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Battle of Britain

Battle of Britain(1969)

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"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," declared Winston Churchill famously to the House of Commons on Aug. 20, 1940. One week earlier, fierce dogfights had broken out over the skies of England between British and Nazi flyers. This episode of WWII - known as the Battle of Britain - lasted six weeks and included the worst of the London Blitz. Hitler was trying to pummel the British from the air in advance of a Nazi ground invasion. But the Royal Air Force, with some assistance from Czech and Polish pilots, put up a diligent fight despite heavy early losses, ultimately forcing Hitler on Sept. 17 to cancel his planned invasion "until further notice."

Battle of Britain (1969) is essentially this story, alternating personal vignettes of commanders, flyers and civilians with spectacular and vivid dogfight sequences. These combat scenes are the result of some impressive logistical coordination and craftsmanship, and they make the film visually compelling.

Producer Harry Saltzman and director Guy Hamilton, both known for their work on Goldfinger (1964) and other James Bond movies, oversaw 18 months of scripting and 14 months of shooting. They assembled over 100 vintage planes and hired as technical advisers three of the greatest veteran flying aces of the battle - two British and one German. They also had 14 movie stars in the cast, which made for a scheduling nightmare. It proved to be a real challenge to pull off an epic of this size while maintaining a clear and cohesive point of view for the audience. In the end, Battle of Britain tried to show too much, blunting its force with an episodic structure. Still, the dogfights look great, and the picture effectively evokes a sense of battle fatigue, anxiety over a pilot shortage, and the headaches of top military brass as they devise strategy with time running out.

Standing out in the enormous all-star British cast is Laurence Olivier as Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, whose crafty tactics with his limited planes induced the Luftwaffe to make fatal errors. Dowding refused to be glibly optimistic, persuading Churchill to keep as many planes as possible in England in order to have a real chance at defeating the Nazis there. The real Hugh Dowding, then 86, visited the set and reportedly wept as he watched Olivier reenact his famous confrontation with Churchill, in which he told the Prime Minister, "Our young men will just have to shoot down their young men at the rate of five to one."

Trevor Howard, also quite good as the Air Vice-Marshall, relished the chance to work with Olivier. He said, "There's a man you admire all your life, hope to one day get to make a film with, and you do only two small scenes with him shot in about two or three days. But it was worth it, old son. And I've known Larry a long time."

Among the supporting players is Michael Caine who recalled in his autobiography, What's It All About? (Ballantine Books), that his "part was small, but I took it and how glad I was, because it gave me an opportunity to talk to some remarkable survivors of the Battle of Britain. I was privileged to meet two of the greatest British air aces of that battle: Ginger Lacey and Bob Stanford Tuck, who were on the film as technical advisers. Our German technical advisor was none other than Adolf Galland, the Nazi air ace who led the battle from the enemy side."

The Battle of Britain emerged in the middle of a spate of epic combat films which re-created specific battles of WWII with all-star international casts, actual locations and docudrama-like realism - films like The Longest Day (1962), In Harm's Way (1965), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and Midway (1976). The combat genre had by now evolved from early propagandistic retellings of actual events to virtual replicas of those events, paying close attention to minute details of time and place. Cinematically, the war was now a legend.

Producer: Benjamin Fisz, Harry Saltzman
Director: Guy Hamilton
Screenplay: Wilfred Greatorex, James Kennaway
Cinematography: Freddie Young, Bob Huke
Film Editing: Bert Bates
Art Direction: Bert Davey, William Hutchinson, Jack Maxsted, Gil Parrondo, Maurice Carter
Music: Ron Goodwin, William Walton
Cast: Harry Andrews (Senior Civil Servant), Trevor Howard (Air Vice Marshal Keith Park), Michael Caine (Squadron Leader Canfield), Curd Jurgens (Baron Von Richter), Ralph Richardson (Sir David), Ian McShane (Sgt. Pilot Andy).
C-132m. Letterboxed.

by Jeremy Arnold

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