Saturday, December 4, 2010

#90 - Battle of Britain (finally)

BACK – STORY: “Battle of Britain” was released in 1969 and was specifically meant to be a tribute to “the few”. The movie fits into the sub-genre of old-school all-star epics with vignettes supporting the main story line. It’s sisters are “The Longest Day” (1962) and “The Battle of the Bulge” (1965). In some ways it can be viewed as England’s response to those earlier films. It was directed by Guy Hamilton of “Goldfinger” fame. The screenplay is based on the book The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster. The book gives a traditional retelling of the Battle of Britain and thus the movie stands as the definitive film treatment of the battle. It is not a revisionist film.

The film was big budget and it shows. Not only did the producers round up most of the great British actors of the time, but they went to a lot of trouble and expense to round up military hardware appropriate for a 1940 air battle. They assembled 12 Spitfires and 3 Hurricanes to represent the Royal Air Force. The Spanish Air Force cooperated with 17 ME -109s, 32 Heinkels, and 2 Junker 52s. The total of around one hundred aircraft made the movie the 35th largest air force in the world at the time. During the filming, more bullets (in the form of blanks) were fired than in the actual Battle of Britain.

The movie has a very impressive list of technical advisers which included famous aces Adolf Galland and Robert Stanford Tuck. Several airfields that were part of the battle were used in the film. The scenes at RAF Fighter Command were filmed at the headquarters of Fighter Command. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's original office was used.

OPENING SCENE: We see refugees moving down a road in France in 1940. At an air base nearby, British pilots are informed that the Germans are just down the road. They hurriedly take off leaving the “lame duck” aircraft to be strafed by German fighters.

SUMMARY: Air Chief Marshal Dowding (Sir Laurence Olivier) decides that sending more aircraft into the meat-grinder of France would be waste of precious resources needed for the upcoming battle for control of the skies over England. The German ambassador visits his British equivalent in Switzerland and gives the typical “surrender and avoid destruction” ultimatum. The British diplomat keeps his upper lip stiff and responds with "We're not easily frightened. Also we know how hard it is for an army to cross the Channel — the last little corporal to try it came a cropper. So don't threaten or dictate to us until you're marching up Whitehall! ...and even then we won't listen!" This exchange establishes a theme of the movie: the bulldog British versus the hubris-filled Germans. These national characteristics are personified by Dowding and Goring in the film.

At a British air field one of our trio of Squadron Leaders, “Skipper” (Robert Shaw), is training a new pilot. He takes him up for a mock dogfight. When the rookie hears Shaw’s “takatakatakataka” in his headphones he knows he is dead. Another theme is established: England is in a race against time to get enough qualified pilots in the air to replace its losses.
real Heinkels
In the inevitable romantic subplot, we meet Squadron Leader Colin Harvey (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Maggie (the lovely, but acting-challenged Susannah York) who works in command and control. He wants her to leave her position and transfer with him to Scotland. She does not want to (being a patriotic feminist) and they part coldly. Unfortunately, this is not the last time we peak in on their relationship.

the airfield bombing
At a German briefing on their strategic situation, it is revealed that the RAF has to be destroyed before England can be successfully invaded. It is decided that the RAF will be destroyed on the ground. The first attacks are by Stukas on radar stations. Because the Spanish Air Force did not have any Stukas, radio-controlled models had to be used for this scene. Spitfires pounce on them and without exception the models blow up on cue. There is even a mid-air collision and a fake-looking dive into the ground. Luckily for the movie, the Germans quickly withdrew the Stuka from battle because of its status as a sitting duck. This means the rest of the movie will feature actual planes in combat. By the way, the Stukas are shown leveling off to drop their payloads which is inaccurate because they were dive-bombers and thus would have released during a 60-90 degree dive path.

Next, even though the radar stations have not been taken out of commission, the Germans shift their focus to the air fields. We witness one of those bombings with a series of impressive fireworks. “Skipper” scrambles during the raid, but in a strange screenplay decision, his unit sees little action other than a rookie getting lost and shot down.

The next scene is a jump of I don’t know how many days. One of the problems of the film is we are not told when the next scene is taking place. A related problem is the characters are not clearly identified. In the combat scenes, for instance, all the pilots look alike with their headgear. The scene is probably set on August 15 (Eagle Day). the official start of the all-out German effort. German Heinkels from Norway join in the assault thinking the RAF can’t be in two places at one time. They are wrong and suffer heavy losses in a nice scene that features shots from inside the bombers. The bombers are unescorted in the movie because the producers could not find any ME – 110s to be totally accurate.

In a move similar to “The Longest Day”, the movie switches back and forth to give the British and German command perspectives. The audience learns that there is a disagreement in British Fighter Command on how to deploy the fighter units. Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Park (Trevor Howard) favor using the fighters to defend the air bases and intercept bomber formations as quickly as they can be scrambled. This means smaller formations making contact with the German bombers. On the other hand, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory pushes the “big wing” tactic of attacking the bombers with large formations.

Leigh-Mallory: "It's better to shoot down fifty bombers after they hit their targets than ten before."

Park: "Remember that the targets are my airfields, Leigh-Mallory, and you're not getting fifty, you're not even getting ten!"

This debate is accurately depicted in the film, but there was no actual confrontation between Park and Leigh-Mallory as acted out.

Back to the smoochy stuff. Wake up girls! The Harveys meet in a hotel. They are still arguing, but do kiss. This is where their relationship is left at – unresolved and we don’t care! A bombing raid on London occurs because of an accidental dropping by a German bomber. Here the movie does a good job of teaching how a mistake by a wayward enemy bomber provokes Churchill to launch a raid on the lit-up-like-a Christmas-tree German capital (which the German pilot and co-pilot just so happen to be visiting). Goring had promised Hitler that if Berlin was ever bombed “his name would be Meier”, so he shifts the focus of the air campaign from destroying the RAF to fulfilling Hitler’s desire for revenge by terror bombing London. Goring visits his fighter command and is told by the cigar-chomping Major Falke (modeled after Galland) that what he needs is “a squadron of Spitfires” (an actual quote from Galland).

In an excellent scene, the Blitz comes to London. We get views from within and above the city. The city is on fire and the firefighters are doing their duty. A pilot Sgt. Andy (Ian McShane) returns home to find his family in a shelter. He goes off to help a trapped family and returns to find the shelter has been destroyed. Tragic, but effective. He keeps a stiff upper lip and returns to combat.

The Polish get their props as we see them going up for training and then disobeying orders to weigh into a German bomber unit. This is one of the few humorous moments in an otherwise somber film.

We are treated to several dogfights that are among the best in non-CGI war movie history. This includes a magnificent extended scene which is basically silent except for the score and some radio chatter. It appears the filmmakers decided the audience needed a break from the somewhat redundant dogfight scenes. Nice call. It is the best scene in the movie and most memorable.

FINAL SCENE: The Germans pull their invasion force back from the French ports. Dowding gazes at a clear sky. Churchill: “This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning”. Another version of the film uses the more appropriate: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".


Action - 8

Acting - 7

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 7

Plot - 6

Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? I doubt it. Other than the wimpy romantic subplot, this is pretty much a guy movie. I do not know very many women who are into air combat.

ACCURACY: “Battle of Britain” is a commendable attempt to pay homage to the RAF pilots and commanders who saved England during one of the darkest hours in its history. Anyone who knows little about the event and the participants will come out of the film with a basic knowledge of the battle. However, it helps if you already know some of the facts because in some instances the movie assumes you know the big picture already.

The chronology is accurate, but we are not clearly given an idea about the dates of events. It is hard to determine how much time has transpired between some scenes. For a movie that prides itself on having the German characters speak German, it seems odd that subtitles could not have been used to identify the various historical people and the dates of events.

I have a problem with the composite characters. Are you telling me there were not enough true to life participants to build a movie around? Why have a Major Falke when you could have Adolf Galland himself? Where is Robert Stanford Tuck? How about Douglas Bader?

The movie is justifiably famous for its air combat scenes. These are accurately depicted to the best of the film-makers ability. The aircraft are as close to the real thing as could be expected. The ME-109s look a little strange with their Spanish noses, but they are versions of the famous fighter plane. We do see more of the Spitfires than is warranted (Hurricanes did 60% of the heavy lifting in the battle), but this is due to the fact Hamilton had a lot more Spitfires to work with. Similarly, the movie has Spitfires and Hurricanes together in units going into combat, which is not actually the way the units fought.

CRITIQUE: “Battle of Britain” is a good movie, but probably does not deserve the fondness many war movie buffs have for it. As a tutorial, it does a fine job in informing about this important event in history. It is fair-minded and does not treat the Germans as evil and the British as saints. In fact, it is not even very patriotic, which is surprising considering it was made in England in the 30th anniversary of the beginning of WWII. It covers both strategy and tactics so you get the pilots perspective as well as what the commanders were thinking.

Some of the weaknesses are the unclear time-line and the cursory character development. The movie jumps around from character to character and even from the English to the Germans that you do not learn much about any one person. This, of course, is a common problem for movies like this. “The Longest Day” did a great job with its minor characters, but few other all-star epics have been able to pull it off. In this respect, BOB is closer to “Midway”. In fact, it even has a distracting romantic subplot like “Midway”. Unlike “Midway”, BOB makes better use of its cast. The heavy-weights (with the exception of Olivier) are put in officer rather than high command roles. This allows Shaw, Plummer, and Micheal Caine (Squadron Leader Canfield) to put their stamps on their roles. They are all effective.

The dogfights are spectacular, but tend to be repetitive as the movie goes along. The stand-out is the “silent” scene which is almost surreal. Interestingly, the score for this scene is from the original composer and differs from the more bombastic, patriotic music that backs the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, given the state of war movies in the Sixties, the bloodshed is not realistic. The deaths are basically your ketchup bottle exploding variety. Sometimes men are wounded by bullets that leave no holes where they would have had to penetrate the plane!

CONCLUSION: “Battle of Britain” is the best movie on its subject. It could have been better, but it could also have been much worse. The producers tried hard and deserve to be credited with a game effort. You can learn a lot from this movie and if you hate to read it’s the best tutorial you will get. However, I feel it is overrated at #90 or at least I can confidently say that some of the movies I have seen on this journey are better than BOB. For instance, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is similar, yet superior to it. Tora’s air combat is just as good, if not better. It has no silly love story. It covers more of the “greatest hits” of its event and does it more clearly. It also balances the opposing sides’ views and screen-time better.


  1. You may guess who likes this movie... I think he watched it xtimes. I think it is far better than you think. I like the switching of POV + original languages without silly accents. That's a plus. Yes, we have that in Tora!Tora!Tora! as well. Apart from that and the air combat I wouldn't compare them at all. I prefer Battle of Britain and can't remember any love story. It must be very minor. There is much more of a love story in The Blue Max. I have to watch this again should I want to review it myself. It's at least three or four years ago since I last saw it.

  2. I guess it shows how bad the love story was that you can not recall it. Susannah York is lovely to look at, but not much of an actress. I did not feel my review was harsh. I just think it does not lead the pack of epics like Tora, Midway, Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far. It is better than Battle of The Bulge, however.

  3. I love the movie. So much so, I've got the dvd and have watched it several times over the years.

    My one complaint?! Not enough Leigh Mallory! Never enough Leigh Mallory, even in Ike: Countdown to D-Day, with Tom Selleck (another war movie I really liked).

    L-M has always gotten the bad end of the debate stick on his "Big Wing". Maybe had he lived past the war he could have had a better chance defending his theory, and maybe the public would remember him more.

    On a tangential note, if people are interested in learning more about the Traff, they can get the biography, "Big Wing", written by his nephew some time back. It's a bit dry, but gives a very thorough history of L-M.

    By the by, as an aside, I believe I've heard that a movie is to be done about his mountaineering brother, George who died on Everest.

    Cool site you got yourself wmb, aka Mr. H!

    I'm going thru a little hiatus on my own site.

  4. If I had a dollar for every time a war movie fan demands "more Leigh-Mallory" I would have a dollar. A perfect movie would have more L-M on the screen and more cow bells in the sound track.
    I am afraid I have to side with Park on this one. The "Big Wings" were too slow in forming up and although they were more cost effective in planes and pilots, they were less likely to stop the bombing of the airfields and the cities. If the Germans had been able to take out the airfields, the saving of a few more British aircraft would have been outweighed by the elimination of their bases. Would you rather beat the crap out of an arsonist after he sets your house on fire or stop him before he strikes even if it means you might get beat up a bit?

  5. What does the word "cropper" mean in this movie as Baron von Richter and Sir David Kelly meet and have tea?

  6. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Thanks. You don't have to tell me its fascinating. This blog should make that apparent. This is why some war movies are considered to be among the best movies of any genre. War brings out the full range of human emotions and actions.

  7. Fun Fact: The Edward Fox character "Pilot Officer Archie", is based on Flight Sergeant Ray Holmes of No. 504 Squadron RAF. On 15 September 1940, now known as "Battle of Britain Day", Homes used his Hawker Hurricane to destroy a Dornier Do-17 bomber over London by ramming but at the loss of his own aircraft (and almost his own life) in one of the defining moments of the Battle of Britain. Holmes, noticed a German bomber heading towards Buckingham Palace, in a bombing attempt. Avoiding the bomber's machine gun fire, Holmes made a head-on attack, and found his guns inoperative. He decided to make a ramming, and flew his plane into the top-side of the German bomber, cutting off the rear tail section with his wing and causing the bomber to dive out of control and crash. Its pilot, Feldwebel Robert Zehbe, bailed out, only to die later of wounds suffered during the attack, while the injured Holmes bailed out of his plane and survived. As the RAF did not practice ramming as an air combat tactic, this was considered an impromptu manoeuvre, and an act of selfless courage. Holmes was feted by the press as a war hero who saved Buckingham Palace. This event became one of the defining moments of the Battle of Britain and elicited a congratulatory note to the RAF from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who had witnessed the event. This event is depicted - with considerable artistic licence - in the film.

    1. I looked up Ray Holmes and he is the subject of an incredible programme "The Search for the Lost Fighter Plane", on National Geographic Channel. You can find it on YouTube.

      On Battle of Britain Day, Pilot Sergeant Ray Holmes was flying his Hurricane MK1 as part of 504 SQN operating out of Hendon Aerodrome, to meet a vastly superior German bombing force, on its way to London.
      He met the attacking force just outside London and chose his target, a Dornier Bomber. He made his attack from the rear, and immediately fell foul of a secret German weapon. He thought he had damaged the plane as 'smoke' was coming out of it.
      In fact it was oil, spread across his windscreen, from the secret weapon, that was in fact a tail mounted flame thrower(!) that had in fact failed to ignite. This oil covered his windscreen, totally obscuring his view. Pilot Sergeant Holmes broke away, and eventually the wind cleared the oil. He looked around and found himself alone, apart from a lone German bomber, damaged, heading directly for Buckingham Palace. He attacked from the front , only to find that his guns were jammed or out of ammunition. He swung round, and decided to ram the Enemy plane. He flew straight through the bomber, cutting off the tail. The Dornier bomber faired not so well. It crashed on a part of Victoria Station, with no one on the ground hurt.

      His Hurricane badly damaged, he bailed out , injuring himself but surviving. He was greeted by an ever growing crowd, who had seen his gallant deed. His plane crash into the juction on Buckingham Palace Road, SW1.

      Pilot Sergeant Ray Holmes became an over night celebrity, and was asked about his heroism, and he replied that, " He was only doing his duty."

      What a man.

  8. I just re watched this film again as it approaches its 50th anniversary. I agree that we had gotten more of Robert Shaw's character then the romantic subplot. The combat scenes are really the highlight, especially as it was done all with real planes.

  9. Robert Shaw actually seems to be the only guy who doesn't belittle or shout at his wife! Perhaps there is some complex cultural context that I don't understand, but the other pilots seem to have rocky marriages.

  10. For some reason I can't post on your review of Midway (2019) so I'll make my comment here, since you reference the possibility of remaking this movie. Thanks, by the way for watching Midway (2019 for those of us who now don't need to.

    I agree that we are overdue for a movie that conveys the tension of air combat in a realistic way. It would require a lot of restraint in the CGI effects and more reliance on dialogue and acting to convey the dangers that pilots faced but I am convinced that it could be done, and done well.

    "Battle of Britain" is a movie that seems fairly decent in that regard - especially the climactic scene that showed the confusion of a massive air melee while managing to also keep the airplanes realistically distant from each other.

    "Battle of Britain" has some silliness, like the silhouette aircraft that sometimes dot the bottom of long shots, but such lapses were easily to overlook because it is clear that the people who made that movie were at least partially motivated by a respect for the history and for the people who were a part of it.

    Unlike a lot of well-made older movies I could see it being surpassed by a remake, but I wouldn't nominate Emmerich for the job.

    1. Yes but a remake would be full of cgi, making the aircraft do unbelievable things as in Pearl Harbor. The joy of BOB for those of us who saw it at the cinema was the fact that they were real planes for the most part. There was some obvious model work but it was quite well done. I even had one misgiving corrected later. I thought the way stricken planes shattered was unrealistic. However, a later documentary showing actual POV filming from a Spitfire, had an Me109 disintegrating in exactly the same manner! I am also aware that there are hardware errors e.g. the Spits all had bubble cockpit canopies when they should have had "greenhouse" style. But, whatever. When the film was released there was an accompanying book which detailed the main events of the battle and the story of the making of the film. I particularly enjoyed the details about the psychedelic B24 camera plane, and the fact that, when negotiating with the Spanish Air Force, the film makers picked up a load of scrap fuselages and bits of planes to use for crashes and mock-ups.And, apparently, the French weren't entirely happy at the thought of a fleet of swastika-adorned aircraft flying over their country on its way to England! Not a classic. But it's ours so leave well alone

    2. It is a very good movie and you're probably right that the urge in a modern production to overuse CGI would be almost irresistible. What they should do instead is film battles with modern planes or even drones that could roughly simulate the performance of the WWII aircraft and then use CGI afterward to change the outward appearance of those planes, add bullets and battle damage, and so on.

      Even if that could do for the special effects there are all sorts of ways a remake could go wrong. I will defer to your judgment on this point; I can live without a remake of this fine film.

    3. I refuse to give up on the idea that CGI could be used to simply substitute for models without the bull shit violations of reality. It is my dream.

  11. I recently rediscovered this film. My father watched this movie when I was a kid and I always thought it was a BBC SERIES because of how much it covered. Always felt I must have missed something because there were always new characters around that I didn't recognize.

    Hell how many people realize Cainefeild died BEFORE being told by Jaime when he landed. I get that they wanted to portray that sense of "you never see the one that gets you" but still. He goes from joking around at the beginning of the scene and you never even get a sense that it's his plane blowing up unless you're able to follow the combat which upon rewatching IS done well. Just not THAT well.

    It's not the only time,Andy loses his wife and kids and it's never even addressed verbally. Just a look from Robert Shaw's character (who's name I still don't remember) as if to check on him. Again I get what they were TRYING to get across and maybe to the older generation it does the job but it always felt like he just carried on completely unaffected by his family being killed. I mean it could have been worse. We could have done the thing Band of Brothers did when that same exact scene happened and have Andy reach in and pull out one of his son's broken Spitfires. lol. But still they just skip right over it.

    Still this movie is not talked about enough. The shoot of Archie peeling off and then engaging the Hienkel before being shot down is one of the most awesome shots in the movie and one of my favorite shots in a war movie/anything with aerial combat. And the fact that it's real, done for real, with a real plane. *kisses the wind* amazing.

    1. I wouldn't have expected Andy to have anything but a stiff upper lip.


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