Monday, October 21, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Battle of Britain" (1969)

There really isn't much acting per se in "Battle of Britain," the big-budget recreation of the war in the skies over the U.K. in the summer and fall of 1940, which historians regard as a turning point in World War II.

If Hitler had pressed the attack after Dunkirk instead of relying on the German superior air power to soften up the Brits, the thinking goes, the United Kingdom almost certainly would have fallen, and they'd be eating sauerkraut in the Bronx these days.

The aerial spectacle is the real star of this show, despite the presence of luminaries like Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Christopher Plummer, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Robert Shaw, Ralph Richardson, Harry Andrews, Michael Redgrave and even a young and off-puttingly smooth-faced Ian McShane.

Unlike most war pictures of this era that make extensive use of stock footage and terrible models, director Guy Hamilton and his crew assembled an impressive armada of vintage aircraft (or contemporaneous lookalikes) and deployed them in the skies, using real WWII pilots as consultants. They did use models for some of the scenes where planes blow up in the sky, and life-size replicas on the ground for similar pyrotechnic mayhem.

At the time, the producers boasted of having the "35th largest air force in the world." And it pays off: I couldn't spot a single instance of canned footage in the movie.
The final result is a film of impressive verisimilitude. One really gets a taste for what it must have been luck to be a British RAF pilot in those days, where they might fly five missions in a single day and new recruits might last a week. The sound design is quite impressive for its time, often the only audio we hear except for occasional radio chatter.

You might lament the lack of anything more than superficial characterization of any of the figures. McShane gets a surprisingly large amount of the non-flying screen time, playing a young pilot whose entire family is wiped out while hiding in an air raid shelter.

Shaw -- still sporting that blond dye job he used while fighting James Bond -- also gets a few moments on the homestead as Skipper (his name, not title), a demanding squadron leader known for rattling newbies with his aggressive in-air dogfighting simulations.

When one of the green pilots is ordered up for a one-on-one session, the veterans give him a teasing prelude, mimicking the commanders' radio simulation of machine-gun fire: "Attackattackattackattackattacka…"

Plummer and York probably have the most depth as a married couple both in the military. He plays squadron leader Colin Harvey, and she is Maggie, an officer in the women's air support unit. He repeatedly presses her -- demands angrily, really -- that she transfer to a closer station so they can be together. But she desires an identity of her own and keeps putting him off, which sours their infrequent liaisons in pubs or hotels.

At one point she is introduced to another flight officer with severe burn scars, which serves as an obvious premonition to Colin's own bout with being trapped in a flaming Spitfire. Lamentably, the screenplay by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex simply drops their story after the revelation of his injuries, so we don't get to see the impact on their already tenuous relationship.

I rather liked Olivier as RAF chief Hugh Dowding, who is analytical and outspoken, eschewing the usual sort of military bluster. He writes a letter to his superior advocating for abandoning air support of the remaining French forces, knowing it will be controversial and go straight to the desk of Winston Churchill.

Later, after a rare victory in which the British fighters take out a horde of German bombers without a single loss, Dowding is called by a press official looking for confirmation and a quote so he can flog the story. "I don't care for propaganda," he responds, simply hanging up the phone on the man.

Most of the 2¼-hour running time is taken up with the air show, which surprisingly doesn't grow tiresome. My dad was in the Air Force (navigator/bombardier) during the Korean War and there are a number of pilots on my wife's side of the family, so I have a bit of an affinity for this stuff.

Director Hamilton doesn't even use the usual trick of constantly focusing on the pilots' faces to emphasize the human element. There are some cuts to the cockpit, but since it's difficult to even tell which actor is which with their goggles, mask and flight cap, there really isn't much point.

I was joking to myself that Caine's role was more voiceover than lives shots. He could've literally phoned it in, though I don't think he does. He plays another squadron leader, Canfield, who's vexed by how his unit is constantly being moved around. He doesn't seem to have any family or friends, just a dog as his companion/totem.

Interestingly, "Battle of Britain" has two completely different sets of musical score. Sir William Walton's music was rejected by the United Artists chief, who tried to get John Barry to do one, but he declined. Ron Goodwin was finally tapped to do the replacement score.

Olivier got wind of this and threatened to take his name off the credits, so the bigwigs relented and incorporated some of Walton's music into the final film. His complete score was later discovered, recorded and released.

The scenario reminds me of what happened to Bernard Hermann's score for "Torn Curtain," which was rejected by Alfred Hitchcock and ended their long and storied collaboration. To my ear, Goodwin's music is fairly standard-issue military march stuff.

"Battle of Britain" is also interesting for spending a little time on the German side of the fight, as scrappy overconfident pilots slowly become disillusioned with their commanders' tactics.

A festive beachside feast where they look though spyglasses at the white cliffs of Dover across the channel, yearning to conquer those shores, is contrasted with a much more subdued dinner toward the end. Hein Riess plays Hermann Göring, the plump and pompous head of the Luftwaffe, who seems more interested in strutting about in a white uniform that coming up with a winning strategy.

"Battle of Britain" succeeds as a spectacle if not as a human drama. I would contrast it with Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," which was all about the people with the hardware in the background. Still, watching all those Stukas and Spitefires duke it out in the sky is an undeniable treat.

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