The Dam Busters (1955)

The British classic The Dam Busters is and will always be one of my very favourite movies. It shows eloquently that the best stories are often those which are true. It’s the story of two men and a mission which was as ingenious as it was heroic. One of these men was inventor Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave), the other one Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd). The movie is based on two books, Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters and Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead.

The movie has a two-part structure. In the first we see how Willis invents the revolutionary bouncing bomb. The idea was to use the bombs and blow up the Ruhr dams in Germany. The destruction of the dams would not only  flood a huge area  but disrupt the German wartime industrial production as two big hydroelectric plants would go off-line. In order to blow up a dam the bomb had to land exactly on target which was only possible with extreme precision. The planes had to fly very low and used a cunning device to make sure they were at the right altitude and distance when dropping the bombs.

While Wing Commander Gibson was training the 617 Squadron – a special squadron of Lancaster planes – to fly at night at extremely low altitude, Willis was still conducting one trial after the other until he got the right bomb. Once he had the bomb and the date had arrived, it was in the hands of the pilots to make it work. This second part is extremely suspenseful. Of the 19 planes who flew on this mission only 11 returned. After the mission was accomplished, Willis said to Gibson that if he had known the cost, he wouldn’t have devised the bomb but Gibson assured him that each and every one of the dead pilots would have flown anyway.

The story of The Dam Busters is so amazing because there was such a lot of adversity. If it hadn’t been for Willis believing until the last moment that it would work and for Gibson and his men who thought the unthinkable was feasible, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s really amazing watching them, each on their side, adjusting, inventing and probing until they got it right.

Most of you may know that the remake of The Dam Busters should soon be out. This is one of the remakes I find almost sacrilegious. The movie has no great special effects but it tells a great story and the two main actors are very good. Eric Coates music is very famous and still considered to be one of the best war movie scores.

I’m sure the special effects of the remake will be better but I’m afraid it will be a very slick movie, lacking the warmth and enthusiasm that came across in the first. We will see.

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12 thoughts on “The Dam Busters (1955)

  1. Anton UK says:

    His name was Barnes Wallis not Willis.
    No, a new film won’t be the same, we’re not allowed to hate now and besides, the raid wasn’t that successful. Those industrious Germans had it up-and-running again three days later.
    I loved the film too though.

    • Wallis, indeed, thanks. Willis sounds silly. It was still successful as in mission accomplished. And there was a huge flood.

      • Anton UK says:

        Willys made the ‘Jeep’ for WW2 so not that silly; but let’s not get hung up on willis.
        The dog is called ‘Digger’ ( UK slang for an Australian) in the new film. I wonder if it has a hat with corks dangling from the brim and a can of Fosters lager round its neck St Bernard style? Sorry, now I’m being silly.
        More to the point, will the term ‘Digger’ be infra dig in 50 years time?
        A lot of Europhiles in Europe are now trying to refer to WW2 as a minor European civil war. “Nothing to see here, move along please”.
        George Orwell got it right with 1984.

      • I rather found the combination Barnes Willis silly but, let’s move on indeed. I thought the poor dog was going to be called “Nigsy”. Any how, I do have a problem with this type of change. Probably when they are going to make a remake of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or roots, they will call every slave “Digger” too?
        Minor civil war, is that right? While I don’t think dwelling on negative things helps anyone, it’s another thing to distort the past and forget it. We as a species are not good at learning from our mistakes, even less so if we are allowed to forget those from the past.
        Now I sound like a preacher.

  2. the war movie buff says:

    You have convinced me to reassess it. As you know, I was not a big fan when I reviewed it two years ago. I can see why people love it, but I think it’s a bit dated. I fear the remake by Jackson will result in the clear belief that the perfect version is somewhere between the old school, character driven first one and the special effects laden soulless second.

    The movie had a huge influence on the attack on the Death Star in the original “Star Wars”.

    Did you purposely not mention the dog?

    • I think you were unfair, yes. Dated isn’t wrong but I think it’s OK that it shows it’s been done in the 50s. I have no problem with that.
      There were two reasons for not mentioning the dog. I think mentioning the dog is a spoiler. He contributes to show Gibson’s character and the importance of the mission. I didn’t want to go into the name discussion as I’d like to make a special post on it. Probably in a week or two. I’m still interested to find out how people feel about it. I know your opinion. As you know we do not agree but I’d like to have the discussion on a separated post.

  3. historyonfilm says:

    I agree completely that it is one of the best war movies, astonishingly accurate and very enjoyable.
    I am curious to see how the remake will be handled, if it ever comes out. Hopefully, it will keep the story structure and simply improve the special effects, instead of having the effects overwhelm the movie. I would also like the new film to show the later exploits of the squadron, where they used several of Wallis’ other bombs, including his earthquake bomb.

    • That is an excellent idea. I’d like to see that added as well.
      I’m afraid there will be too much emphasis on the special effects in a new movie.
      However they are they only reason why a remake does even make sense as they are very week. The moments when the dams are hit and finally burst do not look good. I’m certainly curious but I fear it will not be what we hope for. Plus I think it’s hard to two main actors, Todd and Redgrave.

  4. las artes says:

    The black Labrador was the mascot for RAF 617 squadron, which during World War II destroyed dams in Germany with Barnes Wallis’s famous bouncing bomb.

  5. […] while back I reviewed one of my favourite war movies The Dam Busters, a movie based on a true […]

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