Monday, March 23, 2015

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: Reach for the Sky (1956)

            I am about ready to begin my annual War Genre Tournament.  This year's competition is to determine the best dogfighting  film.  Because of the parameters of the contest, some air combat movies did not make the field.  I got some great suggestions and "Reach for the Sky" was one of them.  It did not make the cut because it does not have much dogfighting and it is more of a biopic.  I have decided to give it its due by reviewing it to lead into the tournament. 

                “Reach for the Sky” is a biopic about the legendary Battle of Britain hero Douglas Bader.  It was based on the book by Paul Brickhill.  The director was Lewis Gilbert (“Sink the Bismarck”).  The movie was a huge hit in Great Britain.  It won the BAFTA for Best British Film and was the biggest box office hit of 1956.  Ut was the biggest hit in the U.K. since “Gone with the Wind” in 1939.  It did not do well in the States.  The producers were well aware of the iconic status of Bader so they went out of their way to preempt criticism of the historical accuracy of the movie.  The movie begins with a disclaimer:  “For dramatic purposes, it has been necessary…to transpose in time certain events…and also to re-shape some of the characters….  The Producers apologize to those who may have been affected by these changes or omissions.”  It turns out that they were being overly cautious.

                The film opens in 1928 with Bader (Kenneth More) volunteering for the Royal Air Force.  He trains in an AVRO 504K biplane.  Bader is not a model student.  He does poorly on exams and is disobedient.  He does excel in aerobatics, however.  He continues that talent in the subsequent years.  Eleven years after joining the RAF, he is taunted into showing off and ends up in a horrific crash.  Both of his legs are amputated.  He is fitted with prosthetic legs and determines to return to flying.  Rehab montage.  He meets a girl named Thelma (Muriel Pavlow).  Romance for the ladies.  The RAF turns him down because there is nothing in the regulations that cover his disability.  Boring office job.  Can’t a guy get a war up in this place?  World War II was not just a second chance for Hitler. 

                Not only does Bader get back into the service (because the British were so desperate they put legless men in cockpits), but he is given a squadron of surly Canadians to whip into shape.  That’s right, the war was going so badly that Canadians were being dicks about it.  When the Canadians complain about their lack of success, Bader is like “hello, no legs here!”  Bader cracks the whip, shows his aeroability, and earns their respect.  He becomes an ace during the Battle of Britain, but later is forced to parachute over France and taken captive.  He ends up in Colditz Castle.
Bader in front of his plane nicknamed
"Prosthetic Hitler Ass-Kicker"

                I was a bit surprised that unlike many biopics, “Reach for the Sky” sticks to the basic facts of Bader’s military career.  The screenwriters did not take any major liberties with his life story.  The movie hits the highlights, but is not interested in digging deep.  Bader’s support for Leigh-Mallory’s “Big Wing” philosophy is not covered.  Bader believed the best way to defend England from Luftwaffe raids was to intercept them with large fighter formations.  Speaking of not being covered, the movie certainly does not linger on the Battle of Britain.    We get one good dogfight and then it’s over.  For a movie about a famous fighter ace, the movie does not have much air combat.  On the plus side, we get to see a lot of vintage aircraft.  Making appearances are the Avro 504K, Avro Tutor, Bristol F.2b, and the Bristol Bulldog.  There are Hurricanes and Spitfires aplenty.  The movie also blends footage well.  There is not much on his years of captivity either.
Christ, can a legless man catch a break?!

                The authenticity of the movie may be part of the reason why it left me unimpressed.  I commend the historical accuracy and certainly would never encourage screenwriters to make things up, but sometimes the facts are boring.  It did not have to be this way since Bader had a fascinating military career.  If the movie was not Old School, it could have been more dynamic.  (For instance, a remake would certainly reenact the current belief that Bader was apparently shot down by friendly fire.)  As it is, it is typical of 1950s war movies.  The plot is simplistic.  There is little action.  Meant for a mass audience, the producers spent most of the running time on the disability and the romance.  That leaves little time for the war movie buff stuff like the Battle of Britain and the captivity (and the numerous escape attempts).  To get women into the theaters, we get a sappy romance and melodramatic hospital scenes.  The movie also is burdened by schmaltzy narration and pompous music.  The acting is strong with Kenneth More ennobling Bader (who could be a prickly personality with a potty mouth).  By the way, Richard Burton was the first choice for the role.

real Spitfires and a real actor in a fake Spitfire
                Classic or Antique?  I am afraid I will have to say antique.  When I finished watching it I had it rated as a D.  My research verified its accuracy and this bumped it up to a C.  I can’t go any higher than that due to the fact that the movie bored me.

GRADE  =  C     


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    1. I also was surprised with the revelation that he may have been the victim of friendly fire, but it seems to have some merit. Andy Saunders wrote a book entitled "Bader's Last Flight" which was made into a documentary on BBC. His research pointed to a fellow RAF pilot named "Buck" Casson mistaking Bader for a Bf-109. This fits with the fact that Bader was separated from his squadron and was trailing a German formation. Casson mentioned that his victim had trouble getting out of his cockpit which matches Bader's struggle because his leg was caught. Bader had to remove one of his artificial legs in order to bail out. Adolf Galland himself looked into the shoot down and was unable to confirm that any German pilot (including Meyer) was responsible. The evidence for the friendly fire theory is circumstantial, but strong.

      This seems like a good opportunity to mention that having artificial legs had some fortunate effects on Bader's career. Without being able to remove a caught leg, he would have gone down with his plane. Also, since fighter pilots are in danger of blacking out during high G turns, Bader did not have this problem because blood would not pool in his lower limbs. Ironic.

      I agree with your comments that it is better to be boring than false and anyone who frequents this blog knows I put a high premium on historically accuracy in my war movies. However, I think in this case the screenwriters took a potentially exciting story and instead turned it into a typical 1950s biopic. The cookie cutter blending of romance and overcoming the odds was dynamite at the box office, but removed two thirds of the compelling elements of Bader's life. I am referring to the Battle of Britain and the prisoner of war experience (with his numerous escape attempts). Perhaps his life story needs a mini-series. In fact, it definitely does!

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