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.

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Waterloo (1970) “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won”

Waterloo was more than just a movie for me. Watching it meant jumping head first into childhood memories.

“Waterloo, Waterloo, morne plaine…” No, this isn’t the French version of the AbbA song. I am afraid the words are not bound to tell you much. I can still hear my father’s voice drone this part of  Victor Hugo’s famous poem L’Expiation (an endless poem by the way) on Sunday mornings. I said it in my last post, I went through a bit of an obsession with Napoléon as a child and guess I deserved a little punishment and therefore frequently had to listen to the long and never-ending recitation of that poem. Sorry for this little digression… Back to my review.

I haven’t seen this movie before and I must say it was high time. It is a worthy candidate for a place among my Top 20. I loved every minute of it (with the exception of the animal stunts. Being reminded that this a Russian production and the well-being of horses might not have been high on the agenda did NOT help. It is funny how all of a sudden one likes the idea of CGI. I never thought I would ever write such a sacrilegious thing.)

As the title indicates, this is not a Napoléon biopic. It doesn’t show the great man’s life, only a fatal and tragic part of it, the battle of Waterloo. Maybe the best known of all the French battles (apart from Austerlitz) in France.

The movie starts with what has become in French the synonym for something long, endless and wearisome, namely “Les adieux de Fontainebleau” or “The Goodbyes at Fontainebleau” in which Napoléon, before being exiled to Elba,  says goodbye to his troops. He states in the movie that he deplores that he can not say goodby to each and every one of them still it is said that it took hours. After having been defeated on the battlefield he was forced to abdicate and go into exile to the island of Elba.

Rod Steiger manages masterfully to show how emotional Napoléon was. This man was driven by strong emotions and passions. And it seems that the troops loved him for this display of feelings.

He stayed at Elba some ten moths and then returned to Paris where Louis XVIII (Orson Welles) had taken back the throne. The moment when he meets the troops is another highlight in this movie. He wins them back easily and becomes emperor once more.

After this episode he heads the troops and marches towards Belgium to engage the troops of Wellington.

Before the movie takes us to the battlefield it briefly stops in a ballroom in Belgium where Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and his men are introduced.

Two thirds of this movie are dedicated to the battle of Waterloo. I think it is incredibly well done. I liked those costumes and the way we could see the battle formations. There was such a huge difference whether cavalry charged against cavalry or against infantry. The moment when the French cavalry attacks the British infantry is horrible. The horses are shot down one by one. The square battle formations of the infantry made it impossible to win for the attacking cavalry. Like this the horses could be shot down from every angle.

At moments, while I watched this and saw the tactics the two men applied, how they overlooked the battlefield, sent troops from here to there, removed them from somewhere else, I was reminded of chess.

The two great men, Napoléon and Wellington are shown as complete opposites. Naploéon goes through every possible emotional change while Wellington stays poised and self-possessed. While one is of very humble origins, the other is an aristocrat through and through.

We all know the outcome of the battle and when it is over, not even Wellington is unmoved and he says the famous words:

Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.

I really enjoyed Waterloo. I liked the costumes, the uniforms, the battle formations, Wellington’s poise, Napoléon’s sadness, the composition of the British regiment, the Irish troops with their rosaries and the Scottish with the bagpipes.

I would recommend this movie to every one who is interested in French and British history and the Napoleonic Wars, who likes costumes and has an interest in miltary tactics of the time.

Movies on the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815): A List

I watched the Hornblower series last year and enjoyed it very much. I re-watched Master & Commander and thought once again that it is really a good movie. Finally I discovered the Sharpe series with Sean Bean and I like it a great deal as well (at least those I have seen so far). Considering that they are all based on the Napoleonic Wars, I thought it might be high time to see what else there is. I found quite a few movies, some I have seen a long time ago, like Abel Gance’s Napoléon, and others that I still would like to watch. I also included movies on the man himself as I figured there will not be many biopics on Napoléon leaving out the wars. When I was a child I went through a bit of a Napoléon obsession and remember contemplating his wax figure at the Musée Grévin in Paris with awe. I should have been awed that even as a ten-year old child I wasn’t that much smaller. There are quite a lot of German and French productions of the topic. I did include them although not all of them have been subtitled.

The movies that I would like to watch soon are Waterloo with Rod Steiger, the mini-series Napoléon and Ridley Scott’s The Duellists.

As ususal any comments, additions or ratings are highly welcome. The Duellists is a movie I wouldn’t have known of, if it hadn’t been for Guy Savage‘s recommendation in a comment.

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.