“Battle of Britain” (1969)
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Written by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex, based on the book The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster
Starring: Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Edward Fox, Curd Jurgens
Director Guy Hamilton’s “Battle of Britain” is an all-star docudrama that attempts to recreate Nazi Germany’s ill-fated attempt to batter Great Britain into submission by aerial bombardment during the summer and autumn of 1940. As in 20th Century Fox’s 1962 D-Day epic “The Longest Day,” “Battle of Britain” features an international cast of actors from Germany, Canada, France, and, of course, Great Britain.
Also like “The Longest Day” producer Darryl F. Zanuck, producers Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz invested time (nearly four years) and money !$14 million in 1965 dollars) to hire a cast and acquire real military hardware of the period (including 100 flyable aircraft) to make “Battle of Britain” as realistic as possible.
“What General Weygand calls the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
It is spring, 1940. It’s been nine months since Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland plunged Europe into general war. France and Great Britain have been forced to fight against Nazi Germany and her allies. After a long lull on the Western Front called “the phony war” by the American press, Hitler’s armies have quickly overrun Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg and thrown the Anglo-French forces back into France in less than six weeks.
By late May of 1940, British forces are forced to leave their heavy equipment on the beaches and evacuate from the port city of Dunkirk. Only the English Channel, units of the Royal Navy and less than 1,000 fighters stand between Hitler’s conquering legions and the British Isles. As the new Prime Minister says in a speech before the House of Commons, “What General Weygand calls the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
Hitler now dominates most of Europe. With his eyes on a future conflict with the Soviet Union, the Fuhrer seeks a negotiated peace with a now-isolated Britain. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler is reluctant to mount a cross-Channel invasion of the British Isles.
Baron von Richter: David, we are not asking for anything. Europe is ours, we can walk into Britain whenever we like.
Sir David Kelly: If you think we’re going to gamble on Herr Hitler’s guarantees, you’re making a grave mistake. All those years in England seems to have left you none the wiser. We’re not easily frightened. Also we know how hard it is for an army to cross the Channel. The last little Corporal who tried came a cropper. So don’t threaten or dictate to us until you’re marching up Whitehall… and even then we won’t listen.
In a scene which mixes fact and fiction, Hitler dispatches Baron von Richter (Curd Jurgens) to the British embassy in Switzerland to propose terms. Sir David Kelley (Ralph Richardson) puts on a brave front and rebuffs the Nazi peace overture with a mix of stiff upper lip resolve and sheer bluff.
[Seeing the offer he has come to make is refused, von Richter goes to leave, pausing at the door.]
Baron von Richter: Heil Hitler.
[As von Richter leaves the embassy, Sir Kelly’s wife enters his office with a cup of tea. He looks up at her, sitting behind his desk.]
Sir David Kelly: It’s unforgivable. I lost my temper. [Stirs his tea absentmindedly] And the maddening thing is that he’s right. We’re on our own. We’ve been playing for time. And it’s running out!
With no diplomatic solution to their British problem, the Nazis begin an improvised effort to mount the cross-Channel invasion Hitler had not seriously planned to make. The German army and navy begin assembling a fleet of landing barges to carry armored and infantry divisions from France to the shores of southern England, while the Luftwaffe is tasked with destroying the Royal Air Force (RAF) and achieving air superiority over the invasion area.
[Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding is meeting with a senior civil servant who is involved with the planning of Britain’s defense against the coming German air campaign.]
Senior civil servant: Damn it, man, we’ve got 650 planes!
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding: And they have… 2,500 aircraft, haven’t they?
Senior civil servant: But, they’ve got to cross the Channel first! And we have radar! Churchill puts great faith in radar.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding: It’s vital, but it won’t shot down aircraft.
Senior civil servant: [Mildly annoyed] Well, I must say, you don’t exactly exude a spirit of optimism.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding: God willing we will hold out, Minister.
Senior civil servant: I see. So I’m to tell the Cabinet that you’re trusting in radar and praying to God, is that right?
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding: [chuckles] More accurately the other way round. Trusting in God and praying for radar. But the essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one, if we’re to keep pace at all.
Across the English Channel, the British frantically prepare for the heavy blows to come. The RAF’s Fighter Command, led by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) is the island nation’s first line of defense. Dowding’s force, depleted by the spring campaign over Belgium and France, has less than 700 fighters against the Luftwaffe’s estimated 2,500 aircraft.
The episodic screenplay by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex compresses the Battle of Britain (July 1-October 31, 1940) into a two-hour and 18 minute running time by presenting key events (Eagle Attack Day, the assault on Fighter Command airfields, the accidental bombing of London by a lost Luftwaffe He-111 bomber) as action-filled vignettes that lead to a climactic montage called “Battle of the Air.”
Section Officer Maggie Harvey: [to Squadron Leader Colin Harvey] I’m just not cut out to wave a wet hanky and sooty stations.
To add drama and interpersonal relationships, “Battle of Britain” sprinkles in subplots about the fighter pilots’ personal lives. In one of these soap opera-like threads,Canadian squadron commander Colin Harvey (Christopher Plummer) is unwilling to accept his wife Maggie’s (Susannah York) decision to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. When Maggie refuses to resign from the service, Colin then presses her to ask for a post in Scotland, where at least she’ll be safer from the German bombs.
[Sgt Pilot Andy is reading a letter, while the pilots are waiting for the call to scramble]
Sgt. Pilot Andy: Silly B—h!
Pilot Officer Archie: He’s calling you names again, Arnold!
Sgt. Pilot Andy: I spend half my leave getting her settled in the country, and now, “I’m bored”, she says!
On a similar vein, Sgt. Pilot Andy (Ian McShane) frets when his wife (Isla Blair) moves back to London with their two young sons because she can’t stand the boredom of country life as an evacuee.
“Battle of Britain” is an entertaining if somewhat uneven film intended to pay tribute to the fighter pilots who saved the island nation from Hitler’s forces nearly 30 years earlier. Visually impressive and well-remembered for its stunning aerial photography, “Battle of Britain” tries hard to give audiences a stirring mix of authentic-looking war action, patriotic remembrance, and Hollywood-style melodrama.
As a World War II-themed all star cast spectacle, “Battle of Britain” comes across as Harry Saltzman and Benjamin Fisz’s attempt to make Britain’s answer to “The Longest Day.” Unlike the American-produced adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction bestselling book about D-Day, “Battle of Britain” was shot in color and features dozens of flyable WWII-era aircraft representing both the RAF and the Luftwaffe.
To be sure, only a few of these aircraft are veterans of the Battle of Britain. For instance, most of the Spitfires seen in “Battle of Britain” were manufactured in later batches during and after the war, and only three Hawker Hurricanes were in good enough condition to be used in flying scenes. In addition, the Germans’ Heinkel 111 bombers are portrayed by Spanish made CASA 2.111 aircraft derived from the original Heinkel design but equipped with Rolls Royce Merlin engines. Similarly, the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters were depicted on screen by Spanish-built HA-1112s, which were licensed copies of the German aircraft.
Obviously, the spectacular air battles feature a combination of live-action aircraft and models fitted with pyrotechnics (to depict planes that are shot down or destroyed by bombs). The live action planes are impressive-looking enough, though aviation experts can tell the difference between, say, real Heinkel bombers and their Spanish-made doubles.
However, the scenes with models and animated effects are, by 21st Century standards, not as impressive. It’s easy to tell which planes are real and which ones aren’t during a battle scene. The real planes usually turn on smoke emitters under their engines when they’re hit and fly gradually out of the frame to simulate a crash, while model aircraft explode into tiny bits.
Savvy viewers can probably forgive the producers’ use of non-1940 aircraft and models in the aerial sequences. Most WWII buffs may also tolerate the writers’ attempt to compress a complex three-month campaign into a 138-minute feature film In that regard, screenwriters Kennaway and Greatorex get credit for sticking close to the commonly accepted historical version of the Battle.
However, their attempt to dramatize the personal lives of the pilots (especially the RAF airmen and their loved ones) doesn’t quite fit the film’s semi-documentary style. Guy Hamilton, who worked with Saltzman on four James Bond films between 1964 and 1974, gets decent performances from his cast, but the soap opera aspects of the script tend to pull the viewer out of the fact-based depictions of the Battle of Britain.
“Battle of Britain”: The Blu-ray
MGM’s 2008 Blu-ray release of “Battle of Britain” is a bare-bones offering without frills of any kind. It features a digitally remastered print of the 1969 movie with several audio and subtitle options for foreign language viewers, but not much else. Unlike the 2004 Special Edition DVD, the Blu-ray doesn’t even have a theatrical trailer as a bonus feature.
Of course, studios often release a bare-bones edition when a home video format is introduced, then wait a few years before creating a Special Edition or Collector’s Edition re-release full of extra features. Such might be the case with “Battle of Britain,” although MGM’s financial situation may not make that possible in the near future.
Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Blu-ray, Color, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, Dubbed, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
Language: English (DTS 5.1), French (Dolby Surround), Spanish (Dolby Surround)
Subtitles: French, Spanish, English, Cantonese, Korean
Dubbed: French, Spanish
Region: Region A/1
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: G (General Audience)
Blu-ray Release Date: June 3, 2008
Run Time: 132 minutes