Battle of Britain (1969) / War-Drama
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences. Probably PG-13 today for violence and some sensuality.
Running time: 133 min.
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Laurence Olivier, Susannah York, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Ian McShane, Trevor Howard, Michael Redgrave, Curt Jurgens, Kenneth More, Nigel Patrick, Ralph Richardson, Patrick Wymark, Hien Riess
Director: Guy Hamilton
Screenplay: James Kennaway, Wilfred Greatorex (based on the book, "The Narrow Margin" by Derek Dempster and Derek Wood)
Review published July 18, 2011
Guy Hamilton, perhaps best known for directing James Bond features, including Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, gets the chair filming this ultra-patriotic, star-studded WWII movie depicting a key battle in defense of the isle of Britain from the onslaught of German flying invaders in the summer of 1940. Though such stars as Sir Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, Rebecca), Michael Caine (The Italian Job, The Island) and Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Somewhere in Time) get marquee status, this ensemble film doesn't have any particular actor on the screen for very long, with no one actor contained in more than 25% of the scenes. This historical epic attempts to faithfully recreate the aerial battles over Britain and surrounding European seas, including the inclusion of Czech, Polish and other pilots necessary to fill the void of much needed pilots in the air on the Royal Air Force side trying to thwart the Luftwaffe's aerial armada.
With Germany occupying France and Norway, Great Britain becomes isolated from the rest of Europe, not only making it seem like easy pickings for the Nazi forces, but also making them the next logical target when they disagree to allow Germany to have its will in the region. But in order to secure the naval forces ready to land there, the Germans needed to assert dominance of the skies over Britain, crushing the air strips and planes located in the southeast portion of the country. Led by the confident German air force commander Hermann Goering (Riess), the numbers were heavily in the Luftwaffe's favor, outnumbering the British planes four to one. Scurrying to get ready for the fight, the RAF are diligently training fresh new recruits to fly their fighter planes and hope they can get them ready in time for the air battle that seems dangerously imminent. The British forces are successful in dealing with the bombers coming in to their country, but the attrition rate stacks the decks against them, as the Germans can send more planes than can be fought off, and things become especially dire when the Luftwaffe ratchets up their resolve as Goring turns his eyes to bombing London outright.
At just a little over two hours in length, Battle of Britain feels like a grand-scale three-hour war epic, the kind that Hollywood would churn out during the 1960s and 1970s with regularity (a la The Longest Day, Midway and Tora! Tora! Tora!). Much ground is covered in the coverage of the battle for air supremacy, perhaps a little too much to give some aspects their proper due. However, as a recreation of the war told in condensed form, the script by Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, The Shoes of the Fisherman) and Greatorex (The High Commissioner), adapted from the book, "The Narrow Margin", successfully touches all of the bases to successfully depict the war with some very stunning aerial cinematography, while offering just enough of the human element for us to feel something for those experiencing the battle on the ground. Perhaps a waste of time, given the reduction in the film's momentum, are the scenes of a soap opera-worthy romantic relationship between Christopher Plummer's character and Susannah York's (Superman, Superman II), though one might argue that they do have the effect of humanizing the war as affecting every facet of life for those involved in the sacrifice. THey still feel a little out of place as presented.
Such things as the role of women in the war, the hierarchy that forms in the ranks of the pilots, and a rare look at the German perspective are just some of the more interesting aspects of this production that other films covering the same territory usually gloss over. The RAF commanders and pilots are shown as being fallible - scared, fatigued, and able to make glaring mistakes. The propaganda kept the morale up for the British, though the film doesn't flinch in terms of showing the actual amount of casualties underreported by the radio reports going out to the public. In many ways, the filmmakers seek to portray a re-enactment of the war rather than a dramatization, and while that may bore more conventional moviegoers looking for a good, rousing story to sink their teeth into, those who respect historical accuracy will appreciate the effort to tell things as they were, even if a few artistic liberties are taken here and there to hold it all together.
The use of actual fighter planes, particularly in the scenes of air combat, is nothing short of breathtaking. Although there are many shots in which models are used, and the ground mock-ups look pretty much like that, the effects are such that suspension of disbelief is earned, especially when in the air. The bombing of London is a bit more problematic, as it looks like fire overlays had been used in order to give the appearance of a city in the midst of destruction. However, the combat is complex, and the use of plane-mounted cameras gives these scenes a truly mesmerizing view that puts the audience in the middle of the action, experiencing a taste of just how harrowing such combat must have been, especially for the relatively inexperienced crew.
Battle of Britain may find little room for audiences who aren't fascinated by war films, particularly those showcasing World War II, so temper expectations to be gripped by the dramatic or romantic aspects of the characters. It's a flag-waving piece depicting one of the main tide-turning moments in the war in favor of the Allied forces, featuring some very professional work both in front of and behind the cameras by all involved. For those interested in an important piece of military history, it's a classy, well-photographed peek into a major event that occurred during one of the greatest periods of 20th Century history. For WWII collectors, it's probably a keeper. For film buffs and the curious, it's worth a look.
©2011 Vince Leo