Battle of Britain (1969)

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Winston Churchill)

Battle of Britain is one of the great war movie classics. It’s the favourite movie of many people and certainly the favourite air combat movie of many more. I have watched it for the second time on the week-end and I’m glad I did so, because now I know better what worked for me and what didn’t. The strength of this movie is – funny enough - also its weakness.

The depiction of this crucial moment in British history is done with great detail and accuracy. The director tried to get everything right, down to the cloud formations. An incredible amount of original planes was gathered from different collectors all over the world to make the battles look authentic. And yes, the battle scenes look very convincing.

The Battle of Britain was Göring’s idea. He had been a fighter pilot in WWI and the whole strategy of gaining the air supremacy over England was his. Only he miscalculated the whole thing and they made crucial mistakes.

The idea was to bomb all the air fields, hangars, docks and the like. Starting on November 14 1940 they dropped huge loads of bombs and also destroyed, among other things, the city of Coventry on November 15. Unfortunately they also bombed London which led to the bombing of Berlin and was ultimately the beginning of the Blitz.

The movie shows all these elements and changes constantly from the British HQ to the German side, from there to the air fields and the pilots. Unlike most other movies of the time they did cast Germans for the German roles and French actors for the French which adds another layer of authenticity.

What looks at first like a desperate and hopeless case, later becomes one of those incredible tales of heroism and courage.

Not only did the Germans make the capital mistake to bomb London, they also underestimated their enemy. The British pilots, later helped by Free French, Polish, Czech and others, were the far superior pilots and their fighter planes were superior as well.

When Göring asked one of his commanders what they needed in order to win the answer was “Spitfires”.

The tactics, the battles, the details, all this is incredibly well done but,  due to the epic nature of the movie, there are a lot of characters in this movie and one doesn’t really warm to any of them. Sure Michael Caine is great as Squadron Leader and there is a mini love story at the heart of which is Christopher Plummer but the characters are not very well developed. This was clearly not the focus. Battle of Britain is much more a documentary style movie and, as I already said, this is its strength and its weakness and that is why I will always prefer The Dam Busters. I like my movies to be a bit more emotionally engaging than Battle of Britain.

Still, despite all the criticism, this is one of the great epic war movies and an absolute must-see that one cannot rate less than 5/5. I would say it’s  a great companion to the US Pearl Harbor movie Tora!Tora!Tora!, another great and very authentic air combat movie.

Sorry for this lousy looking trailer but it was the only one I could find.

Bat*21 (1988)

Bat 21 Movie Poster

Sometimes you get a movie. Sometimes you don’t. I must admit I didn’t get Bat*21. I found it lame and somewhat uninspired despite the fact that it is based on a true story. Gene Hackman is a decent actor and so is Danny Glover but still… I had to look it up in my book on Vietnam movies to understand what the director had wanted with this movie. Apparently Bat*21 was meant as an answer to Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and other Vietnam infantry combat movies who focus on young soldiers and officers. The two main characters in Bat*21 are in their fifties. The movie wants to show that older soldiers are less gung-ho and that it might have been better if they had had their say instead of the young ones. In the movie, Hackman’s and Glover’s characters stand for maturity and taking calculated risks. They are aware of the fact that this war is senseless and should be ended.

Lt Col. Hambleton (Gene Hackman), a weapons countermeasures expert, is shot down over enemy territory. His knowledge is vital to some of the missions and the Air Force wants to do everything to get him back. As a first measure they send out reconnaissance pilot Cpt “Bird-Dog” Clark (Danny Glover) who has flown  far more missions than anyone can count. Without seeing each other they develop a relationship and Bird-Dog is seriously concerned for “Ham”. The territory he is in is hot. Enemies are swarming the place and the area should be carpet-bombed in a couple of days. If he can’t get out in time Ham will be killed one way or the other.

“Ham” is quite apt at hiding, he spends the night in the jungle and more than once an enemy patrol doesn’t see him because he is so well camouflaged. Thanks to a “code” referring to golf holes he can transmit his position to Bird-Dog who monitors him from above.

It’s not an awful movie and for those who love choppers and fighter planes, there is quite a lot to see. It did remind me of a lame version of Flight of the Intruder without the corny end. If you like stories based on true accounts you might still enjoy it. It was quite tricky to get out of that mess alive. Despite a lot of good intentions I can’t rate it any higher than 2.5/5. It certainly achieved to be the antithesis of Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket.

If you are looking for really great Vietnam movies see my post 10 Vietnam War Movies You Must See.

First Light (2010 TV) A TV Movie Based on the Memoir of a Spitfire Pilot

Geoffrey Wellum was only 18 when he joined the 92 squadron of the RAF in May 1940. He was one of the youngest pilots. He flew over 50 missions during 18 months, all through the Battle of Britain and beyond. After a forced break of several months he flew again but finally had a nervous breakdown and stopped for good. A while back he published his memoirs First Light on which this TV movie is based.

First Light is a treat for everyone interested in Spitfires, their pilots and the Battle of Britain. In between scenes we see and hear Wellum talk about his experiences. I think that hardly any pilot flew over such a long period and this many missions as he did. The strain and  stress of being a Spitfire pilot is really palpable.

When he arrived at the base no one thought he would make it as far more experienced pilots were shot down. The other pilots were a bit reluctant at first to accept him as he was so young. The RAF was in desperate need of pilots and couldn’t really be too choosy. Soon the other pilots realized that he was a good pilot and a fine man and they accepted him. During the day they flew their missions, sometimes even in the pouring rain, in the evenings they came together to sing, drink and dance with girls.

There are many moments typical for air combat movies. The moment when they fly back to the base and everyone is anxious to see if anyone is missing. The love stories, the drinking, the friendships. The older men who feel protective of the younger ones. The sadness when one of their friends dies.

Maybe First Light wouldn’t be so special as a movie if we didn’t know that it ‘s a true story. But the fact that it is a true story and the presence of Wellum himself make this worth watching.

Instead of a trailer I attached a mini-documentary. Hope you will like it.