Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant reviewed a fine plain-wrap disc of Battle of Britain back in May of 2003. At that time DVD fans were already asking what had happened to a special edition release of the picture, which was already out in Region 2. MGM had prepared two-disc special editions of several war and action films as early as 2001 but chose to wait before releasing them. More news about that in the evaluation section below; the body of this review has been adapted from the earlier notice.
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.
With the fiasco of Dunkirk finished 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 his 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. 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 faced by the defenders. Squadron leaders Michael Caine and Robert Shaw work with underdeveloped 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.
But actor-spotters will have plenty of fun. 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 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!"
The unfortunate 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 drawback had people mumbling in frustration in theaters. When planes blow up it's difficult to tell which pilots 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 even though it's completely true.
With so few planes and pilots, Air Marshall Dowding had to decide 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, Londoners 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. Ron Goodwin's main musical theme is a brassy call to a fox hunt, used every time the Spitfires take to the air.
Interestingly, the Luftwaffe side of the story works much better for having no starpower to flaunt. The German esprit de corps at the French villa at the start of hostilities contrasts well with the downhearted misery later on, when glum pilots sit 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 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?
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.
Now that the distribution of MGM product is controlled by Sony, a number of discs that were prepared several years ago are finally appearing. It's almost morbid to see a new disc with extras credited to scores of MGM employees, almost all of whom were let go at the end of last Spring.
What happened in 2001 is this: MGM Home Video completed or was about to begin double-disc collector's sets of several high-profile action/war films, in many cases replacing older single-disc versions (like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) that were starting to show up in remainder bins. But management put the brakes on the special editions because of new deals with giant retail outfits like Wal-Mart. The big retail sellers were given preferential attention because one sales deal could move literally millions of units, eliminating some distributor's cuts along with extra warehousing and shipping. Just as the special editions were being put into the works, MGM discovered that sales for older plain-wrap discs like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly suddenly sold hundreds of thousands of copies at the discount prices these giant outlets could offer. Why spend a lot of money on expensive special editions when the old discs were suddenly so profitable?
Region 1 Special Editions for Battle of Britain, A Bridge too Far were all finished and shelved, along with sets for titles like The Great Escape, and RoboCop that were held back for a shorter period of time. They came out in Region 2 almost immediately.
The Collector's Edition of Battle of Britain is a handsome and improved presentation that will be of particular interest to WW2 buffs. Savant remembers seeing a pricey1969 coffee table book with many color photos from the film shoot, and always wondered where they got all the airplanes to put together such a big production.
Disc one has the feature, which is said to be a newer transfer than the older disc, with a corrected Winston Churchill quote and a correct ending music cue (I'm taking this on faith). Also, several scenes on the first disc were subtitled that weren't in the original theatrical release, and these are said to have been changed. This pressing also lists two audio tracks in addition to a commentary with director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger), aerial sequence director Bernard Williams and war historian Paul Annett. A third track is said to have the alternate music score by William Walton that in most territories was replaced by Ron Goodwin's 'tally-ho' flavored themes. Savant listened to the two scores and found that the music, at least where I checked, was identical. Walton's special battle in the sky concerto plays over an extended sequence near the end and was retained in both versions. (NOTE .. I have to say I'm not sure about this ... perhaps there are three tracks and I'm only finding two ... I may be able to play the disc soon for a person in a position to give me definitive answers.)
Disc two adds a couple of more hours of good featurettes. Michael Caine hosts the English TV special The Battle for the Battle of Britain, which starts with a 1969 London street interview section in which a number of passersby can't recall what the Battle of Britain was. Caine takes us through the history of the summer and fall of 1940 and then we see at least half an hour of behind-the-scenes footage of planes being rounded up, put in flying condition and assembled as a cinematic air force. Politics gets involved when the main German advisor has a difference of opinion on the conduct of the Luftwaffe. But nobody seems concerned that the German aircraft are easily acquired from the Spanish Air Force - Franco's Fascists inherited them from the Nazis way back in the Spanish Civil War.
Three MGM-produced featurettes begin with a new making-of docu with good interviews from technicians, crew members and actors -- Susannah York appears in an odd interview that makes her look like she's sitting up in her bed after a night's sleep. A second and rather overlong docu will probably appeal mostly to aviation fans - it's about the logistical difficulties in coordinating Saltzman's 'air force' for shooting. One of the principal interviewees is a WW2 buff that happened to be associated with films and had experience as an air-traffic controller. A third interview piece is a thoughtful testimony from an old surviving pilot of the battle, and how he and hundreds of other 20 year-old boys tackled the job of opposing Goering's seasoned combat pilots.
A fourth extra is a montage of production stills set to music. The packaging is a glossy unfolding sleeve with handsome color design. This Battle of Britain disc will probably do well. I remember liking the picture when it was new but not being excited about it - at the time it was considered an expensive non-hit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Battle of Britain rates:
Supplements: 1969 British television show, new featurettes, still montage
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2003
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 from the skies of SE England in 1940 - Glenn Jones
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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