Battle of Britain marks the opening salvo of Fox and MGM's Father's Day onslaught, a collection of World War II movies in high definition that also includes The Longest Day, Patton, and A Bridge Too Far. The movie opens in 1940 as the British RAF has been ravaged by the German blitzkrieg in France. Faced with an imminent invasion on its own shores, Air Chief Marshal Dowding (Laurence Olivier) has every available fighter made ready to defend Great Britain. The RAF is outmanned and outgunned by the Luftwaffe, with its some six hundred aircraft pitted against a German force of some two thousand. The British have the advantage of radar technology and its distance from continental Europe, but the only way in with the RAF is truly a match for the Third Reich is in the high spirits of its soldiers. There's a frenzied attempt to bring fledgling pilots up to speed to counteract the German forces, but it's a wasted effort as the Luftwaffe swoops in and effortlessly destroys half of the RAF's planes. Rather than limp to a seemingly inevitable conclusion, the RAF steels itself when London comes under direct assault, prompting a retaliatory bombing in Berlin that ensnares Hitler into the campaign. Hitler demands that London be leveled to the ground, but as the RAF has a chance to rebuild its forces, steel its resolve, and ally itself with skilled pilots from throughout the globe, it would prove to be one of the Third Reich's most crippling miscalculations.
The Battle of Britain is one of the most remarkable stories of the second World War, and this makes it all the more disappointing that it doesn't translate to a better film. It feels somewhat like a lazy '60s roadshow, throwing fistfuls of money at the screen and convincing scores of high-wattage talent to sign on while never really bothering with anything all that compelling for them to do. Despite the rambling list of fourteen names plastered across the cover art, including the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Ian McShane, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer, many of them are only featured briefly throughout Battle of Britain. None of the characters exhibit any real lingering spark of personality, and honestly, even as I was watching the movie, I doubt I could've correctly named more than one or two of them. There's no 'hero' to rally around, and their subplots are just the usual star-crossed love stories, inconfidence, and fear for their loved ones in this time of war. The dramatic side of Battle of Britain really just feels like a series of loosely connected, half-written vignettes instead of a cohesive story. The dialogue is as inept as the storytelling, particularly one cringe-worthy bit where Susannah York is barked at not to light a cigarette since so many gas mains have ruptured. Meanwhile, damn near everything around her is engulfed in flames. The film tries to give the Germans somewhat of an even keel, following the conflict from their perspective and not treating its rank and file like moustache-twirling, cackling cariactures. These moments are intriguing but are too cursory to be all that compelling. The pacing drags to a halt whenever the nimble Spitfires aren't in flight, and with the overwhelming majority of its first 45 minutes focusing on the "Britain" side of the movie rather than the "Battle", it's quite a slow burn to arrive there.
Battle of Britain makes up for its shortcomings by a dazzling show of aerial acrobatics. Even with today's digital wizardry, the scale of these battles -- with seemingly hundreds of warplanes in the air -- has been rarely matched. The assaults are breathtakingly staged, and its mix of models and actual aircraft is surprisingly seamless, even with as unforgiving and revealing as high definition can be. Filmed in the early days of New Hollywood as more visceral violence was being embraced, the attacks throughout Battle of Britain are brutal and uncompromising. We see the lingering terror in bullet-riddled cockpits engulfed in blood and flames. It's one thing to see a fiery explosion mid-air and smoldering shards of an aircraft careen to the ground below, but Battle of Britain's determination to show that there are men meeting a grisly death inside these planes makes it all the more harrowing. Battle of Berlin does an amazing job conveying the scale and destructiveness of the conflict, from the massive formations of fighter planes in-flight to seemingly miles of scorched earth, billowing with pillars of smoke.
Battle of Britain lifts its title from one of the most engaging chapters of World War II, but it feels more like a hollow spectacle than a harrowing wartime drama. The craftsmanship and awe-inspiring scope behind its dazzling battle sequences alone make Battle of Britain an easily recommended rental, but with so many superior WWII movies making their bow on Blu-ray alongside this one, it's difficult to recommend as a purchase sight-unseen. Rent It.
Video: Battle of Britain doesn't take full advantage of the technology Blu-ray has to offer, placing the 133 minute film on a single-layer disc with an MPEG-2 encode. While a more efficient codec would've been preferred -- if only to free up enough space for the DVD's extras to be carried over -- Battle of Britain still looks phenomenal in high definition.
I was caught off-guard but the strength of its depth and dimensionality. The scope image is generally smooth, crisp, and brimming with fine detail, often looking decades more recent than Battle of Britain really is. Film grain remains tight and unintrusive throughout, showing no signs of being smeared away by overzealous video noise reduction. Some moments do exhibit somewhat of an artificially oversharpened appearance, but it's not a constant concern. There is some scattered softness that becomes particularly pronounced in any shot with optical effects, although that's to be expected. The palette tends to be somewhat cold but generally emerges as natural and nicely saturated. Wear is limited to just a couple of tiny and easily ignored flecks throughout.
One odd hiccup I noticed a couple of times throughout the movie is that portions of the frame devolve into a speckled mess. There's a fine mesh behind the pilot just before the twenty minute mark, for example. It and the edge of the aircraft in the lower-left hand of the frame are bizarrely unstable, with portions appearing and disappearing frame-by-frame. Strangely, there are quite a few other shots from the same angle that are absolutely perfect. The same thing happens again after a plane bursts into flames 122 minutes in. All sense of definition around the cockpit fades away, devolving into a series of loosely connected black specks. This looks more like a series of botched optical effects than a compression error, but it's inept enough to be distracting.
While the video quality isn't wholly consistent from start to finish, I was frequently startled by how wonderful Battle of Britain looked in high definition, and that's the best I can hope for in any Blu-ray disc.
Audio: I'm usually skeptical whenever a monaural movie is remixed to 5.1, too often suffering from gimmicky pans and awkward directionality or barely making use of the other channels at all. Battle of Britain easily ranks among the most effective remixes I've ever heard, though, and MGM has provided this outstanding effort as part of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Battle of Britain as a film is defined by its startling aerial assaults, and that's by far the greatest strength of this remix. Fighters swiftly swoop from one channel into the next, and sprays of gunfire blaze across the room. This tremendous sense of directionality comes through as natural and consistently convincing. The stems for the score must have been in immaculate condition, roaring from every speaker with exceptional strength and clarity. The film's dialogue sounds somewhat thin and slightly dated, but it remains intelligible and reasonably clear throughout. The lower frequencies aren't as punishing as a more recent war movie would be, of course, but there's still quite a heft to the gunfire, dozens of explosions, and rumbling engines. The highest compliment that can be paid to this sort of audio is that it doesn't sound like a remix -- as if this is how Battle of Britain had been deliberately shaped from the start -- and that's exactly how I feel about this first-rate effort.
The lossless audio is primarily in English, and the brief stretches anchored around soldiers from other countries are accompanied by player-generated subtitles.
Battle of Britain features several other soundtracks as well. An alternate 5.1 mix pairs the film with Sir William Walton's original score. This other track isn't nearly as robust as the lossless audio, and the original score is meek and timid compared to the rousing bombast that took its place. A thin monaural track has also been provided. Other audio options include a 5.1 French dub and subtitle streams in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean.
Extras: Aside from the alternate score by Sir William Walton, MGM hasn't bothered with any extras at all for Battle of Britain -- not even a trailer. This is particularly disappointing since the most recent DVD edition is a two-disc set with an audio commentary and a feature-length assortment of documentaries and featurettes.
Conclusion: Battle of Britain is the least essential of Fox and MGM's World War II onslaught, and as deeply impressed as I am by its dazzling aerial acrobatics, the remainder of the movie fails to engage. The film looks and sounds tremendous, but the discarding of all of the extras from the DVD, its wholly unwarranted $39.99 sticker price, and the fact that there are so many superior WWII films coming out the same week make Battle of Britain a difficult sell on Blu-ray. Rent It.
Image disclaimer: The images scattered throughout this review have been culled from the film's Wikipedia entry and aren't meant to represent its presentation on Blu-ray.