The story of Bill Lancaster is a fascinating one. Having never heard of his daring adventures across the world I came into ‘The Lost Aviator’ completely cold, expecting something of a dry re-telling of an old school British aviator who got into some scrapes.
Fortunately ‘The Lost Aviator’ is so much more. It’s a romance, murder trial, globe trotting drama of Greek tragedy proportions.
Bill Lancaster started out as an RAF pilot before deciding to make a name for himself by being the first person to fly from England to Australia. Before setting off he meets “Chubbie” Miller, an Australian who asks to make the trip with him. On the arduous flight the two fall for each other and end up moving into together in LA after their flight brings them fame. This despite the fact that Bill Lancaster has a wife and children back in England. Whilst in Hollywood the couple took in writer Haden Clarke who was to write a book about their experiences together. Struggling for funds Lancaster went to Mexico to seek work as a pilot. Coming home he finds that Miller and Clarke have become engaged. His first night back in LA and Clarke mysteriously “commits suicide”. What follows is a sensational murder trial and a redemptive last flight to South Africa.
Learning about the life and times of Bill Lancaster is intriguing enough but the documentary throws a curve ball in that it is directed by his great nephew Andrew Lancaster. As well as talking heads assembled from the world of aviation and criminal law, Lancaster the director also incorporates members of his own family. The main question he has for them is whether or not they think their families hero committed the murder for which he was accused. Surprisingly the family’s verdict is varied from those who sadly believe he may have to those who strenuously deny it and chastise the director for looking to drag the family name through the gutter for the sake of his film – most vocally his own father who repeatedly chastises him on camera.
Lancaster’s research is extensive, retracing many of his great uncles’ footsteps, filling in holes by showing footage from the Australian mini-series ‘The Lancaster Miller Affair’. The final act post-murder trial takes an unexpectedly gut wrenching turn, that quietly turns the film from a “did he do it?” mystery into something far more unsettling. Particularly scenes with the pilot’s daughter, who is now 85, recounting stories of her father and his last years are particularly heart breaking and may bring a few tears to the eyes.
Bill Lancaster comes across as a fascinating character. Certainly driven by ego but also with a complicated love for the women in his life, it’s hard to fully like a man who would leave his wife and children across an ocean to start an affair but come the end of the film you will find it hard to not be charmed by him. ‘The Lost Aviator’ is the hidden gem we’ve been waiting for from this year’s London Film Festival.