Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Dam Busters (1955)

"Every time one of these Lancasters flies over, my chickens lay premature eggs!"

There's something about a British war film of this era, a decade or two after the war. There's the stuff-upper-lip mood; the straightforward, linear storytelling and the slow, steady pace. This is a typical example of the best of such films, I suppose.

It's a shame, of course, that the film has been somewhat overshadowed by the name of Guy Gibson's dog, a name that I have no intention of repeating. It isn't ok now and, with due acceptance of the different context of 1955 and, indeed, 1943, when the concept of racism was rarely thought of, it wasn't exactly ok then. But the past was what it was.

It's a pity, really; this is a bit of a barrier between us and the original context of the film, as the narrative point of the dog is to humanise Gibson, otherwise a rather flat, straightforward hero type, the kind of figure whom it's easy to admire but hard to empathise with. A shockingly young looking Richard Todd nevertheless does a good job playing a square-jawed hero, a man who, in reality, died for his country in 1944 aged 26. No wonder these men get so bladdered so often.

Michael Redgrave portrays Barnes Wallis with rather more depth, but then this is a part which allows him to do so. Wallis is humanised by his like ability, his long-suffering wife, his easy relationship with his children, and his easy categorisation as the traditional British boffin. The British boffin is an iconic figure, the lone, eccentric individual in his shed, fighting the narrow minds of bureaucrats. But that such a figure can, albeit with difficulty, find himself listened to (appropriately by an equally eccentric prime minister) shows that a muddle-through democracy is both superior to and more efficient than a totalitarian, goose-stepping tyranny.

Wallis, incidentally, lived to be 92. He seems to be the only male non-smoker in the film, something implied to be an eccentricity.

The film uses suspension and tension well, particularly in the final scenes as the squadron's sorties are juxtaposed with Wallis and co at Bomber Command, barely able to cope with the tension; the film is long, but doesn't feel so. The climax is satisfying, with some great model work and what I can only assume is stock footage of the damage done to the industry of the Ruhr. One has to raise an eyebrow here at the total indifference shown to any German civilians killed as a result, but that would not have been much of a consideration in 1955. But it's fitting that we end, not with scenes of triumph, but mourning for the fifty-six men who did not return. 

Best film I've seen in 2015 so far; a film that pointedly equates the inventor in his shed (in modern parlance, the geek) with the square-jawed pilot hero. Brilliant.

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