Monday, July 22, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Battle of Britain" (1969)

Made nearly three decades after the events it depicted, "Battle of Britain" is an exercise in deliberate hagiography. It's a British movie extolling the heroism and and strategic thinking of their own kind during the summer and fall of 1940, when the over-matched Royal Air Force stopped Hitler's planned land invasion of the U.K. long before it even got started.

It's a big-budget spectacle with an all-star cast, including Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Robert Shaw, Ralph Richardson and Edward Fox. A young Ian McShane even turns up as a novice pilot with a family of young children who are imperiled during the London bombings.

The cast is distinctly subservient to the aircraft, however, with very few characters getting any sort of development. Pretty much the lone exception is Plummer as a Canadian pilot married to a British section officer. He needles her to ask for a transfer so they can be nearer, but bound by a sense of duty, she puts him off.

It's notable that York wears a short pouffy bob haircut and modern makeup, resulting in a look that transposes 1969 for 1940. She could easily be one of Austin Powers' flower-power girls via a quick wardrobe change.

Director Guy  Hamilton and screenwriters James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex (working from the book "The Narrow Margin" by Derek Dempster and Derek Wood) approached the material with the apparent goal of making the most historically accurate account possible. Much of their efforts went toward recreating the airborne battles, gathering together a sizable air force of actual WWII craft, or close approximations.

They also used a large number of realistic replicas, both life-size ones on the ground and flying models. The special effects are decent enough for 1969, although it isn't too hard to detect the shifts between real and replica aircraft.

Explosions on the ground look too much like rigged effects -- such as how a lone airplane on the ground will be hit dead-on by a single bomb, with no other explosives landing nearby. That's simply not how cluster bombing of that era worked; that tactic involved hordes of bombs being dropped at once, hoping a small percentage would detonate on target.

They also employ not-very-special effects for the flying explosions, which appear to have been hand-drawn directly onto the celluloid. The result looks something like when you successfully hit your target in an early 1980s arcade game.

Coming out a year after "2001: A Spacey Odyssey" and only eight years before "Star Wars," the effects in "Battle of Britain" were already anachronistic.

The film is mostly fair to the German side, though the lack of comparable Teutonic stars as counterparts to the English ones belies the notion of a truly balanced depiction. But we get to see how the cockiness of both sides' pilots soon crumbles into fatigue and despair.

The movie does illustrate how the tides of war, and even human history, can be changed by the smallest of events.

Hitler had expressly decreed that London was not to be bombed, with the Luftwaffe instead concentrating on wiping out the British airfields along the coasts. But during a run a German Heinkel bomber goes off-course, and the pilot decides to dump their payload before heading back. In retaliation for some minor damage near the outskirts of London, the Allies organize a bombing run of their own on Berlin -- something the leaders of the Third Reich had vowed would never happen.

Vexed, Hitler and company shifted the focus of their airborne attacks from the airfields to the British capital. This resulted in terrible loss of life -- but it also gave the RAF a chance to recover sufficiently to start mounting a serious air defense. Most historians regard this blunder as a turning point in the war.

At the start of the movie, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (Olivier) had unctuously predicted that they would have to inflict losses on the German attackers in the neighborhood of 4 to 1 to have any hope of winning the air battle. Eventually, the German losses indeed became too high, and the plan to invade Great Britain was scrapped.

I think "Battle of Britain" is one of those movies that recedes as time goes by, rather than its reputation swelling. Seen now, it's an often dull litany of aerial sequences interrupted by talkie exchanges of dialogue on the ground with little impact. The film's only real enduring legacy is the fact that its aerial footage was reused many, many times in other cinematic portrayals -- including "Midway" and "Hope and Glory."

Part of this had to do with the considerable skill with which those sequences were shot (minus the hokey fake explosions). But also with the fact that the airplanes used in 1969 simply weren't available later on.

A serviceable if unremarkable WWII war film, "Battle of Britain" exists mostly as a marker of great deeds rather than truly capturing them.

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