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.

Red Tails (2012) The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen Re -Told

Maybe it’s good to watch bad movies in order to be able to appreciate the good ones more? With that premise in mind, I’d say, Red Tails is highly effective. Still I find it deplorable that it couldn’t be any better and at the same time, I don’t know why this had to be remade. The 1995 TV version The Tuskegee Airmen is really good, I liked it a great deal and although it is sentimental in places it’s not as corny as Red Tails. Geroge Lucas’ justification for this remake, according to an interview,  was CGI and that the use of it allowed him to show the dog fights like they haven’t been shown before. Maybe but…

The story of Red Tails, unlike the older version of 95, starts only when all-black fighter squadron 332 is already in Italy and waiting for an important assignment. Although highly trained and some of the best fighter pilots the US Army has, they aren’t allowed on important missions. All they do is shoot trains and small targets. The frustration is high and when they are finally given the opportunity to escort a bomber crew they are happy and do an oustanding job.

If you’ve never even heard of the true story of The Tuskegee Airmen, Squadron 332, then you will find it very interesting. Even a notorious moaner like Spike Lee approved of this production which may not be surprising as his Mircale at St. Anna has one of the corniest endings ever.

What’s my problem then? There were many.

Foreboding – It’s handled extremely heavily, no casualty or twist was not foreseeable from the beginning.

Music – This was one of the wost scores ever. Too much, all of the time and in some instances some weird techno type music which may appeal to a CGI crazy generation but is highly unrealistic in a WWII movie.

CGI – Overdone and tacky looking. I didn’t find it convincing at all.

Cast and Characters – Many of the actors did a good performance but not Cuba Gooding Jr. He dragged the movie down and was responsible for more than one unintentionally funny scene. He grimaced his way through this movie, it was painful to watch. His attempts at looking like an authority figure which he tried to achieve smoking a pipe, didn’t work at all.

Back story – There is no back story and I feel that’s really missing. the TV production took much more time and is therefore more efficient in its anti-racism message.

Emotion – As corny as it was, it wasn’t moving. I was very moved when I saw the 1995 version but this one left me cold.

Love Story – An awfully, awfully, trite and forseeable story.

Racism – I felt it only touched on the main topic of racism because, as mentioned above, the back story was cut off. The CGI and the silly love story detracted from it. Furthermore the atmosphere of the military in Italy was also shown better in the TV version.

I won’t deny that roles for African-Americans in war movies – and other movies – are sadly scare and this movie certainly offered a great opportunity. Notably many actors known from TV shows like The Wire got a chance to perform in this. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is an important story for African-Americans, something to be really proud of. Being excellent and doing your job better than anyone else despite being ridiculed and not taken seriously is no small feat. Still, I can’t help it, I would have preferred if it had been a good movie.

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.

Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

In my definition a good war movie is a good anti-war movie. If we apply this definition then Behind Enemy Lines is either not a good movie or not a good war movie. Since I personally enjoy it, I would say, it is simply not a war movie but, like Hunt for Red October and similar films, one of the movies that is based on a war premise. Only in my opinion Behind Enemy Lines is far better than its predecessors, the old-school cold war movies. Not sure why I’m so fond of it, but I am. It’s a guilty pleasure, has some great scenes and pictures and a pretty decent score. And I like Gene Hackman far better than Sean Connery.

Superhornet navigator Lt Burnett (Owen Wilson) and his pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) are on an unauthorized reconnaissance mission over Bosnia in the early 90s. They fly off course in a non-flyover zone and take pictures of a mass grave, hidden by the Serbs. Unfortunately they are spotted by ground troops.

They have been stationed on the USS Carl Vinson for quite a while. Burnett is fed up with the Navy. He feels that they are a long way from WWII where American intervention made sense and that they aren’t doing any good. He wants to leave the Navy as fast as he can. His commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), is less than thrilled. He doesn’t share his opinion and doesn’t want to lose a good man. He sends him on this reconnaissance mission to remind him how much he loves to fly and hoping he would make up his mind.

When the Serbs see the plane fly over the zone where the grave is hidden, they track it and shoot it down. Those air scenes are pretty great and one of the strengths of this movie. Pilot and navigator get out alive but since the Serbs know they have taken pictures of something nobody should know about, they are hunted. From now on the movie follows Burnett’s attempt to escape. One suspenseful scene follows the next. While some of them are not very realistic, they are entertaining and suspenseful.

Burnett is left on his own for most of the time as Reigart cannot send a chopper to get him out because this would endanger the peace process and the mission wasn’t authorized by High Command to begin with.

Burnett is tracked down by his enemies more than once and each escape is narrower than the other. My favourite scene is the one in which he has to cross a mine field in order to escape.

Behind Enemy Lines is a total failure as anti-war movie but works extremely well as a war-themed action adventure. The only real flaw is the disappointingly corny ending.

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.

10 War Mini-Series You Must See

When I wrote my post on ANZACS the other day I realized that there are quite a few great war mini-series out there. There are certainly more than 10 but out of all those I’ve seen or heard of, I would say, the 10 that I mention below are the ten you should really not miss. They all cover different wars or different aspects of the same wars. Many of them are better than most movies. My favourites are Band of Brothers, Hornblower, Sharpe and Generation Kill.

Wings (1976) WWI Air Combat. I must admit, I haven’t seen this yet but it has a great reputation among air combat fans and should be a nice companion to the WWII based series Piece of Cake.

Danger UXB (1979) WWII – Bomb disposal unit. I liked this series when I watched it quite a bit. It gives you a good feel for what a bomb disposal unit had to go through during the Blitz. All the different types of bombs. The characters are appealing and we get a good impression of civilian life during the Blitz as well. Here is my review.

Das Boot 1985 – WWII submarine. Das Boot exists in two versions. One is the cinema the other the TV version which was twice as long. I have seen the cinema version which is one of the best war movies there is. Some people prefer the longer TV version. It’s worth checking out.

ANZACS (1985) WWI. Infantry combat. I just reviewed the final episodes of this excellent mini-series that follows the ANZACS from Australia to Gallipoli and from there to the Somme and back home again. Great combat scenes and a nice “band of brothers” feel. It also contrasts British command and Australian insubordination in a funny way. Here is my review.

Piece of Cake (1988) WWII Air Combat. The series follows the men of the Hornet Squadron during the early weeks of WWII. It shows how inexperienced boys become excellent fighter pilots.

Sharpe (1993 – 2008) – Napoleonic wars. Infantry and cavalry. Based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell this is a very elaborate and suspenseful series. In its center is the character Sharpe an enlisted man who is such an excellent soldier that he is soon raised to the rank of officer. This is problematic as he isn’t an aristocrat. He faces injustice and adversity. Sean Bean stars as Sharpe. It’s one of the best roles of his career. Here is my post.

Hornblower (1998 -2003) – Napoleonic wars. Naval combat. This is another extraordinary tale of one man’s ascent. Ioan Gruffud stars as Horatio Hornblower which might explain why I hear this series mentioned quite often by women.  If you like Master & Commander, you will love this. It’s like a very long version with an appealing central character. It is based on the books by C.S. Forester. Here is my post.

Band of Brothers (2001) WWII. Infantry combat. This is one of the most amazing series. Based on the book Band of Brothers it follows the paratroopers of Easy Company from 1941 – 1945, starting in the US until the freeing of the KZ’s. The characters of this tight-knit company are very well depicted and you really care for all of them. Seeing them die or get wounded is harrowing. Some of the episodes, like the one called Bastonge, are so intense, they still overshadow most other WWWII infantry combat scenes I’ve seen before or after.

Generation Kill (2008) Iraq. Special unit. This is a series that is hard to get into, especially when you are used to others. It has a very slow build-up but after two episodes I really appreciated it. It achieves a very authentic depiction of modern warfare and shows how problematic it is to send a generation used to war games into combat. It shows how much is absolutely boring, just standing around and waiting. At the center of the unit is the “Iceman” Sgt Brad Colbert played by Alexander Skrasgard. The Iceman is an amazing character and even more so because he is based on a real person. This guy really always keeps his cool. The series is based on the account of an embedded journalist. Here’s the link to the book. And here is my post on The Iceman.

The Pacific (2010) – WWII. Infantry combat. If you do not compare this series to Band of Brothers, you will like it. It’s less the story a group of people than individual stories. The soldiers are also shown during their leaves and some love stories are incorporated. However the combat scenes are even grittier that those in Band of Brothers. Not pretty at all. My favourite episode is Rain on Cape Gloucester. Here is my Pacific short review.

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.