"Battle of Britain (1969)" FB470
Note: The tag at the top that sounds like an aircraft designation - FB470 - is a tag for myself based on a mini-project I’m undertaking with my viewing, which is making an effort to watch more films from before 1970 and subsequently write about them. This is the first entry from that project.
The last time I saw “Battle of Britain” I was around twelve, and watched it with my father. Now approaching middle-age, I’ve been meaning to watch it again for a while, especially as I’ve recently become an enthusiast of the humble plastic model kit, another thing I did as a child, but which now not only brings me delight but also helps me cope with my anxiety. Of course, one of the first models I built which wasn’t a “Star Wars” spaceship was a Spitfire, and it’s become somewhat impossible to build these machines and not have my interest increase in their history. So on a lazy overcast Sunday afternoon, I decided to unwrap the cheap DVD I recently picked up from the local garden centre and give it a shot.
Directed by Guy Hamilton (“Goldfinger”) and with an insane cast including Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Ian McShane, and Christopher Plummer, the film comes across as a fairly authentic account of one of the crucial moments of World War II. I’ve recently been reading the book “First Light” by Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum, which takes the reader through from basic training to actual combat and beyond, and the two actually complement each other fairly well, with plenty of dialogue that we might think are movie cliches (‘Chocks away!’ ‘Tally ho!’) but were actual phrases used heavily at the time. “Battle of Britain” allows an expansive look at not just the British RAF effort but also the German side with the Luftwaffe, and while they’re not hugely dimensional they’re not treated as caricatures, nor are they seen as the ultimate evil, although there is a scene with the Fuhrer which does make him and the thousands of people egging him on come across pretty dastardly.
The film has the kind of pseudo-soap opera feel a lot of big “epic” films have had, although usually reserved more for disaster movies of the same era. There is a lot of camaraderie amongst the pilots and the film’s pushing of this means it’s effective when they lose their fellow men. One of the main subplots in the film is between Christopher Plummer’s Canadian squadron leader and his ground worker wife Susannah York; Plummer has been stationed in Scotland and demands York apply for a role there, but she wants to keep her job as it stands. There are some nice things here about women’s roles in the war and how she shouldn’t be expected to up sticks just because he demands it, and he comes across as a bit of a bully too, but it feels fairly realistic and doesn’t clog up the narrative but instead adds to it.
The main draw of the film is the multiple battle sequences using real airplanes, with lots of Spitfires and Heinkel bombers and Messerschmit fighters, although I believe some were dressed to be seen as earlier models. The flight scenes are wonderful, and with Ron Goodwin’s stirring theme behind them, it’s easy to get caught up in making sure the RAF get through unscathed. It’s also interesting to see how this was clearly an influence on “Star Wars”, from pilots Red 2 and Red 3 to the swooping planes that almost match X-Wing movements, and the cutting between the ground control room and the chaos of the air battle. There are tons of explosions too, with the filmmakers either cutting from real craft to models - for actual exploding planes - or optical explosions printed on top of real planes.
“Battle of Britain” is enough to show how the “epic film” evolved over the years, going through disaster films and the rise of the blockbuster and then the historical likes of “Titanic”, although many of the modern ones expect you to follow forty narrative junctures instead of three or four. Couple that with the speed and attention span and you wish for something more steadied and dramatically patient. Sit down on a Sunday with “Battle of Britain” and you may receive what you wish for.