In movies, as in life, timing is everything. Case in point: the real Battle of Britain. By spring 1940, Adolph Hitler was rather garrulous about thumbing his nose at the rest of the world. His blitzkriegs and Anschluß had succeeded in devouring the whole of middle Europe with but two enemies remaining to be conquered: Russia and Great Britain. Britain was a more pressing thorn in Hitler’s side as they had been open in their condemnation of his daydreams for world domination, and had, in fact, made the very declarative statement to resist Nazi encroachment at any and all costs. As America quietly observed this brewing of a spectacular clash between two stalwart rams – Hitler and the U.K.’s Winston Churchill, the latter was extremely conscious that Germany’s military might outnumbered his own forces roughly four to one.
Herein, the English Channel proved Churchill’s salvation; a disruptive body of water that had prevented virtually all other warring influences throughout history from conquering their tight little isle. Undaunted, Hitler amassed his air forces in Normandy, plotting an invasion by sea as the second assault, while assuming a guaranteed victory in the skies. He was mistaken – severely – the Battle of Britain lasting from July 1940 to May 1941, inflicting great casualties both in its physical destruction of London and the human toll. Ultimately, the Nazis were unable to penetrate the resolve of the British people. Moreover, Britain’s RAF – while relatively diminutive in size – was nevertheless extremely well-trained and able to disrupt, intercept and engage the aerial invasion on its own terms. By October 1940, it was painfully clear to Hitler he had misjudged the British in their stubborn capacity to endure suffrage. Instead, Hitler was forced to postpone – then withdraw – from his plans for Operation Sea Lion. The tide had suddenly begun to turn against him.
Flash forward to 1969 and Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain: a gallant attempt to celebrate this decisive victory on celluloid. Alas, timing remained everything. In the interim, the world had grown weary of war; the public’s perceptions having shifted away from its magnanimity. Yesterday’s noble heroes were today’s war mongers. Hence, not even producer Harry Saltzman’s amassing of a veritable entourage in vintage WWII Spitfires and Hurricanes, or director Hamilton’s stockpiling an impressive array of international stars could salvage the movie’s abysmal implosion at the box office. On a staggering $12,000,000 budget, Battle of Britain made back less than one third its’ outlay. Critically, the movie was on even shakier ground; eviscerated as pure hokum of the war-time propaganda ilk, made even more desperate and silly by the producers’ decision to infuse the production with ‘look who’s here’ cameos; a star-studded approach gleaned from Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), later carried to the height of absurdity in Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Unfortunately, by 1969, this once seemingly indestructible era in glamorous film-making had run its course as audiences clamored for grittier realism on their movie screens. Battle of Britain is undeniably elegant movie-making; the last of a dying breed. So obviously a throwback, particularly in its cataloguing of time-honored clichés from just about every war movie ever made, Battle of Britain maintains its unswerving fidelity to that stiff upper lip, ‘Rule Britannia’ way of life that had once typified the morality, as well as the mentality of these loyalists to the crown. One can either choose to fault or praise the movie’s adherence to this patriotic fervor and sentiment. But no one can deny Battle of Britain has merit and exceptional entertainment value. For starters, there’s Maurice Carter’s exquisite production design; managing to recapture the gallantry as well as the immense scope of the conflict. Also for one’s consideration are Freddie Young’s sumptuous cinematography and Ron Goodwin’s rousing musical underscore; not to mention Ray Caple, Cliff Richardson, Glen Robinson and Wally Veevers’ special effects; all but a handful recreating the horrors of the blitz and perilous aerial maneuvers.
If one were to provide a complete list of the behind-the-scenes talents responsible for Battle of Britain’s meticulous verisimilitude, it could very well encompass a review of its own. Ditto for the cast roster; a veritable who’s who of talent – most of them arguably wasted (or rather, underused) as the James Kennaway/Wilfred Greatorex screenplay struggles to find its emotional center amidst a multi-layering of subplots and back stories. In point of fact, Battle of Britain does waffle in its storytelling, with an interminable seesaw effect factored in; ricocheting between shabbily constructed melodrama and inserts of airplanes flying overhead and/or being shot down in a trailing plumage of grayish/white engine smoke.
At the time of its release, more than one critic pointed out that the aerial footage assembled for these action sequences is recycled throughout the movie; the same dogfights, crashes, et al. ever so slightly reassembled in the editing process to get more mileage from the basic raw footage. I can’t deny it. I think I saw the same Stuka hit the water three or four times. Still, the impressiveness of the aerial stunt work in totem outweighs whatever ‘looping’ was done in the editing room; the dogfights even more impressive when one considers no models or CGI were used to complete the effect. These sequences alone are largely responsible for Battle of Britain’s ballooning budget. And the movie’s screenplay, if something of a patchwork (loosely based on Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book ‘The Narrow Margin) is nevertheless more than capable at passing the time. We are never bored and/or visually starved for something to appreciate. In fact, the integration of melodrama with these action sequences is, on the whole, admirably achieved.
Responding to Harry Saltzman’s request for one hundred vintage RAF aircraft to employ in these battle sequences, Bomber Command Group Captain, Hamish Mahaddie achieved something of the impossible, amassing an impressive array of 109 aircraft to be photographed on the ground. Regrettably, only twenty-seven were well-preserved and less than half still airworthy. So, Saltzman and Mahaddie fudged the details…just a little…Mahaddie negotiating the use of six Hawker Hurricanes - three viable in the sky; a North American B-25 Mitchell, plus the use of various Spitfire Mk I and II models, adapted with minor modifications to mimic the vintage look. As for the German air force; Saltzman gathered together Heinkels, Junkers and Buchons; again with a few minor modifications, transformed into the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, in addition to seventeen actual Messerschmitts still in flyable condition.
Battle of Britain was photographed in the U.K., utilizing existing and well-preserved wartime operations rooms; also, Aldwych’s ‘tube’ station (which had served as an air-raid shelter during the war), plus Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's original office. Saltzman was also given permission by the London government to shoot sequences for the blitz around St. Katherine Docks; allowed to burn and otherwise destroy various buildings as they already had been slated for demolition to make way for future housing development. Exteriors were primarily shot in Kent, Duxford, Debden, North Weald and Hawkinge, with additional sequences lensed in Spain and Malta, after weather conditions in Britain proved unmanageable. To director Guy Hamilton’s credit, these obvious shifts in local are imperceptible in the final edit.
Battle of Britain involves a lengthy prologue; actually beginning with the Battle of France in May 1940: Squadron Leader Colin Harvey (Christopher Plummer) given the briefest of warnings before an assault by the German blitzkrieg decimates his remaining planes on the ground. We segue momentarily to Switzerland, to the home of British Minister, Sir David Kelly (Ralph Richardson). A cordial visit from Baron von Richter (Curd Jürgens) sours almost immediately when Kelly informs Richter that Britain shall not be dissuaded from a confrontation with the Nazis, regardless of what Hitler has presumed as his own military supremacy. From one office to another; the movie now introduces us to RAF Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) who, realizing the imminence of an invasion, stops deploying aircraft to France immediately. We return to France; Freddie Young’s camera sailing over the deserted beaches of Dunkirk as we hear Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s declaration that the battle of France is over…the battle of Britain, about to begin.
Immediately following the credits we are introduced to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (Peter Hager), inspecting one of the Nazi strongholds in France, with hundreds of Heinkel bombers lined up and readied for action. But von Richter is stunned when the Führer informs him the British are not their ‘natural enemy’ and delays his planned invasion, hoping instead for a diplomatic settlement. In England, commanders use this valuable time to build up their strength and continually train their pilots for counterattacks. Eventually, the Luftwaffe receives orders from its high command to prepare for the first assault of what is essentially a sea-borne invasion. Operation ‘Eagle Day’ begins at dawn, systematically eliminating the RAF before they have time to launch their Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. But the Luftwaffe pilots question this strategy, suggesting it would be more prudent to engage the British in the air where they can be more easily shot down. Nevertheless, Eagle Day is a success; toppling two of Britain’s crucial radar stations and decimating several of their airfields.
The RAF is also being eroded from within; an internal conflict between commanding officers Air Vice Marshals Keith Park (Trevor Howard), and Trafford Leigh-Mallory (Patrick Wymark). Leigh-Mallory is tasked with protecting Park’s airfields. Instead, his fighters are nowhere to be seen. Dowding’s inquiries into their repeated absence are met with viable excuses. It’s not tactics, but a critical shortage of pilots, impugning Leigh-Mallory’s ability to protect the skies. Dowding agrees. Furthermore, he is of the opinion that unless new pilots and planes can be amassed in a very short time the cause cannot be won in their favor. It’s a paralytic realization for both Parks and Leigh-Mallory; one that heightens the overall immediacy of Britain’s peril in this crucial conflict.
If Battle of Britain has a shortcoming, it remains its departure from this initially competent set-up to instead, intermittently, focus on several tertiary characters who devolve the central narrative into pulpy soap opera: like Section Officer Maggie Harvey (Susannah York), a love interest for Chris Plummer’s rakishly handsome, though impetuously short-tempered flyboy; or cynical Squadron Leader Canfield (Michael Caine) whose dog is the last ‘person’ to see him off before he dies in a hideous plane crash. Exemplary talents like Robert Shaw (cast as curmudgeonly Squadron Leader Skipper) and Kenneth More are utterly wasted in thankless walk-ons; More as Group Capt. Baker, who is merely a comforting shoulder for Maggie to cry on after she has casually met Jamie (James Cosmo), a badly burned pilot; a bit of unnecessary foreshadowing in the Kennaway/Greatorex screenplay, signifying the ominous future awaiting Colin; one Maggie will be unable to manage – or even comprehend.
Arguably, the movie’s visuals never disappoint, although some sequences seem quite pointless, except to show off the gigantisms in Claude Hudson’s production design: as with Rolf Steifel’s not altogether successful Adolf Hitler, glimpsed only from the back or in extreme long shot, during an elaborately staged Nazi pep rally. We can applaud Battle of Britain for such grandiosity, but not for its’ repeated mangling of this pivotal chapter in world history. Ultimately, director Guy Hamilton has gone for the gusto a la Michael Todd; Battle of Britain devolving into a series of ‘Todd-onian’ vignettes as the movie progresses to its’ inevitable flag-waving conclusion. The turning point in the narrative occurs after a squadron of German bombers becomes lost in the night fog, dropping their payload (intended for another military installation) on unsuspecting London instead. In retaliation, the RAF launches an attack on Berlin. Casualties are negligible. But Hitler is incensed and publicly orders London to be razed. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Hein Riess) confidently supervises these air raids, skirting the RAF and decimating the city by night.
To supplement their own Commonwealth forces, the RAF recruits exiled foreign pilots, mostly Poles who struggle with their English-language skills, making any sort of unified communications between squadrons virtually impossible. On one such training mission, a free Polish squadron inadvertently encounters an unescorted group of German bombers. Against their British commander’s strenuous objections, they peel off and engage the enemy, downing several of their aircraft. As far as the instructor is concerned, the exercise has been a total disaster. But Park rewards the Polish recruits with operational status; Dowding doing the same with the Canadian and Czech factions under his command. Park and Dowding’s evaluation of Hitler’s decision to repeatedly bomb London has afforded Park the necessary time to repair his airfields. Dowding concludes that, in choosing to bomb the city Hitler’s decisive has become the ‘German's biggest blunder.’
Prepared to meet the challenge of another bombing raid, Wing Commander Willoughby (Robert Flemyng) engages large groups of RAF pilots in a dogfight, overwhelming the Nazi forces and breaking up their formations. Outraged, Göring orders his fighters to remain with the bombers; an ill-fated strategic move, resulting in mass casualties on both sides. The climactic air battle on Sept. 15, 1940 is a spectacular display of valor as British ground control, under Churchill’s watchful eye, orders every squadron into the skies. Intense combat results in heavy losses. But the RAF has proven their metal once and for all. Unwilling to sustain further casualties, Hitler promptly cancels Operation Sea Lion; the decision capped off with a reverse shot of the French port once teeming with Kriegsmarine vessels and landing barges, now utterly deserted. Battle of Britain concludes with a famous quote by Churchill writ dramatically across the wild blue yonder, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Interestingly, this quote has been altered for the DVD and Blu-ray releases to another by Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Battle of Britain is an engaging movie in spots. But it fails as cohesive storytelling; the back story soap operas involving the principle cast eventually overpower its combat footage. Is this a tale of personal heroism or national pride? Hmmm. We’re never entirely sure. Screenwriters Kennaway and Greatorex are unable to successfully amalgamate what they so obviously perceive as two separate narratives running a parallel – though never intersecting - course. Battle of Britain’s formidable cavalcade of stars is, regrettably, not complimentary to the story being told. We expect more from talents like Edward Fox, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave and Barry Foster and are bitterly disappointed when each appears merely as token faces meant to stand out in relief from the rest of the nameless many who populate this movie. Even those afforded the arguably ‘larger’ parts, as Christopher Plummer’s Colin Harvey, are unceremoniously discarded by the end of the movie – sacrificed to the overreaching arc of action. Refocusing on the battle - and not the private lives impacted along the way - suddenly becomes much too grandiose; the purpose of such a distinguished roster of talent to tell this tale rendered preposterous and ineffectual.
Not surprising, Battle of Britain’s lavish production was an arduous affair for all concerned. Director Guy Hamilton is no stranger to such lavish film-making, keeping tight reigns on his multi-faceted shoot that, nevertheless, went over budget. Perhaps nowhere is the weighted stress of the movie’s incubation more immediate than in UA’s corporate decision to yank the original patriotic score written by Sir William Walton (and conducted by Malcolm Arnold); a judgment call made without the luxury of seeing the score married to picture, and predicated on nothing better than the fact Walton’s compositions failed to meet the disingenuous criteria of filling up two sides of an LP recording, meant to pre-market the movie to audiences. Eventually, composer/conductor Ron Goodwin was hired to re-score Battle of Britain; an executive decision that outraged Sir Laurence Olivier – who also threatened to have his name removed from its credits. As a result, some of Walton’s underscoring remains in the finished film; particularly his ‘Battle in the Air’ cue – played without sound effects during the climactic dogfight and attaining an awe-inspiring, almost poetic quality unlike any other moment in the movie.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray of Battle of Britain is decidedly disappointing. At 133 min. this lengthy excursion ought to have been dual-layered to take advantage of Blu-ray’s higher bitrate. Instead it’s single-layered and sourced from an obvious print rather than original camera negatives. Although relatively clean, we still get dirt and minor scratches throughout. There’s also some annoying gate weave. This could have easily been eliminated. Colors are mostly accurate; flesh tones very solid – if slightly too orange on occasion. There’s also a hint of edge enhancement and some artificial sharpening at play; most scenes grainier than necessary; the indigenous film grain looking slightly digitized in spots. Battle of Britain was one of Fox’s earliest Blu-ray releases and they really need to go back to the drawing board on this one for another HD master. The 5.1 DTS fares better, although it is a sincere regret Fox has not taken the option exercised on their Region 2 DVD to present both the Walton and Goodwin’s scores for the viewer to appreciate. Finally, there are NO extra features. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of a 5 – 5 being the best)