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.
Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
I have never seen anything like the War Requiem before. Although I used to like Derek Jarman‘s movies (especially Caravaggio, Sebastiane and The Tempest) I wasn’t aware that this existed before I saw a review on the War Movie Blog. This is certainly not for everybody. If you don’t like classical music, especially requiem’s you will have a hard time. I tell you this right away. Jarman took Britten’s War Requiem, which consists of a proper requiem and sung versions of Wilfred Owen’s poems, and illustrated it. Wilfred Owen is the young poet we also see in the movie Regeneration. He was killed in action one week before the end of in WWI. As you can see I added two of his poems for you.
War Requiem is actually a silent movie so to speak. We see images, acted scenes and hear Britten’s music. In part it’s a reenactment of Wilfred Owen’s story, in part we see actual footage of different wars. Documentary and art are entwined and the result is extremely rich and interesting. The acting is of course somewhat exaggerated as the actors are miming not acting as they don’t talk (silent movie style). The two main actors are Nathaniel Parker (Owen) and Tilda Swinton (The Nurse): Sean Bean (The German Soldier) and Laurence Olivier (The old Soldier) are in minor roles. There is a bit with Tilda Swinton who plays the nurse that is very annoying (scene 10). But that was the only bit I found hard to take. The rest is impressive. Beautiful images. Colors are very important and highly overdrawn as they are in all of Jarman’s movies. In this one it is the color red that is artificially bright. Colors have a special meaning in Jarman’s work. He wrote a book, Chroma: A Book of Colors, dedicated to color interpretations and his last movie is dedicated solely to the color Blue. The tragedy behind all this is that Jarman was going blind towards the end of his life. He suffered from AIDS related illnesses and finally succumbed to them.
War Requiem is remarkable also because it is not only an anti-war movie but also an “anti war movie movie”. If you watch all of it and don’t give up in the middle you might be astonished to see what kind of actual footage you see towards the end. I have never seen anything like it before and felt very uncomfortable. The footage we see – especially from Vietnam and Angola – is horrible and gruesome. What is even more horrible is that you see the difference between wounds in a war movie and these head wounds and other wounds in these documentary bits. It simply doesn’t look the same. You see immediately that these people are really dead. I think to see something like this would be good for every person who regularly watches war movies. The atrocities of war are so much more horrible in reality. It was extremely sobering to say the least.
This is a really special movie. It is an interesting contribution to cinema history as well as to war movies in general. But it is not for everybody.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.