The Lost Aviator

“When I first went into the story I thought he was guilty for sure.”

Writer/director Andrew Lancaster addresses a crowd of conspiracy theorists, romantics, historians, family and friends at the Australian premiere of his documentary The Lost Aviator. The story follows his great-uncle Bill Lancaster’s affair with socialite Jessie “Chubbie” Miller, who together attempted a record-breaking 1920’s flight from England to Darwin via Egypt, India and Singapore.

The two are later embroiled in a love triangle with American writer Haden Clarke who dies one night from a gunshot wound in a house occupied by the trio. The subsequent trial and media circus, as well as accounts from Andrew Lancaster, historians and his family are the focus of much of the documentary. Speculation about the events of that evening is varied, well-researched and engaging, challenging the audience to make their own conclusions as they are drawn into a real-life whodunit.

“Noni Couell (producer) and I would always be debating it,” said Andrew Lancaster. “Whether Bill did it or not and you can never be sure, it’s my belief that what Chubby said in court was a fabrication… whatever happened I have an image in my mind of a lot of booze, a lot of arguing.”

Told partly through interviews, available footage of the lovers and a humorously melodramatic decades-old miniseries on the scandal, The Lost Aviator succeeds by inviting viewers to actively discern the facts, rather than labouring one conclusion or another, leaving a film that can be actively debated long after everyone has left the cinema.

The Lost Aviator even manages intrigue in the parts that don’t deal with potential homicide, painting a vivid picture of the idyllic aspects of Bill Lancaster’s life – jetting off in a 1920’s jet attempting to break world records being just about as classically-romantic an image you can get from the past century. His famous final voyage to break another record, detailed at length in the film, is but the concluding aspect of a highly sensational story replete with sex scandals and courtroom drama.

Most interesting about the film are the candid interviews with and co-operation by his family, who are at times both critical of the documentary itself and the less-ideal aspects of Bill Lancaster’s character.  “What we found when we had the family conflict was that we suddenly had something in the present,” said Andrew Lancaster. “The repercussions of what happened there is still affecting our family.”

The Australian premiere was attended by a number of family members and descendants of Bill Lancaster (voiced in the film by Ewen Leslie); I even found myself chatting to one of Andrew Lancaster’s cousins in the line outside who was excited to see what her relative had done with the story. When asked what his father thought of the film, Andrew Lancaster went so far as to respond that his father was in the audience,  inviting him up to give his own account. The numerous personal reports by Bill Lancaster’s descendants and biographers in the film are very varied and thought-provoking, rendering an enjoyable film that much more engrossing.

A refreshing take on an old story, The Lost Aviator is a highly absorbing documentary which will be the deserved subject of many a debate.

The Lost Aviator is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival