just as unseen traumas can be the result of being under extreme duress.

We first see a derelict British airfield, complete with an empty control tower at the end of the field, and a crew room. In the crew room are faded posters of pinup girls and the name “Johnny” scribbled on the wall. It’s a forlorn scene as the narrator hints at what originally went on in the place.

Then things warp back in time to the year 1940 as novice pilot Peter Penrose (John Mills) arrives at his first duty station at that airfield, which is now staffed and operational. After finding his room, he meets his bomber squadron’s commander, the tall and dapper Flight Lt. David Archdale (Michael Redgrave). After settling into his quarters, Penrose also meets the airfield’s head honcho, Squadron Leader Carter (Trevor Howard).

Archdale and Carter take the dutiful and eager-to-fight Penrose under their wings, and although Penrose has some initial issues landing his bomber, the inexperienced pilot seems to have potential. Carter doesn’t blame Penrose for having only had 15 hours of flight training time. He is really irritated that so many inexperienced pilots are being sent to active RAF airfields and into combat.

 Lt. David Archdale (Michael Redgrave, L) meets young pilot Peter Penrose (John Mills), in “Johnny in the Clouds.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Lt. David Archdale (Michael Redgrave, L) meets young pilot Peter Penrose (John Mills), in “Johnny in the Clouds.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Carter’s plane is soon shot down, and Archdale then takes command. One of the things that the men do to ease their stress is to visit a local community hub called the Golden Lion Hotel. While there, Penrose meets small-town girl Iris Winterton (Renée Asherson).

Things skip ahead to 1942, and Penrose is now an experienced pilot. However, he’s also exhibiting signs of battle fatigue and is quite rude to the other men on base. Due to Penrose's growing irritability, Archdale grounds him and relegates him to controller duty in the control tower.

Archdale is also killed in combat air action. His wife, Miss Todd (Rosamund John), is deeply affected by his passing. Although Penrose has been successful in courting Iris by then, he backs out of their relationship since he doesn’t want to sadden her should he also die in the skies.

By this time, the Americans have arrived to fight alongside the Brits. Penrose meets a charismatic young pilot named Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery). As Penrose and Hollis become friends, Toddy also develops a fondness for the recently arrived American pilot.

This wartime drama shows the patriotism of the British people in scenes, such as depicting British planes roaring above small towns as heads turn skyward with pride. This sort of national reverence may be considered sentimental by some folks these days, but it shows how times have changed.

The acting is remarkable. All of the lead and supporting actors play their parts with ample panache, particularly Douglass Montgomery as Johnny Hollis. His eyes sparkle with jubilance and optimism, despite his character being a combat pilot with a wife and child at home. Rosamund John as war widow Miss Todd displays her complex relationships with both Penrose and Hollis, and she functions as a nurturing communal linchpin for the men of war.

 Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) bonds with war widow Miss Todd (Rosamund John), in “Johnny in the Clouds.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) bonds with war widow Miss Todd (Rosamund John), in “Johnny in the Clouds.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

In retrospect, this touching film benefits from a lack of aerial combat scenes, since it allows us to focus on some of the deeper aspects of all of the characters involved. As it already weaves several themes together, combat scenes might have created a disjointed mess. A film doesn't need special effects to capture one’s attention.

As it is, “Johnny in the Clouds” is an impressive war drama with a solid cast, positive messages about duty and camaraderie, and a bittersweet ending that stays with you long after the ending credits have rolled.

“Johnny in the Clouds” is available on Amazon Prime, and YouTube.
‘Johnny in the Clouds’ Director: Anthony Asquith Starring: Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Rosamund John Not Rated Running Time: 1 hour, 27 minutes Release Date: June 16, 1945 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.