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Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics
Chronologically, the set kicks off with Went the Day Well?, a remarkable and often shocking piece of wartime propaganda about "The Battle of Bramley End," a typical English village overrun by German paratroopers expertly disguised as British troops. Adapted from Graham Greene's short story The Lieutenant Died Last, the film opens with a prologue set in the future, technically qualifying this as science fiction as well: "Nothing was said about it till after the war was over," says a friendly villager, directly addressing the camera, "and Hitler got what was coming to him." He then points to a gravestone bearing German names.
The prologue may have been an afterthought, since the picture's first half would have been more effective had the audience, like the residents of Bramley End, not been aware that the friendly British troops who roll into town on lorries are in fact the vanguard of a German invasion. But, one suspects, that if 1942 audiences hadn't been armed with the knowledge ahead of time that the town would ultimately emerge victorious, then the incredible violence to follow would have been too horrible to bear.
The German deception is nearly flawless, with only a few minor clues raising suspicion. Once they reveal themselves, Kommandant Orlter, alias Major Hammond (Basil Sydney), orders most of the population into the local church, while others are forced to share their homes with German guards to keep up appearances with deliverymen, letter carriers and others passing through town. The brave people of Bramley End refuse to give up without a fight, however, and plot a counter-offensive, unaware that one of their most respected citizens, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), is a fifth columnist in league with the Germans.
Despite audience awareness of the soldiers' true identity, Went the Day Well?'s early scenes are highly suspenseful. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared audiences for the cold brutality of the Germans and desperate violence of Bramley End's ordinary citizens, which is taken to harrowing extremes, even by modern standards. While not at all graphic, it's disconcerting to see elderly women bayoneted and blown-up, children shot, a British woman hacking a German to death with an axe, etc., particularly in a setting one doesn't usually associate with this kind of wartime violence.
That such a film could be released in Britain at all suggests that its government felt the picture would work both as anti-German propaganda and to prepare British moviegoers for a worst-case scenario, an invasion still very much a possibility when the film was made, and what they might find themselves up against.
Not surprisingly, the Germans are depicted only in the bluntest, most cold-blooded terms, but these wartime stereotypes are still thrown out of whack somewhat because the faces of the enemy are familiar British ones: Basil Sydney, David Farrar, and James Donald among them. Though it certainly works on an emotional level, the German plan is almost absurdly far-fetched (though movies from The Eagle Has Landed to Red Dawn have borrowed many of its ideas). The Germans speak flawless English, complete with regional accents, a conceit that might have been more believable had a German or two been among the leads, so that the slightest hint of a non-native accent could be perceptible. Conversely, if one accepts its premise, the playing out of this idea is dramatized very believably, with heavy casualties on both sides (including many British women and children) with no punches pulled.
The Dam Busters, based on a true story, is equally exceptional, a marvelous picture chronicling efforts to destroy three dams in Germany's Ruhr Valley, whose hydro-electric might is vital to the Nazi's raw steel factories. The dams' masonry is too thick for conventional bombs, which would have to be so heavy even the largest aircrafts couldn't carry them, and the waters behind the dams are fitted with nets precluding the use of torpedoes. But aeronautical engineer Dr. Barnes N. Wallis (Michael Redgrave) has come up with a plan: he conceives a "bouncing bomb" that, dropped from an extremely low altitude, will skip along the surface of the water, hit the inside wall of the dam, sink about 30 feet and upon exploding use the physics of the water to breach it. The idea is so outrageous few think it can ever succeed, and much of the film follows Wallis's hard climb to put his plan into action.
As the bouncing bombs inch their way toward reality, Wallis becomes friends with the wing commander, Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), who has been chosen to lead the 617 Squadron into western Germany, for the exciting finale that was an obvious influence on Star Wars (1977).
The Dam Busters is a terrific and in many ways unique picture. Its hero is a late-middle-aged scientist who's neither cute and doddering nor irascible and eccentric. As presented here, Wallis is a quiet family man who's not even a genius particularly. Indeed, it's his determination to get it right, to apply his talent for physics to aid the war effort that makes him so heroic. That the film avoids the usual clichés about such characters (so prevalent in contemporary American sci-fi), that it uses real science and makes it accessible within the context of a war movie is almost miraculous.
There's also a nice, understated friendship between Wallis and Gibson. They have nothing in common, but Gibson's faith in Wallis's theories and their shared interest in the mission draw them together. Redgrave is a joy to watch, playing him both somewhat meek yet confident. He's excited when Gibson expresses an interest in understanding the science that will make the bomb work. In another scene, when Wallis is told by a Ministry Official, "You say you need a Wellington Bomber for test drops. They're worth their weight in gold. Do you really think the authorities will lend you one? What possible argument could I put forward to get you a Wellington?" Wallis replies, "Well, if you told them I designed it, do you think that might help?" It's one of the best films ever about science and scientists.
But that's just for starters. The Dam Busters also does a great job capturing the little details of squadron life, especially the nervous hours preceding a dangerous mission. R.C. Sherriff adapted his screenplay from books written by the real Guy Gibson and Paul Brickhill. Brickhill, the author of the non-fiction work The Great Escape (the basis for the 1963 film), was unusually good at capturing little details usually missed in official war histories, and much of what's good about The Dam Busters bears his unmistakable stamp. In one scene, for instance, the problem of flying so close to the water at night, at an altitude of just 150 feet (later dropped even further, to just 60 feet) meant that their altimeters essentially would be useless. A solution to the problem is discovered at a music hall, where Gibson notices how two spotlights converge on a featured singer. Spotlights are soon fixed to the aircraft and by shining the light straight down they're able to measure distances to the inch. Director Michael Anderson also lingers on details like the loading of fuel and ammunition onto the planes before the mission, and the leisureliness of the pre-flight serves to increase tension. The mission itself is explained so well that once it's underway it's easy to follow exactly what's going on and what needs to be done to make it a success.
The Dam Busters is regarded as one of the great British films in Britain, but remains relatively undiscovered in America. One of the reasons for this may have something to do with the unfortunate name given Gibson's black Labrador, who plays an important role in the story. The beloved dog's name: Nigger, resulting in, as you can imagine, lots of "C'mon, boy! Here, Nigger! Down, Nigger," etc. When the film was first released in America, distributor Warner Bros. dubbed in "Trigger" whenever the name was uttered, which probably only drew further attention to the problem. For this reviewer, the name is basically a non-issue since it was, after all, the name of the real Guy Gibson's pooch, and the dog was obviously adored by everyone on the base. While, obviously, it would be an extremely offensive name in this supposedly enlightened day and age, it is part of this true story's history.
The special effects, especially at the climax, are elaborate and visually appealing enough that one easily forgives their datedness. Some shots of the bouncing bomb are almost comical, looking like a runaway dot at a sing-along. The structure, look, and even some of the dialogue of the finale was echoed more than 20 years later for the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars. One key difference is the absence of music for these scenes in The Dam Busters. Readers will want to watch this.
Despite the appearance of familiar faces like Robert Shaw, Basil Sydney, Nigel Stock, George Baker and others, the film almost exclusively zeroes in on Redgrave and Todd, though there are amusing little vignettes, like Laurence Naismith's single scene as an angry poultry farmer. (He's not credited but isn't that Ernest Thesiger on the committee in one scene?)
Just as The Dam Busters had the same eye for detail as writer Brickhill exhibited in The Great Escape, Guy Hamilton's 1955 film of The Colditz Story is practically a warm-up for that classic P.O.W. thriller. A half-century after it was made, The Colditz Story, also based on a true story, is dated only in that so many movies and TV shows (including Colditz, a 1972-74 series starring Robert Wagner, Edward Hardwicke, Dan O'Herlihy, and The Great Escape's David McCallum) that have followed in its wake. In 1955 though, the film must have seemed to seep with authenticity.
Unlike most P.O.W. shows that followed, which favored snow-covered barracks, lots of barbed wire and a just-out-of-reach Bavarian Forest, Colditz Castle is like something out of a Grimm fairy tale. As with The Great Escape, all the "bad eggs" - prisoners with a long record of escape attempts - have been thrown together into one "basket." The difference here is the international make-up of the camp, British prisoners have been placed with French, Dutch, and Polish ones, and their unwillingness to keep one another abreast of their respective escape plans proves their undoing in early scenes. (British and French tunnels collapse upon one another, much to their German guards' delight.)
Eventually there is some cooperation among the different nationalities but also some set-backs, including a fink among the prisoners, so that even several ingenious plans are discovered ahead of time. Once the mole has been ferreted out, hulking Scotsman "Mac" McGill (Christopher Rhodes) proposes a scheme to get him and buddy Pat Reid (John Mills) out, a complex plan involving sneaking through several floors of the castle before waltzing out the main sentry gate.
The Colditz Story is full of what have since become P.O.W. story clichés, including British practical jokes at the Germans' expense, ingenious diversions and forgeries, etc. Director John Sturges, when he made The Great Escape, seemed to realize that to be able distinguish characters he needed actors with strong screen personae, memorable faces, and/or individual quirks that made them memorable. In The Colditz Story, the only characters worth remembering fall into one or more of these categories: Lionel Jeffries and Richard Wattis, for instance, for their distinctive features, but even those played by stars Mills and Eric Portman (as SBO Colonel Richmond) are standard military types.
In some ways The Colditz Story lacks the gravity of later, bleaker P.O.W. movies. Only one character is ever killed on camera, and that scene doesn't live up to its full potential. Though they may be taunted by their captors (Denis Shaw is particularly good as a smarmy, gluttonous guard), at times the prisoners seem to have the run of the castle, including a bar well-stocked with bottles of Carlsberg.
But like The Great Escape, The Colditz Story has many great moments: clever bits of irony, well-planned escapes that fail miserably, extraordinarily simple sleights of hand that succeed.
With its budget of slightly more than $1 million, Dunkirk was the most expensive film from little Ealing Studios, and one of its last. Directed by Leslie Norman, the movie wisely chronicles the evacuation of Dunkirk from the limited perspectives of three main characters: Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee), a newspaper reporter eager to help ferry stranded British soldiers; John Holden (Richard Attenborough), a buckle manufacturer more concerned with making money off the "Phoney War" while clinging to hopes of sitting out the conflict in peace and comfort; and aging army Corporal "Tubby" Binns (John Mills), one of hundreds of thousands of troops trying to lead the men of his small platoon to safety.
Despite this intimate approach, the picture appears far more lavish than it actually was, particularly in scenes on the beach, choking with hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers who can do little but endure the endless German strafing and bombing of the beach while they await private and Navy vessels to take them across the Channel. Though shot entirely in England, these scenes pictorially resemble the later The Longest Day (1962) and are impressively staged.
Based on two novels, The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor and Dunkirk by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Maj. J.S. Bradford, the movie captures little details about Dunkirk heretofore unknown to this writer, such as the process of British military commandeering privately-owned boats, and how civilians volunteered to participate in the evacuation. One nice scene has Attenborough's Holden boasting of trimming the stern of his craft to make it an inch or two shorter than the 30-foot minimum for government use, thus circumventing the rules and allowing him to keep his pleasure boat.
By the early 1960s Bernard Lee had become typecast playing "M" in the James Bond movies while supplementing that income usually cast as police inspectors in Merton Park's Edgar Wallace series and other films. But during the 1950s he played a wider range of roles, and his part in Dunkirk afforded Lee one of the best of his long career. In one sense it's a clichéd character, the older man eager to "do his bit" for the war effort, but his reactions to Holden's selfishness and low-key determination are memorable. Attenborough's character is fleshed out in interesting ways; he's more sympathetic in a scene that shows his wife's (Patricia Plunkett) nerve-wracked inability to test a gas mask on their infant child, one that envelops the screaming baby.
At fifty-one, John Mills was way too old to be completely believable as a lowly corporal, but his performance is so good one hardly notices. His lieutenant killed early on, Binns has no choice but take charge of his men in a seemingly hopeless retreat to the beach. As with Lee, Mills's character is straightforwardly presented, one of simple common sense, and equally memorable.
With a premise similar to the earlier Wages of Fear (1953), Ice Cold in Alex (1958) again stars John Mills, this time with bleached-blonde hair, leading a small group across the desert aboard an Austin K2/Y ambulance, hoping to reach Alexandria while the German Afrika Korps take control of the continent's northern coastal cities.
An alcoholic also suffering from battle fatigue, Capt. Anson (Mills) flees Tobruk with MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and two young nurses, Sisters Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare, later in Hammer's Plague of the Zombies). Soon after departing, they pick up an Afrikaner South African officer, Capt. Van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), who may or may not be a German spy. Very early in the story Denise is mortally wounded by German gunfire.
The bulk of the film has the little band barely three steps ahead of the Germans, whom they encounter several times, along with a minefield, mechanical problems with the ambulance, and a treacherous trek across the Qattara Depression, whose crusty surface belies a soft, quicksand-like underbelly, like a spoiled pudding, as one says.
Adapted by Christopher Landon and T.J. Morrison from Landon's 1957 novel, Ice Cold in Alex is one of the great underrated British war films, relying as it does on a series of setbacks the limited number of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, logically overcome. The unforgiving desert setting, real enough for the actors as much as the characters they play, Anson resolving to abstain from drink until they can enjoy an ice-cold lager in "Alex," bonding them together.
Even after multiple viewings, the setbacks, particularly a painful one near the end, are tense and deeply engrossing. The four leads are wonderful: the bitter, complex Mills; the mesmerizingly beautiful yet completely believable Syms; the seasoned Australian veteran Andrews; and, cast against type, the mysterious Quayle. The payoff at the end regarding his character is especially satisfying.
Video & Audio
Film Movement's release apparently sources earlier masters; all but Dunkirk have been released to Blu-ray in Britain over the past decade or so, while Dunkirk was released in Australia and perhaps elsewhere. Though some of these masters are several years old, the black-and-white transfers all look excellent, with Went the Day Well? in its original 1.37:1 standard format, and The Colditz Story, Dunkirk, and Ice Cold in Alex in 1.66:1 widescreen. The Dam Busters may have started shooting in 1.37:1 standard ratio, but it premiered in London in May 1954 in a cropped widescreen format called Metroscope. The Blu-ray, however, is 1.37:1 standard. Audio throughout is LPCM 2.0 mono. None of the titles have subtitle options, a shame as some American viewers may have trouble with the occasionally thick regional accents.
With the exception of its excellent, full-color booklet, all of the supplements appear to have been culled from earlier non-U.S. releases. They include: (For The Colditz Story) "Colditz Revealed," a 54-minute featurette; (for The Dam Busters) "The Making of ‘The Dam Busters,'" "Sir Barnes Wallis Documentary," "617 Squadron Remembers," "Footage of the Bomb Tests," and "'The Dam Busters' Premiere," featurettes totaling more than two hours; (for Dunkirk) "Dunkirk Operation Dynamo Newsreel," "Young Veteran," "Interview with Sean Barrett," and "John Mills Home Movie Footage"; (for Ice Cold in Alex) "Extended Clip from ‘A Very British War Movie' Documentary," "John Mills Home Movie Footage," "Interview with Melanie Williams," "Steve Chibnall on J. Lee Thompson," and "Interview with Sylvia Syms." A trailer and a few restoration comparisons are also included. No extras on Went the Day Well?.
I already had import Blu-rays of several of these titles, but nonetheless happy to upgrade several from DVD and see, for the first time, Dunkirk. A terrific set well worth the price, Their Finest Hour is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.