Bouncing into cinemas over sixty years after it was first released, The Dam Busters was back on the big screen. And what better occasion than the 75th anniversary of the actual dam raids themselves. Beamed from a special event at the Royal Albert Hall and screened across the country for one night only, The Dam Busters flew again. To the sound of Eric Coates’ iconic ‘Dam Busters March’ known to generations, many of whom have probably never even seen the film, history came alive. And aptly so, as the last surviving British dam buster Johnny Johnson, in his 90s, prepared to take to the skies once more in a
In 1943, the war was not going well for
Often hailed as the best British war movie – it’s much more than that. It’s about character. The crack-pot wizardry, and indefatigability, of Barnes Wallis (played by Michael Redgrave); the leadership and calculated bravado of Guy Gibson (Richard Todd); and the bravery of the boys, hardly more than that, who volunteered to serve. And it’s about the character
A ‘war film’ doesn’t do The Dam Busters justice. For the first half, it’s about Barnes Wallis and the tense, scientific and political battle to get the bouncing bombs green-lit. The second half is about Gibson’s preparation for the raid and the nail-biting operation – Operation Chastise - itself. There's a tad too much of the bumbling boffin about Redgrave’s Barnes Wallis – which Wallis' daughter, at the Albert Hall event, roundly criticised. But Richard Todd, a somewhat forgotten 50s star, is convincing as Gibson – nailing the boyish demeanour and steely brilliance of the soon-to-be decorated commanding officer. Sure, the special effects, even at the time, were not the best, particularly for the water explosions. But the build-up and the focusing of the tension on Gibson – mainly through his eyes and voice – is cinematic gold. And not for nothing did George Lucas hail The Dam Busters as the key influence in how he staged the climax of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s x-wing fighter dealing death to the Death Star.
No women are present, apart from Barnes Wallis’ wife. It was noticed at the time. The Americans baulked at the lack of a love story. Ah, but the devastation the raid caused: a modern quibble that some critics also noted in 1955. But it’s not about that. It’s a quiet, undemonstrative – and thereby highly affecting – commemoration of what the 133 airmen gave and achieved.
Funny, plainly-poignant, timeless and yet very much of its time, The Dam Busters is a quietly rousing film. Carefully crafted, its heart and humanity are so well-woven their subtleties steal over you. And while everyone knows the theme tune – arms out, pretending to be a plane - its fully-orchestrated use only last 45 seconds, as lorries take the lads to the planes: half a minute of sublimely prosaic emotion. One can only wonder what Stephen Fry and Peter Jackson’s much-touted, unproduced remake would look like. The special effects may be better. But Michael Anderson’s movie has stood the test of time. And as a commemoration, and as a time-capsule of film-making you just don’t see anymore, The Dam Busters simply soars.