The Battle of Britain (1969) *****

Fabulous aerial sequences countered by grim reality. Like The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) even-handedly doesn’t treat the Germans as the evil enemy, but unlike those films victory is somewhat obscure, no rattling of spears as in Zulu (1964) to announce opposition departure, just clear skies indicating an absence of foe. Anyone going into this – persuaded by Dunkirk (2017) that this retreat was a triumph – and with little knowledge that after Hitler had overrun Europe invasion was imminent might be surprised to discover that this was a campaign lasting over three months rather than one conclusive battle.

That’s to the benefit of the movie, allowing it space to breathe, for characters to develop, rather than everything crammed in pell-mell. Given the situation changed from day-to-day, the one constant, which we’re scarcely allowed to forget, is that the British are heavily outnumbered in the sky. It’s a war of attrition. The Germans can lose hundreds of planes, the British nary a one.

But it’s far from gung-ho, the British coming in for criticism for their unpreparedness, surprised when the Germans bomb airfields, even more astonished when the opponent starts dropping bombs on London. Perhaps, given the relatively short running time for an epic – 46 minutes shorter than The Longest Day, 35 minutes down on Battle of the Bulge – it might have been better to avoid slipping in a section on the impact of the Blitz on Londoners, though that is counteracted by panic in Berlin when that city is also bombed.

But, by and large, it’s an engrossing tale. And bold, too, in the version I saw no subtitles for German dialog, leaving audience reliant on facial and body expressions. To slow down the action, I guess, and add some class, several scenes involve people walking down long corridors.

All the salient points are covered, pilots thrown into battle with barely a few hours experience of flying a Spitfire, the lack of pilots, in-fighting at the top, checkers moved across the board at mission control indicating German aerial advance, the inability of getting aircraft up quick enough or repaired quick enough. Above all, the reality of death is shown in astonishing detail; once the pilot was shot or the airplane destabilized, there was almost no escape, fire enveloped anyone inside, hatches failed to open, planes burst into flame or crashed into the sea. And it was the same death, regardless of nationality. And there were no scenes of  callous Germans shooting down a British pilot parachuting to safety.

The aerial sequences are quite astonishing. I’ve seen this on big screen and small, but even on a small screen, the camerawork is quite extraordinary, even getting this number of workable planes in the air must have been some feat, then flying in formation and peeling off in attack. It is kind of hard from time to time to work out who is shooting at who since the planes are all the same grey color and only distinguished when the camera is close enough to identify  them by RAF roundel or Nazi swastika. But the overall effect is a sense of sorrow rather than triumphalism, young lives of any nationality brought to a brutal close. There is no scene, as in Battle of the Bulge, of the over-zealous Nazi, the singing that made them appear such an implacable foe. Here, there’s no need to play up implacable. Unless they abandon the fight, the Germans, courtesy of superior numbers, will inevitably win. All the British can do is stave off defeat for as long as possible.

The all-star cast is only an all-star cast if you’re British. Without a Hollywood star in the vein of John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Henry Fonda, and in the absence of British superstars like Sean Connery and Peter O’Toole, it’s an all-star cast by default. The biggest name, Michael Caine (Deadfall, 1968), has one of the smallest parts. But the equality of the cast works in its favor, there’s none of the rubbernecking that got in the way of The Longest Day.

Christopher Plummer (The High Commissioner/Nobody Runs Forever, 1968) has the biggest role as a squadron leader determined to force his wife out of the front line working on the airfields and into a safer position. But the best acting comes from Laurence Olivier as the dry Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding who has no truck with interfering politicians. Accused of inflating figures of German casualties he replies that if he is wrong the Germans will be in London in a week.

But it’s a close-run thing between him and Susannah York (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) as the aforesaid wife with a growing streak of independence and Ian McShane (The Pleasure Girls, 1965) as a lowly pilot called upon to express grief more than most. There’s certainly a sense of solidarity among the cast, no show-boating from the usual scene-stealing culprits like Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Robert Shaw (Battle of the Bulge) whose normal determination to bristle at the slightest opportunity is dropped for the good of the cause.

The great and the good appeared to be happy with the slightest role just to take part. The roll-call includes Ralph Richardson (Khartoum, 1966), Michael Redgrave (The Hill, 1965), Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun/The Mercenaries, 1968) and a hatful more.

Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, 1964) directs with some distinction, his biggest achievement to concentrate on fact rather than flag-waving, no better demonstrated than by my realization that the stirring theme tune that I remembered so well by Ron Goodwin (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) does not make an appearance until the very end. The screenplay by James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960), Wilfred Greatorex (The High Commissioner) and, in his only movie work,  Derek Dempster, displays more finesse than you might expect.

Almost documentary in tone, a classic.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

9 thoughts on “The Battle of Britain (1969) *****”

  1. I salute your maturity; this film has never quite worked for me, that cast create an expectation that the film doesn’t deliver. But I might spin it again as a more sombre film that the flag-waver I expected as a kid…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You just can’t compare the look of real planes here or in Tora Tora Tora vs. the CGI sequences in Pearl Harbor or Midway or other contemporary WW2 flicks. I remember years ago a critic talking about the Ride of Valkyrie attack in Apocalypse Now being so incredible because you were actually seeing real helicopters whirling around on screen, and that you’d probably never see that again. And you won’t, because they just don’t have the planes anymore. Or enough of them.

    Liked by 1 person

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