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 rousing paean to the gallant defenders of Britain in the Spring and Summer of 1940 is a
fairly rousing thriller with impressive production values, but it's only moderately satisfying
as a dramatic experience. 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 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 simulated 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
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,
like 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 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.
We get the basics of the story, which is 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, Dowding decided to let the German bombers get through to London
them instead on their return flight to France, long after their fighter support had retired
from the field. The bombers would suffer steady attrition, while the English losses would be minimized.
This made excellent long-term sense, but was one of those essential military
decisions that would never survive public debate: 'We're defending you by not defending you'.
The practice became an emotional controversy, even though not following it would surely have led to the
collapse of air defenses altogether. What Battle of Britain fails to show, is that by
withstanding so gallantly 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, the part of the story showing the German side of things has no starpower to
flaunt, and works much better for it. The esprit de corps at the French villa at the start
of hostilities, contrasts well with the downhearted misery later on, 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:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.