“The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin…Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say ‘This was their finest hour.'”
War on land or on sea is always easier to make a film about than war in the air, particularly if there’s a desire to use all-new footage rather than incorporate actual war footage for the action scenes. If one looks back over the 20 years following the end of World War II, many of the most famous land and sea engagements of the war were reenacted on screen, sometimes several times, but fewer films focused exclusively on aerial warfare. The Battle of Britain, not only one of the pivotal air battles of the War but one of its pivotal battles period, was not filmed until 1969.
The actual Battle was fought out over the skies of England and the English Channel during the period from early July to mid-September 1940. The German objective was to liquidate the fighter planes of the Royal Air Force so that a German invasion of England could proceed unimpeded from the air. A valiant effort by the R.A.F. pilots, who were frequently called upon to fly multiple sorties per day, managed to inflict enough damage upon the German Luftwaffe to cause Germany finally to abandon its invasion plans and switch its aerial war tactics to bombing the English cities. (For a fully-rounded, well-illustrated, and enjoyable examination of the Battle, I recommend finding a copy of Len Deighton’s 1980 book Battle of Britain.)
The filming of Battle of Britain involved the use of over a hundred Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts, and Heinkels from the actual period. Producer Harry Saltzman (of James Bond fame) pulled out all the stops to ensure the remarkable flying sequences contained in the film — an impressive mixture of live action and model work. The resulting film was eagerly anticipated and featured in many special preview screenings for various wartime commemorative groups. It is a film long sought in a good widescreen version first on laserdisc and then on DVD. People waiting patiently finally got their desire in the waning days of laserdisc and now for DVD advocates, MGM has responded with a DVD that does the film itself full justice, even if it will leave fans disappointed at the lack of effort on supplementary content.
Britain waits for an attempted invasion of its shores by German forces massing on the continent. As a prelude, the German Luftwaffe mounts immense flights of fighters and bombers designed to knock out British air bases and destroy the planes of the R.A.F. Fighter Command. The latter is under the general direction of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding with the front line defenses of 11 Group in southeastern England commanded by Air Vice Marshall Keith Park. As the summer progresses and multiple German attacks arrive every day, many German planes are shot down, but British losses of planes and particularly pilots become critical. Then on September 15, 1940, the Germans launch their largest attack so far.
Battle of Britain is a wonderful film if what you principally want to see are lots of vintage World War II aircraft engaged in aerial dogfights. If you want a real feel for the drama of the situation, however, the film is strangely lacking in conveying it. The reason lies in a script that fails to give a good sense of time and place, and in the end sheds only cursory light on the progress of the Battle and the reasons for its end.
If you’re also interested in characterizations and relationships that are more than cardboard stereotypes, you should also look elsewhere. This is particularly disappointing given the caliber of the cast — Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Ralph Richardson, Robert Shaw, and Susannah York to name but a few. But, as with too many films with such all-star casts, all the money was apparently spent on lining up the players, and none on a decent script for them to play. The result is that the players are distractions more than anything else. The only pleasure to be derived from them in this case is to play a spot-the-star game with yourself or your friends as the film progresses. Of the lot, Laurence Olivier (who plays Dowding) is the only one due more than the most cursory notice. The obligatory romantic relationship between Christopher Plummer’s character and that of Susannah York is particularly tiresome. Robert Shaw’s portrayal of a bombastic squadron leader also quickly grows annoying.
All of that might suggest that Battle of Britain is not a film worth seeing. That would be a mistake, however, because the aerial sequences (mainly photographed by Skeets Kelly and John Jordan) and Freddie Young’s photography carry the day. As mentioned above, an impressive array of period aircraft was assembled, some from the Spanish Air Force, others from museums and private collectors. The footage of these craft engaging in dogfights once again, supplemented by, for the most part, well-executed model work, makes for extremely exciting fare. An impressive list of military advisors (the likes of Robert Stanford-Tuck and Ginger Lacey on the British side, and Adolf Galland on the German side) surely played a key role in the realistic staging of these aerial engagements. The music score is also a plus. Originally written by William Walton, it was then supplemented by material by Ron Goodwin, principally the wonderful title piece (the Battle of Britain march) that has come to be a staple of military bands.
MGM’s DVD is a 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation that looks very good indeed. Bright, clear, and colourful, it’s virtually everything that devotees of the film could want. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is excellent. Edge effects are occasionally present, but never intrusive.
The film’s original mono soundtrack sounds quite good. It’s free of hiss or distortion, and for a mono track seems to have a bit of punch in the low end. Dialogue is fine and action scenes are fairly dynamic though obviously lacking the presence of contemporary mixes. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The disappointing aspect of the disc is the lack of supplementary content. All we get is the original theatrical trailer. With all the wealth of information available on the Battle of Britain, the failure to capitalize on any of it is annoying. Also, the impressive aerial scenes in the film are just ripe for a making-of documentary. A real opportunity missed.
Battle of Britain is one of those films that contains one significant aspect that more than makes up for all its other deficiencies. The result is an entertainment value that is high even if the film doesn’t provide the detailed history lesson that some might wish for. MGM’s disc provides a top-notch presentation of the film itself, but is a distinct failure in terms of supplementary content for a film that cries out for it. Still, firmly recommended.