They Were Not Divided (1950)

THEY WERE NOT DIVIDED

I’m usually quite lucky in my choices of older British movies. Some I’ve watched in the past make my extended best of list. However, They Were Not Divided will not be on that list. It’s not a bad movie but it felt at times as if the director had intended to make a war movie – based on true events (!) – which is suitable for the whole family. The result is a bit too cute for my taste.

At the core of the movie is the friendship between a British, an American and an Irish soldier. Especially the Englishman Philip Hamilton and the American David Morgan are very close. After having undergone intense training which we are shown in a long boot camp sequence, which reminded me a bit of Full Metal Jacket, the three men are promoted and assigned to serve in the tank company of the Welsh Guards.  Two thirds of the film are taken up by the boot camp and further tank training episodes, occasionally interrupted by leaves which they spend at Philip’s home. During one of those leaves, David meets an English girl and falls in love with her.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationships in the movie. The marriage between Philip and his wife is explored as well as the relationship between David and his future fiancée.

The last part of the film, could finally be called the real war movie part. The three main characters land at Normandy weeks after D-Day as part of the Welsh Guard’s Armoured Division. They quickly see combat and have to cope with fighting a war in another country, far from their wives and girl friends. The film then picks up speed and we see many of the crucial moments of WWII: Operation Market Garden, The Battle of the Bulge. We see how the Welsh Guards join American paratroopers at the Grave bridge before moving to Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden. The film ends with the Ardennes Offensive and the Guards’ unknown operations around the east side of the river Meuse. I suppose it isn’t spoiling the movie too much if I mention that not everyone survives.

I think They Were Not Divided isn’t exactly a must see but I’ve seen far worse. It’s an ok movie, it just doesn’t really have anything that stands out with the exception of some quite humorous scenes during the boot camp sequence. It’s safe to say that even the very squeamish can watch this. If you’re looking for a WWII film to watch with the whole family, this could be your choice.

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Reach For The Sky (1956) Biopic of a Famous RAF Bomber Pilot

Reach for the Sky

If Reach for the Sky wasn’t a true story it would be one of those movies which you’d just shrug off as way over the top but since it is based on a true story it leaves you astonished.

Reach for The Sky is the story of one man’s love for flying which was so intense that it made him  overcome one of the worst things that can happen to a man and later turned him into a legend.

Douglas Bader is a passionate and reckless young RAF pilot when in 1931, while showing off his talents in front of other pilots, he has a terrible accident which costs him both legs.

Determined and optimistic as he is, he makes the impossible possible and soon learns to walk on tin legs, without help or a crutch. Shortly after leaving the hospital, still on crutches during that time, he meets his future wife and love of his life Thelma.

The only bitter moment comes for him when they don’t accept him as a pilot anymore and he has to do desk duty.

If it wasn’t for WWII he may never have flown again but when war breaks out he undergoes tests and is judged fit for service.

The story which is already quite remarkable until that point, gets truly astonishing now. Not only does he fly one mission after the other, survives the Battle of Britain but he becomes one of the best-loved wing commanders until he is shot down in 1941.

He survives and is captured by the Germans. As a POW he shows the same determination as earlier in his life and escapes several times from different camps until he’s finally sent to Colditz castle where he remains until the end of the war.

Douglas Bader’s story is truly amazing. It would have been so easy to just fall into a deep depression and withdraw from life but Bader was a fighter and nothing, absolutely nothing, could put that man down or stop him. And he was a passionate pilot. As much as he loved his wife, we get the impression that he loved flying even more.

A story like this is quite inspiring but that wouldn’t make this a great movie. What makes it great is the way it is told. While the first half focusses on Bader, his accident and how he learned to walk again, the second half focusses on WWII, the Battle of Britain, the dog fights… It’s quite suspenseful and interesting. It’s not easy for Bader to be accepted at first. The young pilots are a bit taken aback when they find out their wing commander has no legs.

I wasn’t familiar with the main actors Kenneth Moore and the lovely Muriel Pavlow but they were both really good.

It’s certainly a movie I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII, the Battle of Britain and true stories about resilience and overcoming a tragedy.

Dunkirk (1958)

The British movie Dunkirk, starring John Mills, was one of those movies I was really looking forward to. I’m not sure what I expected but certainly nothing as boring as this. Those 135 minutes felt like a mini series. That’s too bad as the story of Dunkirk has a lot of potential or someone like Hugh Sebag-Montefiore wouldn’t have been able to dedicate a 700 pages tome to this story only. As boring as it was at times, it’s not a bad movie but it has the wrong title. It isn’t really about Dunkirk.

Dunkirk tells two parallel story lines and that’s where it fails. One part of the story follows the men around Corporal Tubby Bins (John Mills) who is involuntarily in charge of a group of men cut off from the rest of the army, somewhere behind enemy lines. The other story line focusses on the British civilians who slowly begin to understand that they may no longer be able to stay out of the war and that each and every little contribution is valuable. The stories converge on the beaches of Dunkirk where hundred thousands of British and French soldiers are trapped and waiting to be rescued. This was one of the biggest rescue missions of any war ever. And many of those who courageously helped save others lost their lives.

By dividing the story in two and showing the tragedy of the trapped soldiers only in the last 15 minutes, the movie failed to give an accurate picture. Although Atonement is certainly not a war movie, I thought it captured Dunkirk far better (I attached the scene under the Dunkirk trailer for those who are interested). It’s more sentimental but for my taste Dunkirk was too sober.

Something I liked in the movie Dunkirk was the way they showed how the civilians got dragged into the war. All the scenes on the British home front are far more convincing. I think, if they had called it “Operation Dynamo“, as the rescue mission was called, and if they had considerably cut the John Mills’s scenes, it would have worked better.

It seems that there is a very good TV mini series called Dunkirk as well. I’m going to watch it soon and will let you know if it is any better.

Age of Heroes (2011) Sean Bean Starring in A Movie on the British Commando Unit in WWII

It would be very hard for me not to watch a movie starring Sean Bean and that is why I was looking forward to Age of Heroes a movie based on the true story of Ian Fleming’s Commando Unit. Lucky yesterday wasn’t one of my impatient days or I wouldn’t have finished it. It would have been too bad as the movie improves considerably after the first 15 extremely dodgy minutes are over. But, judging from the ratings on IMDb, people didn’t forgive the movie its beginning…

Age of Heroes follows a British special forces unit on a crucial mission called “Operation Grendel”. The men, being part of Ian Fleming‘s  so-called Commando unit, one of the first special forces units, have undergone a very hard training. They are led by a hard but funny training officer (William Houston) and their highly appreciated leader Major Jones (Sean Bean). Jones is one of the best leaders I’ve seen in a war movie. He is tough but just, clever, courageous and not without kindness. Part of the unit is the Norwegian born American Steinar (Axel Hennie, Max Manus). This makes a lot of sense as the mission takes place behind enemy lines in occupied Norway. The Commando unit will have to drop in Norway and get some German radars in order to analyze them. The whole operation has been planned and is closely supervised by Ian Fleming (James D’Arcy) in London. A lot of what he experienced during the war when he was an assistant of the Director of Naval Intelligence was later used in his James Bond novels.

Needless to say that this was a dangerous suicide mission and, typical for this type of endeavor, many things went wrong and people died. As we get to know the characters well before they go on their mission, we care for them. One of them is introduced early, in the unfortunately weird beginning that takes place in France, and we get to know and like the others in the British training camp.

All in all it was an entertaining movie if somewhat flawed. It is flawed because it reminded me of some recent Resistance movies and lack of originality is a flaw. But it was also flawed because the film makers seem not to have been decided whether they wanted this to be more of an action or more of a war flick. The story is a war story but the movie is told like an action film.

If you like Sean Bean and have never heard of the Commando unit, the precursor of the SAS, you will enjoy watching it and, due to the action twist it is quite gripping.

633 Squadron (1964) British Air Combat Movie that Would Make a Great Remake

The British movie 633 Squadron is an entertaining air combat movie. It has a little bit of everything in it. It is part adventure story, war movie , suicide mission and romance. Although it is not great it has a lot of potential and would be a great choice for a remake. None of the actors is remarkable, exchanging them wouldn’t do any harm and the special effects could do with some revamping as well. Still if you have a special interest in aircraft you might want to watch it as it gives you the possibility of seeing a real Mosquito (as far as I know only one is the real thing, the others were remade). The Mosquito was a funny, enduring little plane and is one of the rare made of wood. When it entered production in was one of the fastest operating aircraft.

“In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again…” (Hermann Göring)

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The story of 633 Squadron resembles the story of the much better movie The Dam Busters. A group of pilots has to go on a secret mission and drop bombs on a German rocket fuel factory that is based in Norway. The Norwegian resistance does also play a part in it and the squadron leader falls in love with the sister of one of their members. The squadron is a typical war movie squadron that pushes diversity to the limits. We see British, Irish, Scottish, Australian and Indian members. The accents are quite enjoyable if you go for that kind of detail. The mission itself is quite gripping and suspenseful. The losses were, as could be expected, extremely high.

633 Squadron is loosely based on a true story which makes it interesting to watch, still I would say if you want to see two really great British WWII air combat movies, go for The Battle of Britain or the aforementioned The Dam Busters.

Aces High (1976) British WWI Air Combat Movie

I was curious to watch Aces High as it is one of the few WWI air combat movies we have. I did remember vaguely that some critics didn’t like it at all and wanted to find out for myself. I had the feeling it might not be as good as Der rote Baron aka The Red Baron although that is decidedly more of a guilty pleasure than a movie providing historical accuracy. I was right. Aces High isn’t even remotely as good as Der rote Baron and certainly not on the same level as The Blue Max which depicts a fascinating if revolting character. Unfortunately, it could have been good. It’s a narrow miss. What is particularly annoying is the fact that the flight scenes and the contrast of the combat on the ground and in the air is shown very well. It also shows once more the complacency and inadequacies of the high command. While their pilots are shot down one by one, they sit together, eating, laughing, drinking and gossiping and even deny them parachutes because that would make them week in battle. The movie doesn’t spare us and shows one particularly chilling episode in which we see a pilot falling to a certain death that might have been prevented if he had been given a parachute.

The story is told in a few sentences. Young Lt Croft (Peter Firth) arrives in France after barely 14 hours of flying practice. The CO of the base he has been assigned to is his brother-in-law, Major Gresham (Malcolm McDowell), a man he admires incredibly. He finds Gresham extremely changed. Disillusioned, hardened, distant and a full-blown alcoholic. The rest of the lot is not much better; either they drink or they are shell-shocked. The only nice and cool-headed one seems to be an older officer, Capt. “Uncle” Sinclair (Christopher Plummer).

Gresham cannot spare young Croft and has to take him on dangerous missions right away. The young man enjoys every minute of it. He is naive and enthusiastic.

You will probably think that this doesn’t sound too bad, I agree, it doesn’t but it still isn’t a good movie. Aces High has a big problem with its characters. Apart from Christopher Plummer’s character, they are uninteresting, flat and two-dimensional cardboard figures. This is disappointing because, as said, the air combat scenes are decent, the planes are decent and there is one incidence in which they make a trip to the front line and see a group of blinded soldiers that is quite harrowing. I’m afraid, I can’t rate this any higher than 3/5.

The Way To the Stars aka Johnny in the Clouds (1945) A British WWII Movie about British and American Pilots on a UK Bomber Base

Starting just before the Battle of Britain The Way to the Stars tells the story of two friends and the people that surround them on a British airbase. Flight Lt. David Archdale (Michael Redgrave) and Pilot Officer Peter Penrose become friends when Penrose (John Mills) arrives at the base where Archdale is squadron leader in 1940.  The years go by. Penrose who was a total rookie at the beginning of the movie becomes a good pilot. Archdale gets married to the hotel manageress Toddy and they have a baby. Penrose falls in love with Iris who lives at the hotel with her very stern aunt.

In 1942, just before the Americans join the base, Archdale doesn’t return from a mission. Shortly before this he withdrew Penrose from flying duty as he had done far too many missions. He was now a controller which he hated. When his friend dies he becomes very bitter  and breaks up with Iris.

The arrival of the Americans in 1942 changes the tone of the movie. We could say that we become witnesses of a real culture clash. I think this is very well done and the movie manages to do both countries great justice. I enjoyed this a lot as it is so insightful and does poke fun at both.

One of the American pilots, the eponymous Johnny (Douglass Montgomery), plays an important role in the second half of the movie.  He is married but he likes Toddy a great deal, probably falls in love with her. This is not a clichéd story of an adultery but a nuanced  tale of two people who meet each other, feel very close and realize that under other circumstances they would have become lovers.

For the aviation buffs out there I have to say that we see no combat scenes but we benefit greatly from the time during which this movie was shot as you will hardly see so many original planes and different types of planes in any other movie (certainly not in anything modern). We get a particularly  good feel for the American Flying Fortress. An important part of the movie takes place in Toddy’s hotel which allows for some great character portraits. It is quite a motley crew that one would have encountered in a hotel during the war. Another interesting aspect.

In many ways this is a unique movie. Touching and quite accurate in the depiction of life on an airbase at the time. 4/5