Rebuilding a conquered city. Image: IMDb

Here’s one of the crazy things that happened in 1948.

Shortly after WWII, the German capital of Berlin was divided into four sections, controlled by foreign countries, namely, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The city itself was in the east part of the country, which would later become East Germany.

When the three anti-Soviet sectors of Berlin introduced a single currency (the Deutsche Mark), the Russians became Upset and began closing off the city by blocking highways and canals, and dismantling rail lines.

No goods were allowed in or out of the Western sectors, which would, of course, cause starvation and medical emergencies, among other things.

We’re probably giving you a simplified view of the situation, but the Allied countries’ response was dramatic. They decided to airlift supplies into Berlin, thereby leapfrogging the blockade. The airlift began in June, 1948, and lasted until September, 1949. This was the first big Flare-Up of the Cold War.

Sources say the Allies flew more than 250,000 missions during the 15-month period, and delivered nearly four million tons of food, coal, and other necessities.

You may be thinking, This would made a Great Movie. Well, Hollywood thought the same thing, and in 1950, Twentieth Century-Fox released The Big Lift.

Paul Douglas wants to boss Germans around. Image: Theodore Bruce

The Big Lift is an unusual movie. In some ways, it’s a product of its era; yet in other ways, it has timeless themes.

Because the Berlin Airlift was a recent event in moviegoers’ minds, the film assumes you know the Big Picture – the hows and whys of the blockade. However, it also explores the barbarism of war, and ways people cope while under foreign occupation.

The film stars a young Montgomery Clift as a flight engineer, and a middle-aged Paul Douglas as a ground-based traffic controller. These two men represent very different worldviews of the late 1940s.

Clift takes people at Face Value. He’s unscathed by WWII, and he believes in Hope and Optimism. He’s impressed by the resilient Berliners as they rebuild their city and clear away the residue of war. Here he meets a young widow (Cornell Borchers) with whom he falls in love.

Douglas, on the other hand is bitter and cynical. He was a prisoner in POW camp during the war, where he was treated brutally. He hates Germans, and doesn’t think Any Good Thing can come from returning to Germany.

Ironically, it’s Douglas’s character who finds redemption in confronting his past, while Clift returns to the U.S. having learned people aren’t always what they seem.

The real Berlin Airlift. Image:

The Big Lift was shot on location in Berlin, and it feels like an authentic portrayal of a strange place in a strange time. Many of the cast members were actual U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany.

This movie is also about airplanes, and director George Seaton gives us lots of footage from inside and outside the planes. You can’t help but be impressed by the planning it took to stage such an operation.

The film is, intentionally or not, divided into two parts. The first part is essentially a documentary about the logistics of the airlift. If you’re a history buff, you’ll love it, but it is a bit Thin when it comes to narrative.

The momentum doesn’t really Get Going until the second half, and by this time we’re well familiar with how Things Are Run in Berlin – and the U.S. Air Force – so we’re glad to dive into a story.

There are some fascinating slice-of-life scenes. For example, as Clift and Borchers ride the subway into the Russian sector, the train stops at the border. In the frantic few seconds before Russian guards board, passengers empty their bags and squirrel away purchases inside their coats and pockets. This is because the guards search everyone’s bags and take whatever interests them.

Even though The Big Lift is a bit lopsided in terms of storytelling, it’s well worth a watch. Sadly, it is has become part of the public domain, so it may be tricky to find a decent version.

Still, we encourage you to find it, to see how a remarkable rescue operation was used to beat Russian forces at their Own Game.


This post is part of THE AVIATION IN FILM Blogathon, hosted by Taking Up Room.

The Big Lift: starring Montgomery Clift, Paul Douglas, Cornell Borchers. Written & directed by George Seaton. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950, B&W, 120 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

22 Comment on “Leapfrogging a Soviet Blockade

  1. Pingback: The Aviation In Film Blogathon Has Arrived – Taking Up Room

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