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DVD SAVANT

Battle of Britain


Battle of Britain

1969 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 133 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Harry Andrews, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Curt Jurgens, Ian McShane, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Nigel Patrick, Christopher Plummer, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Robert Shaw, Patrick Wymark, Susannah York, Michael Bates, Tom Chatto, Robert Flemyng, Barry Foster, Edward Fox
Cinematography Freddie Young
Art Direction Bert Davey, William Hutchinson, Jack Maxsted, Gil Parrondo
Film Editor Bert Bates
Original Music Ron Goodwin, William Walton
Written by Wilfred Greatorex and James Kennaway
Produced by Benjamin Fisz, Harry Saltzman
Directed by Guy Hamilton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Battle of Britain and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang explain what James Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman did with some of the millions earned from their 007 franchise. This paean to the gallant defenders of Britain in the Spring and Summer of 1940 is a fairly rousing thriller with impressive production values, but as a dramatic experience it's only moderately satisfying. The main appeal is for WW2 aviation buffs, who will be knocked out by the incredible array of rare, authentic aircraft photographed in exciting action.

Synopsis:

With the fiasco of Dunkirk over, Britons expect a German invasion at any time. Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding (Lawrence Olivier) broods darkly, wondering how a depleted England can possibly defend itself. The German Luftwaffe begins well, striking at the country's airfield defenses but soon turn their attention to bombing London, a tactic that strengthens English resolve and allows Dowding to bolster the fighter corps with volunteer units from Poland and Czechoslovakia. England hangs on by its fingernails as modern warfare takes to the skies.

On the plus side, Battle of Britain is always fun to watch, just for its marvelous airplanes. The film is a production marvel. By 1968 real WW2 aircraft were rare and those flown by the Germans even moreso. Combing the continent, producer Saltzman found that the Spanish Air Force still had some of the glass-nosed Heinkel light bombers of the kind used against London. It's rather depressing that he rented them from a Fascist dictatorship that once had ties with Hitler, but with the entire world now crisscrossed with real weapons trade there's not much point in arguing the ethics of such a deal.

Saltzman's best move was to get the cooperation of Adolf Galland, a German ace who ran a club of ex-Luftwaffe pilots. As soon as money changed hands the planes started to appear out of nowhere, and when English enthusiasts came forward with Spitfires and Hurricanes stashed in barns, the Battle of Britain was ready to be waged once again.

Special effects are used in some scenes to put hundreds of planes into the sky, and radio controlled models are given a workout here and there to simulate crashes and midair explosions. The Stuka dive bombers are all models, for none of those planes survived. But there's no denying the majesty of seeing the real propellor-driven airplanes in formation, flying into battle like knights of the clouds. The pictorial effect of a sky-ful of zooming aircraft attests to the zeal of the fliers, many of whom were veterans of the battles pictured. How Saltzman kept all those planes fueled and flying, let alone how he secured the permits necessary to re-stage dogfights over England, is a wonder. The high level of thrills starts at the very beginning when a brace of Messerschmitts attacks across the French farmland, flying so low they barely clear the barnyard fences.

With the prodigious resources at its disposal it's a shame that Battle of Britain isn't more exciting on other levels. It suffers from the "star parade" syndrome, with the obvious prestige of the subject matter making it easy to attract superstar actors for tiny parts. Many of the names on the boxcover have only one or two scenes and the effect is to make actor-spotting more interesting than the storyline. Laurence Olivier is on hand for some sombre expository speeches about the desperate situation the defenders are enduring. The pilot leaders Michael Caine and Robert Shaw work with undeveloped characters. The details chosen show that the writers were unfamiliar with war-film clichés: when Caine takes off to fight we cut to his dog staring mournfully after him, a sure sign that his master ain't a-comin' back. Similarly, the predictable bad luck of flyer Ian McShane is used to hurriedly sketch a superficial account of how the Londoners withstood the bombing.

Actor-spotters will have fun, though. In one of the air-control rooms we have both The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Robert Flemyng, and the man covered with the mystery substance from Quatermass 2, Tom Chatto. Aren't you glad you aren't encumbered with these constant movie associations?

The weakest link is the romance cooked up for the married couple Christopher Plummer and Susannah York, which comes off as just a half-hearted tangent. Much better is her frantic reaction to seeing her female comrades killed by the score in a German air raid - just watching her trying to light a cigarette expresses a page's worth of anguished dialogue. There are other highlights: Edward Fox's delightful calm when he parachutes into a backyard, graciously accepting a cigarette from a little boy with a jolly, "Thanks ever so, old chap!"; a group of Polish fighters' undisciplined yammering over the air-to-air radios; Robert Shaw's paternalistic manner and his battle cry, "Don't just stand there, get one UP!"

It's unfortunate, but the truth is that when the pilots' faces are mostly covered and their voices filtered through their radios, we can't really tell Michael Caine from Christopher Plummer from Robert Shaw. Only after repeated viewings did Savant learn to recognize the main pilots by their muffled voices and eyebrows. This had people mumbling in frustration in theaters. When pilots are lost it's difficult to tell which ones are gone.

The basics of the story are certainly dramatic enough, but perhaps the details of the defense involve differences of opinion the film doesn't want to address, because the movie never gets past the superficial main points of history. Hitler's disastrous switch of tactics is explained as a consequence of an English raid on Berlin, itself precipitated by an accidental German bombing of London by one plane. That sounds rather like a petty exchange of blows compared to Air Chief Dowding's more controversial strategy.

With so few planes and pilots there was a big argument whether to intercept the bombers on their way to London or to wait and attack them on their way back to France when they had little or no fighter support. This surely caused a lot of heated policy discussions.  1 What Battle of Britain fails to show, is that by so gallantly withstanding the daily barrages, the populace of London were active combatants as well. There are deep emotional-patriotic ties that the movie doesn't fully embrace while opting instead for "rally cry" heroics. The main musical theme is a sort of brassy call to a fox hunt, used every time the Spitfires take to the air.

Interestingly, with no starpower to flaunt the part of the story showing the German side works much better. The esprit de corps at the French villa at the start of hostilities contrasts well with the downhearted misery later on, with the glum pilots sitting at a table with unused place settings representing their fallen comrades. Fatso Goering is portrayed as a horrible gross idiot in a baby-blue uniform, incapable of dealing with bad news. The Nazi rally back in Berlin is rather hollow, but a scene on the German streets during an air raid is unique for a film of this kind - how many war movies are there that show the allied bombing from the German point of view?

For sheer spectacle, modern CGI just can't replace Battle of Britain's this-is-real thrill of real airplanes flying in real skies. The optical effects are on the poor side, with bad animation for burning planes and some fairly unconvincing night shots of London on fire. And the radio controlled models sometimes show their scale. Those wires that dangle from the crashing planes? Radio antennas, what else?


MGM's DVD of Battle of Britain looks great, much sharper than their earlier laserdisc. My particular screener disc had an egregious flaw that made it practically unplayable (locking up; skipping across chapters without warning) but I assume that it's not going to be that way on other copies. The only extra is a trailer.

Anyone seen the superior film Dark Blue World, which has scenes that take place in the battle of Britain? Shots and outtakes from Battle of Britain were very cleverly adapted for it, through difficult-to-detect CGI work.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Battle of Britain rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2003


Footnotes:

1. Glenn Jones straightens Savant out on some key Battle of Britain facts:

Enjoyed your review, as always. Am looking forward to getting this DVD, as have just about worn out my VHS tape.

But, I believe that you have reversed the positions that Dowding (and Park) took in the conduct of the battle, with the Big Wing theory advocated by Leigh-Mallory. It was Leigh-Mallory who advocated taking the time to assemble multiple squadrons together into a Big Wing, since they should be able to shoot down more German bombers, even though the extra time required for assembly would let the German bombers get through to the RAF airfields or other targets. It was Dowding who advocated forward interception of the German bombers before they were able to bomb their targets, even though it meant that single squadrons would have to intercept the bombers. Keith Park had been on Dowding's Fighter Command staff just prior to the Battle of Britain, and he and Dowding were in full agreement that this was the best tactic to use.

Park did try to use two squadrons to intercept raids when he could, with the Hurricanes attacking the bombers while Spitfires dealt with the fighter escort, but he just did not have enough warning time to assemble the squadrons necessary for Big Wings to be used in SE England if he wanted to try and stop the bombers from getting through.

This conflict in tactics resulted in Dowding and Park being replaced immediately after the Battle of Britain had been won, with Leigh-Mallory taking over 10 Group from Park. Dowding was overdue for retirement, and ending up being sent to the U.S. as part of the British purchasing mission. This assignment did not work out, and Dowding retired, his RAF career over. Park was transferred to Training Command, but later commanded the RAF at Malta, and in the Far East.

And the Big Wing, the few times it was actually able to make interceptions during the Battle of Britain, did NOT result in the expected increased kills. If Dowding had used the Big Wing, the RAF might have been effectively eliminated for the skies of SE England in 1940 - Glenn Jones

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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