Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Rocket Post film Fact and Fiction

I achieved many of the objectives for today while catching up with writing two pieces and commencing to write for today. The inside of the car was vacuumed, the wind and rear screens were cleaned inside and out, and the water container replenished with a proportion of propriety cleaner added. The plants were given closer attention as they have been a disappointment which much green and less flowers. The explanation is using last year’s bulbs plus an inexpensive quantity of daffodils. Hopefully the new Tulips will make difference. The clothes washing and ironing are now for tomorrow, as is the purchase of salads and plain croissants for breakfast, mending the trouser top and paying the credit card for the month. I contacted Durham cricket club to enquire if the was a publication date for the edition of Wisden which will show Durham as County Champions for 2008. The experience of Sussex is in mind who after gaining the title for the first time could not keep the momentum going and had a poor season immediately following

It was bright but cold morning for a walk into town, going for a copy of the free newspaper, a bacon roll brunch and coffee and purchase of a milk and a melon. I was half way into the town centre before realising that although I had shampooed the hair I had forgotten to shave. I had intended also having a hair cut but it was busy and the barber himself was not in evidence.

In the evening I watched a delightful film which contained a smidgen of fact. The Rocket Post film was completed three years after the death of the British actor and Director Stephen Whittaker and therefore he did not get to see his creation because of severe funding problems. The is one of those ‘I wish it had been true’ tales of a German rocket scientist who in the 1930’s had a dream of sending postal mail via a rocket and was not interested in its military potential and could not find financial interest in his own country and came to England in the hope of attracting funds from the Royal Mail. Thus far the story is accurate, including the failure of the first experiment. This took place in 1934 and the British government then deported him back to Germany where he was arrested on suspicion of helping the British. He survived this and my research does not reveal if he passed on his technology to the government or continued his research but says that he had served in the German air force during World War II and then became a furniture dealer in West Germany continuing his interest in rocket making as a hobby. In 1964 there was an accident which killed three people and this led to a ban on private rocket experiments which was eased in the 1970’s enabling him to continue his work on using rockets to convey mail. He died in 1985 at the age of 77 and again there is no reference to having married or any family.

Nor is there evidence that he ever visited, let alone carried out experiments in Scotland. In the film, unbeknown to the Prime Minister, the Gerhard Zucher character who unusually retains his real name in the film, and his assistant, are taken to a remote Scottish Island to attempt to develop a rocket which will take mail back and forth to the mainland. The idea for the continuing experiment appears to have originated with someone who recognised the military potential and the local Member of Parliament/Laird who pretends that the scheme is compensation for the fact that the islanders cannot have the telephone line they are pressing for because there are less than 100 of them.

The film follows a well worn path with the islander reluctant to show hospitality or interest in the project and the two Germans, one the inventor and the other the builder of the rocket and launch platform made of timber until they have proved themselves in ways acceptable. This occurs when a whale is stranded on the beach and released to the ocean through the unlikely alliance of the scientist and the uncle of the only attractive young woman we see on the island, who hates Germans, because it emerges he was a P.O.W during the first world war (and as emerges even later he has learnt to speak German)

The islanders live in comparative primitive conditions with no electricity or internal plumbing. This was common for rural community before after World War II and I used to visit a married cousin to a farm worker where the lighting was by oil lamp and the toilet was a distance from the house which created problems at night and in winter.

The first experiment on the Island fails as had that conducted in England and at this point the scientist realises that his companion is sabotaging the project in order that the technology does not fall into the hands of England and that he is loyal to the Fascist regime and supports the military potential of their work. A visiting USA ornithologist is also showing great interest in the project. When the saboteur leaves it looks as if the project has failed but fortunately a former Clydeside shipyard worker has returned to his island home where he is a thorn in the flesh of the Laird because of his tendency to fish the salmon and take the pheasants from the estate as a means of living. He helps the scientist to build a third rocket with material already supplied despite an order from Downing Street that the project should stop, and this time the rocket works and delivers mail across the water onto the land of the Laid for onward transmission. This results in materials for a fourth rocket being delivered.

Meanwhile there are two development which make the film dramatic, romantic and whimsical. The niece has grown up with an understanding that she will marry another islander who has trained successfully as a doctor and covers the island from his mainland practice but is on the verge of moving to the city where he has prospects. However she feels the man is more a brother friend than husband and falls in love with the young scientist who reciprocates. At first the uncle is hostile but gives the relationship his blessing and two become lovers for a brief period and are given the blessing by the doctor friend and the uncle At the very point when the story is to have a happy ending, a German submarine arrives off shore with an armed landing party who give the scientist the choice of returning or being killed. Fortunately the uncle has spotted them arriving and with the adult male islanders islands and their sporting guns, comes to the rescue and the Germans are sent packing. However this is not the end of the situation because the former assistant returns and informs the scientist that his sister and her children have been taken into custody and will not be released unless he returns and which he feels he has no alternative leaving his distraught lover. Although the uncle recognises that he has no alternative , he and the islanders hope he will be able to return and become part of their community.

Sadly the scientist is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for treason on his return but the sentence will be commuted if he agrees to work on the military application of the technology. He refuses and is shot, having been allowed to write one letter to his lover. The final scene is when the islands have built the last rocket from the available materials, a bigger and more powerful and in which they fill with letters addressed to Gerhard Zucher.

The film has only had a limited showing in theatres in Scotland and yet it is a good film in the tradition of Whisky Galore and others chronicling the life and community spirit of the islanders. It is unlikely to appeal to the average Saturday night cinema audience but should be popular as a Family TV story on both sides of the Atlantic and in Germany because the scientist is shows as a man of peace rather than against his country per se. I am therefore surprised that the story and the film has remained largely obscure especially as the scientists had been dead for a decade and a half when it was made and for two decades when it was completed and released. I appreciate the financial difficulties which the independent film makers have in the UK but is such a good and commercial story that I cannot help being suspicious that that there is more to this tale than has so far been revealed.

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