The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Jonathan Knott

Tracking History: Jonathan Knott, Host

In these columns, I've looked at a number of ways to track history: by visiting historic sites and describing them, by hiking into unexplored and nondescript places, by looking at objects from the past, and by interviewing, for an earlier issue, Mr. Abraham Grabia, a survivor of a German concentration camp from WWII. This time I'll look at tracking history through film. My subject again is WWII--this time, the Battle of Britain, with a focus on a feature film available on DVD:

Battle of Britain. Harry Saltzman (Producer), Guy Hamilton (Director). 1969. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. Collector's Edition DVD. 2005. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The historical significance of the topic of this film can hardly be understated. The Battle of Britain was certainly one of the defining periods of World War II. While one could make arguments as to whether it was THE most important or not, there is no argument that it belongs among the most important events to take place in that bleak period.

I want to review the background before discussing the film.

By May 1940, Germany had conquered Belgium, the Netherlands and France. The British had been defeated at Dunkirk and had to escape back to England, leaving much of their equipment on the beaches of France. They were demoralized. Russia and the United States had not entered the war yet; England was the only country standing in the way of Nazi Germany. Hitler offered favorable peace terms, Britain refused, and the stage was set for German invasion,code-named Operation Sea Lion by Hitler.

This invasion was to begin with a massive air assault by the German Luftwaffe to try to knock out Britain's air force (RAF) on the ground and in the air, paving the way for amphibious assault (luckily for the British, the English Channel had blocked Germany's path). Germany inexplicably didn't capitalize on their favorable situation and waited almost two months to begin the attack. This allowed the British to get Fighter Command and their vastly important radar stations in place and ready. The ensuing air campaign, which lasted about two months, was known as The Battle of Britain. This, conveniently, is also the name of the film, helping eliminate any ambiguity as to its subject matter.

The battle was a disaster for Germany. At the height of their power, they could have accomplished pretty much what they wanted to with a little thoughtful planning. Thankfully for England and the rest of the free world, it was the lack of thoughtful planning by Germany (among other things) that allowed England to hold on long enough to win a reprieve. As I mentioned earlier, the wait allowed England to gather itself. Also, despite Germany's huge advantage in numbers (around 1300 fighters and 1600 bombers to England's 600 fighters), the Luftwaffe's aircraft and tactics were designed for short to medium range ground support, not long range heavy bombing; their early success on the European battlefront led to overconfidence in this operation (Goering prophesied the British would be out of fighters in four days). German fighters were at the limit of their operational range over Southern England and only had a few minutes of time for fighting before having to turn around.

Another huge advantage England had was in fighting over its own home. According to Dr. Chris Bellamy (2007): "A downed German pilot was lost to Germany, and a damaged aircraft was likely to ditch in the sea whereas damaged RAF aircraft could limp home, or land somewhere friendly, and downed RAF pilots parachuted onto English fields. They were returned to their units almost immediately, not infrequently after a spell in the pub." There was no advantage of surprise for the Germans either, as England had the most advanced radar in the world and had also cracked Germany's "Enigma" code, allowing them to read into German transmissions and be prepared for when and where attacks were coming.

Despite all these English advantages, Germany had practically won the battle before suddenly and disastrously (for them) switching tactics. Just as they were on the border of victory, they stopped bombing radar stations and airfields and focused on London and other civilian targets. This allowed England to regroup its defenses and put the Germans at a greater disadvantage: the Luftwaffe now had to fly farther to its targets (further limiting fighter support) and put itself in range of more British fighters stationed to the North. Also, the medium bombers Germany was using didn't have a big enough payload to do consistent heavy damage to big cities before being shot down. This deficiency gradually helped turn the tide. According to Encyclopedia Britannica (2007): "Fighter Command had demonstrated to the Luftwaffe that it could not gain air ascendancy over Britain. This was because British fighters were simply shooting down German bombers faster than German industry could produce them. The Battle of Britain was thus won, and the invasion of England was postponed indefinitely by Hitler." Germany decided to make the brilliant move of invading Russia instead; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although it was still only 1940 and the war lasted almost five years more, the impact of this battle was significant in several important ways. German industry recovered and produced plenty more planes, but the vast number of experienced pilots they lost during this battle was irreplaceable. This loss benefited Russia and the U.S. as much as anyone; the quality of pilot they had to face later in the war when fighting over Germany was significantly reduced. The political impact on the world was an even more important factor. Hitler suffered his first real setback and lost some of his air of invulnerability (pun intended). England set an example for the rest of the world about what a little toughness and character could accomplish, and they held the mighty Blitzkrieg back long enough to get America more involved (though the U.S. still didn't enter the war yet). The Battle of Britain was a rallying point for the Allies, and Churchill's kickass speeches during the battle probably did as much in this regard as the battle itself. One could say it was almost a platform for Allied propaganda. However you slice it, if the British hadn't held on, we'd probably all be speaking German now. I?d say that's significant.

The makers of the film went through a great deal to try and present it as historically accurate as possible. In this aspect of the film, time and money seemed to be no object. They hired Adolph Galland (a German pilot during the Battle of Britain who went on to become Germany's youngest General) as a technical advisor. They were able to get hold of so many actual planes (almost all the German planes came on loan from the Spanish Air Force) that the planes used in the film comprised the world's 35th largest air force at the time the film was made. The vast majority of air combat shown was carried out with planes that for all intents and purposes were authentic. According to IMDB film database, later-model engines were used on most of the planes, and because of the small number of Hawker Hurricanes available, some of the aerial groupings were slightly altered (among a few other such things), but that's being nit-picky and it doesn't really affect the way the film is historically interpreted.

There were a number of scenes in the movie that looked as if they might have been scripted, but they were based on actual events, such as a German bomber being rammed and flying straight into a London Rail Station or Goering accusing Kesselring of betrayal. Further attention to detail included filming all of Fighter Command's scenes on location at the location of the actual headquarters during the war. The filmmakers also used Air Chief Marshall Dowding's original office and furniture. During the bombing of London scenes, they used as many extras who were survivors of the Blitz (the period of heavy German bombing after the battle itself was over that lasted into 1941) as possible, many of whom had to quit because they felt it was too real. As far as the equipment allowed, it was a pretty accurate film that seemed to try to let the events speak for themselves rather than give way to embellishment.

All of this makes watching the film satisfying from a historic and technical point of view, but those are obviously not the only ways to judge the film. Part of the problem with the film is that they got it so right from a technical standpoint there was little for the enormous big-budget cast to do. The film featured Sir Lawrence Olivier, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Curt Jurgens, Harry Andrews, Michael Redgrave, and would have had Rex Harrison and Alec Guiness, too, had their roles not been cut at the last minute. That's enough firepower to make an acting masterpiece or have a lot of talented people do very little.

Alas, it was the latter. There was no "bad acting"; there just simply wasn't enough script to keep these folks occupied beyond looking worried in an office or grimacing in a cockpit. Instead of going all out to change that, the filmmakers seem to have half-heartedly thrown in an insipid and pointless (but thankfully brief) love story sub-plot, which was neither here nor there in the grand scheme of the movie. The movie at 151 minutes is not short, so there's no reason they couldn't have either come up with a richer script or cut that sub-plot out altogether and had a tighter film. However, these flaws are not deadly.

Sometimes it's a good thing to have less script; it allows for more focus on sound and cinematography. The sound of a Spitfire cranking up and taking off is a great way to start a movie, and they stayed true to that motif throughout the film, letting the magnificent machines and machine guns do most of the talking (it was claimed that, counting all of the takes, more ammunition was spent during the filming than was used in the actual battle). The lovely drone of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines (which almost every plane was refitted with), largely uninterrupted by talking, helps pull the viewer into the fantastic flight scenes. There were a lot of scenic shots of the countryside, both from the cockpit (with the engines roaring) and from the point of view of the farmer in the field, looking up and watching in an almost detached state of reality as these events unfolded in the distance.

These were juxtaposed with an equal number of shots of the urban landscape, from the cockpit and from the ground looking up, creating a nice sense of symmetry between city and country folk and showing how it affected them all. For example, there's a brief scene where a group of naked boys standing on the shore of the Thames in London are looking up unconcernedly while the city's being bombed, arguing as to whether the bombers are Heinkels or Dorniers. There's also brief but important treatment of London being bombed at night from inside the city, with people trying to carry on normal life while fighting fires and being in the wrong building at the wrong time, showing how the populace banded together and toughed the battle out.

Unlike a lot of air combat films, the excellent dogfighting scenes aren't the only instances of good camerawork. You would expect good action scenes from director Guy Hamilton, known previously for James Bond films. The quality of the film itself is nice and glossy looking; I would never have guessed it to be almost 40 years old.

While it's obviously a pro-British film, it was made late enough (1969) not to have too much of a propaganda feel to it. It does seem to try to let the story tell itself for the most part, and there's a healthy respect for both sides involved. It was good enough to leave one feeling like it should have been better, but it was still satisfying. Roger Ebert's attached 1969 review pans it, but I think he might have felt at least a little better about it if he'd had the 2005 collector's edition DVD with excellent bonus features and a Sir William Walter score that's supposedly much better than the Ron Goodwin score released in the theatres.

One of the special features has Michael Caine walking around Washington in 1969 and finding out most Americans (even at the embassy) didn't even know what the Battle of Britain was. That in itself justifies this film if nothing else does. As Winston Churchill put it on August 20, 1940: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Bellamy, Chris, Dr. The Battle of Britain. (2007).

Ebert, Roger.Battle of Britain. (November 1969)."AID=/19691103

"World War II." (2007). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 5, 2007, from Encyclopaedia Britannica Online:

Copyright 2008 Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.
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