Nico (vilakins) wrote,
Nico
vilakins

The Dam Busters (1954)

We watched the original Dam Busters film a couple of nights ago, and here are some of my thoughts.

Casting
The casting was great: Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd really look like the real Barnes Wallis and Guy Gibson, and Redgrave makes Wallis quite endearing.

Pace
The pace is often slow and leisurely, taking its time telling us about Barnes Wallis and his ideas and personality (yes, there have been geeks throughout history) and there aren't many filme showing a scientist as hero.

I especially liked the long dialogue-less scenes of Lancasters flying over water and countryside at the start of the mission. I hope Jackson and director Rivers keep this instead of using the much faster and choppier editing usual now; sacrificing the subtle build of tension for a cut to the action would be a mistake.

Understated Britishness and stiff upper lips
I also liked the scenes of the aircrew in their quarters before the mission, knowing they may not come back. Not one line of dialogue is spoken, yet their feelings (suppressed to varying degrees) show in their actions. It is the same with Guy Gibson when he hears that his dog has been run over. He simply asks what happened, and we just get one scene later in his office as he thoughtfully touches Nigger's lead, then throws it in the bin. Less often is more.

I had to laugh at the utterly restrained way in which Wallis, the group captain, and other RAF personnel react when the Moehne dam blows. They smile and jump up, and you get the feeling they'd love to hug each other for joy, but it is Just Not Done.

Realistic ending
The surviving aircrews climb wearily out of their planes, not to applause or anything like that, but just as if they've come back from any other mission. Then we see them in the canteen with half of the places places empty.

The dog's name
Sorry, hafren, my copy didn't have subtitles. The dog's name, Nigger, features even more prominently than I remembered however: it's used as a code word for a successful dam breach on the mission. I wonder what Jackson and Rivers will do. Yes, Trigger would also work well, but you're right, it does sound far too horsy.

Favourite quotes
Official (when Wallis wants a Wellington for bomb trials): "What possible argument could I put forward to get you a Wellington?"
Barnes Wallace: "Well, if you told them I designed it, do you think that might help?" (It does.)

The chicken farmer writing outraged letters to the RAF about the low flying practice runs: "Every time one of these Lancasters fly over, my chickens lay premature eggs."

Barnes Wallis explains that he didn't come up with the idea himself: Nelson used bouncing cannonballs at Trafalgar, "dismissing a French battleship with a yorker."

Reservations
I loved this story as a teenager, but one aspect always bothered me and still does: the human cost. Wallis was appalled that 56 of the aircrew did not return, but he never considered the civilians who died in the floods. I always did. I still remember going cold all over when I read an eyewitness account from one of the aircrew (I'm not sure if it was in The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill, or Buy Gibson's Enemy Coast Ahead) of a car fleeing the water, and the headlights turning pale green, then darker blue, then going out. Over 1000 civilians died in the floods, and later the effectiveness of the raids in damaging the German war effort was questioned, as the dams were fully repaired a year later.

Some of the details are inaccuarate, but that's due to details like the bombs being cylindrical and back-spun before being dropped having been classified at the time. Guy Gibson did not however get the idea of the searchlight altimeter at a music hall; it was develeoped and tried at sea years earlier.


This film is still one of my favourite WW2 ones, probably for the combination of geekiness, planes, and dams, three of my favourite things (though I prefer my dams whole). I bought it in a boxed set with three other brilliant classics: Ice Cold in Alex, The Colditz Story, and The Cruel Sea. I'd like to add Das Boot to those.

Tags: films
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