United Artists, 1969, 132 minutes
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Kenneth More, Susannah York, and Ian McShane
Screenplay: James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex
Based on the book “The Narrow Margin” by Derek Dempster and Derek Wood
Associate Producer: John Palmer
Producers: Benjamin Fisz and Harry Saltzman
Director: Guy Hamilton
Following the stunning speed of the Blitzkrieg during the early stages of WWII, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) found itself trapped at Dunkirk. A well-organized evacuation saved most of the troops, at the cost of the rear guard and all of the BEF’s equipment. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France had all fallen to Nazi Germany. England was alone, supported only by the Dominions that made up the British Empire. Hitler hoped that the British government simply needed time to accept German domination of Europe. A month later, he lost patience and ordered preparations for Sea Lion, a plan to invade England. Outmatched by the powerful Royal Navy, the German Navy refused to launch the invasion until Germany controlled the skies and the British warships could be bombed at leisure. Hermann Goring, head of the Luftwaffe (German air force), was confident that the Royal Air Force (RAF) would be destroyed in a matter of weeks. Since the RAF was heavily outnumbered, it seemed that his confidence was justified and that the RAF would lose the Battle of Britain.
The Fall of France means that England will have to face Nazi Germany alone. Instead of invading England while it is still reeling from defeat in France, Hitler tries to negotiate peace, saying that England is not Germany’s natural enemy. Despite his promise to let the British Empire survive if he is given a free hand in Europe, the British know that Hitler’s guarantees are worthless and that crossing the Channel is easier said than done.
The Luftwaffe initially confines itself to attacking Channel convoys, which is a relief for the RAF since it has time to re-organize and train raw, inexperienced recruits who are barely able to land their planes. When the Luftwaffe finally starts attacking England proper, the outnumbered RAF pilots struggle to block the enemy planes, but Heinkel bombers can shred an airfield in seconds. The battle soon becomes a war of attrition, which favors the larger Luftwaffe. As the raids continue, German intelligence claims that hundreds of British planes have been destroyed but the squadron commanders know that their bombers are still being met by fighters. When the weeks drag into months, a frustrated Goring orders his pilots to make an all-out attempt to crush the RAF.
Although the Channel attacks are presented as a favorable situation, the real Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, commander of RAF Fighter Command, fiercely opposed defending the Channel convoys, stating that it was a waste of precious pilots and planes. Admittedly, Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, was able to produce 100 fighters a week, but the Air Ministry was far from pleased since it wanted bombers.
While the movie excels at showing how the Germans lost the Battle of Britain, it is less successful at explaining why. The senior officers of the Luftwaffe, in particular Goring, never appreciated that radar and a high production rate of fighters ensured that the RAF was much more effective than it should have been. The Dowding System, named after its originator, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, depended on radar to be able to send fighters to meet groups of German bombers before they reached their targets. Without radar, the German bombing raids would have been impossible to predict. Aside from his position as Reichmarshal of the Luftwaffe, Goering was also responsible for economic production in Germany. Although he simply did not have enough time to deal with the challenge of overcoming the RAF’s defences, he was unwilling to delegate authority to his deputy, therefore the Luftwaffe never developed an effective strategy. Unfortunately, there is not enough time in the movie to give this background.
An extremely patriotic film, it correctly shows mechanics routinely working through the night to repair planes and Londoners calmly spending every night in the Underground as a refuge from the bombing. The squadrons at the forward air fields are fed up with going up 4-5 times a day and returning to wreckage where their living quarters used to be, but still continue to fight. However, the script glosses over the fact that the ground staff at the worst-hit air fields refused to leave the air raid shelters.
Despite the producers’ patriotism, the script does not white wash the casualties caused by personality conflicts at the top of Fighter Command. As the group closest to France, the main burden of fighting German bombers fell on 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park. Since 12 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, was beyond the range of German planes, its fighters were supposed to protect 11 Group’s airfields but failed because of a conflict between Park and Leigh-Mallory, in particular Leigh-Mallory’s insistence on the Big Wing, essentially a very large group of fighters. The screen Park complains that his airfields are getting hit because the Big Wing takes so long to assemble that the enemy bombers have already left, which is true since the Big Wing was a complete failure.
Although it was unknown at the time of the battle, the film rightly presents the bombing of London as a mistake, since Britain’s capital had been declared off-limits by Hitler. After Churchill ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin the next night, Hitler vowed to destroy London. The real German armada reached London because the controllers presumed that they were targeting the airfields as usual. It is true that the fires from the daytime bombing were still burning that night, making it easy for German bombers to find the city. The screen Dowding correctly states that bombing London was the Germans’ biggest blunder because sparing the airfields to concentrate on bombing the British capital gave the RAF the breathing space needed to rebuild.
While the film shows the hazardous journey back across the Channel for bombers full of wounded, the script does not explain that the German bombers would return to France riddled with bullets because the British fighters had not been equipped with the cannon needed to shoot down the sturdy bombers.
Hard to believe as it may be but Goring did chew out his squadron commanders out after the big raid on London, dismissing their claims that there were always British fighters waiting. Oddly enough for a famous WWI fighter pilot, he did tell the fighters to sacrifice their speed to guard the bombers closely, even though it left them vulnerable to attacks by British fighters.
A single scene with Hitler, shown only in profile without a close up, at a rally, expresses the fervor of his followers, especially the young.
Plastic surgery was a newly developed technique at the time of the Battle of Britain, and the surgery enabled horribly burned pilots to return to society but the damage to their hands was often too severe for them to fly again, while the doctors were not always able to completely restore the pilots’ faces. The doctor in charge of the burn ward took an unorthodox approach to his patients’ recovery; providing unlimited quantities of free beer, recruiting the prettiest nurses and refusing to let patients look at mirrors until the healing was almost finished. The brief scene with a burned pilot only hints at the trauma experienced by the real pilots.
While it may seem to be an invention of the scriptwriters, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was present at 11 Group HQ during the decisive battle on September 15, when the Germans made their final attack. While the attacks continued after September 15, they were much weaker since Hitler had given up on the invasion and was planning the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The film captures the visible anxiety of the pilots as they waited on the field for the order to scramble and the terror of replacement pilots who were sent into the mass of spinning and diving planes even though they were barely able to fly.
Although it is only a little over two hours long, the movie crams in a surprising amount of issues, including the class division among pilots, the struggle to adapt to women serving on bases alongside men and both the British and the German perspectives of the battle.
The final climatic battle is stunning. In fact, all of the aerial photography is astonishing, especially since it was filmed live in the pre-digital age by a re-configured B-25 bomber with cameras in its gun turrets. Good camerawork shows how easily inexperienced pilots become disoriented by the heavy G of tight turns and black out, becoming a defenceless target or finding themselves too close to the ground.
The producers only had twelve operational Spitfires and a single Stuka, so the rest of the planes in the aerial scenes were models, while all the planes blown up on the ground were mock-up planes built at Pinewood Studios. The planes that pilots taxied were powered by lawn mower engines, enough to move them but not enough to get off the ground. Much of the movie was filmed in Spain because the Spanish air force had fifty Heinkel bombers and seventeen Messerschmitt fighters that were being used as training planes. The scenes with the Spitfires were done in England while the scenes with the German planes were filmed in Spain, which was a challenge for the editors. The gorgeous aerial photography was hellish to film since it was insanely complex and quite dangerous. The aerial photography made the film go over budget, and the crew actually went from England to France in search of good weather.
The dockyards blown up in London at the beginning of the Blitz had never been rebuilt since the war but they were scheduled to be destroyed and rebuilt. Seeing an opportunity, the producers told London’s government that they would do it for free, and were able to film an entire part of the city actually being blown up.
Almost everyone in the script was either an actual participant in the battle or was based on real people, which deepens the film’s authenticity. Robert Shaw’s character was modeled on Sailor Malan, a famous squadron leader who helped develop the RAF’s fighter tactics, and Susannah York’s character was based on a WAAF officer. Manfred Reddeman’s Major Falke was based on Adolf Galland, one of Germany’s top aces and a leading squadron commander during the battle. Galland served as a technical adviser for the film, so his character is treated well but Galland apparently was a rakish, cigar-smoking rogue.
The troubled marriage between Christopher Plummer and Susannah York is unnecessary but interesting.
The film strives to present the German perspective, giving a significant portion of screen time to the German pilots, who are simply German pilots, not cold-blooded Nazis.
Although producer Harry Saltzman, better known as one of the producers of the James Bond series, simply paid a standard daily fee for every actor, regardless of his or her fame, everyone happily volunteered for their roles. While the casting is uniformly excellent, the standouts are the actor playing Goring, who has the chubby joviality, and Lawrence Olivier, who is superb as Dowding, nailing his polite but firm determination.
Dowding had forced himself to live long enough to see the premiere.
Producer Benjamin Fisz had flown for the RAF during the battle, so he and Saltzman decided to focus on accuracy, ignoring the dramatic storylines popular in war movies. Inspired by the success of The Longest Day (1962), Fisz had wanted to make a movie that would remind the younger generation of British about the past and draw them back into cinemas, but to watch a British, not American, film. Fisz and Saltzman had originally sought financing from the Rank Corporation but negotiations broke down over profit-sharing. Paramount agreed to bankroll the film but backed out when Saltzman refused to add more American content. Fortunately, United Artists agreed to finance the film.
After speaking with numerous veterans, director Guy Hamilton resolved to destroy the myth of knight-like pilots flying machines in noble jousts with the enemy. Instead, he was determined to show the squabbling at the top, the fatigue, the fear, and even class issues among the pilots. Although confident that the RAF would not oppose the film, Hamilton cut out several of the scenes that irritated the Ministry of Defense the most, in order to keep the in-fighting between Leigh-Mallory and Park. Even so, the movie ignores the fact that Dowding and Park were rewarded by being forced out of their positions as soon as it was clear that Britain would not be invaded.
The movie manages the impressive feat of achieving a high standard of accuracy while still remaining extremely enjoyable.