Being old enough to have parents that lived through the second world war, I was often told stories of the time in 1940 when London was bombed night after night by the German Luftwaffe. Both of my parents come from London (as do I) and my mother once told me that her house was actually hit by a bomb and they were “bombed out” as they used to call it. Being young and naive, I thought that the Luftwaffe had a vendetta against my mum and she was the only one that was hit...naive indeed...
Coming from the same stable as some of the early Bond films, The Battle Of Britain tells the story of the Royal Air Force's battle to repel the Luftwaffe during the late summer of 1940. Directed by Guy Hamilton, who was at the helm for four of 007's big screen adventures (including the absolutely unwatchable The Man with The Golden Gun) and starring a whole host of A listers from the time, the film isn't based on actual events - but is adapted from the novel The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Webster - thus all of the characters in the film are fictional.
Central of these characters are Sqn Ldr Canford (played by Michael Caine) and a character known only as “skipper” (played by Robert Shaw). Shaws character commands the airfield that Canford flies out off and is a bit of a battle hardened no nonsense kind of officer.
Canford seems to lead just about every sortie against the Luftwaffe that takes place over the English channel and he's a well respected officer with a good deal of experience. His men obey his every command without question - even if it means going to their death...
There's not a great deal I can tell you about the story to be honest. I can tell you though that this was actually the first time I had watched this film. All my life I had believed that the Battle Of Britain involved a couple of Heinkels being shot down by the mighty Spitfire over the English Channel. How wrong was I?
It actually included the London blitz - where London was bombed for 57 nights in a row by the Luftwaffe and 43000 civilians were killed. It also included skirmishes over the North sea as Hitler tried to bomb the Northern cities in England in a bid to help his invasion.
The film portrays all of these battles - and it does it brilliantly. Bearing in mind that back in 1969, Hamilton would not have had Industrial Light And Magic to call upon for 60 minutes of computer generated graphics. All of the “dog” fights were filmed live using real Spitfires. At the time, only nine of the 109 Spitfires that survived were flyable - so the whole film was made with only nine flying aircraft. Obviously a few modifications had to made - most notably, two of them were converted to trainer aircraft to accommodate the cameras used for filming the aerial scenes. Guy Hamilton does a remarkable job of capturing all the footage required to make the film work.
There are some great “stiff upper lip” performances from the likes of Caine, who re-employs his Zulu officer accent for this role. Making an early appearance is Ian McShane, the foul mouthed aptly named Al Swearengen in TV's Deadwood. I'm glad to say that he has had his mouth washed out with soap and water and plays the part of Sgt Pilot Andy with a humour that I can only imagine would have been typical of the day. Other major stars that appear in the film are Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson, Christopher Plummer and Kenneth More in his second outing as an RAF officer, having previously portrayed Douglas Bader in Reach for The sky.
No review of this film would be complete without passing reference to the phrase that Winston Churchill used to praise the RAF after winning The Battle Of Britain...
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few...
And I certainly have a higher regard for the RAF than I did before watching this film. Guy Hamilton has done a magnificent job of bringing the story to the big screen. It's fast paced with barely a moment to draw breath. It's filled with tension, tragedy and torment. Having listened to the stories my mother told me all those years ago, I believe it's also a true representation of what happened that summer - with a dash or romance thrown in for good measure. The Battle Of Britain comes highly recommended indeed.
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