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Now that everyone has taken their shots at this magnificent movie, just a couple of comments about it to help put it into context. A) No we didn't see Russian prisoners of war trying to flee for their lives and drowning. We didn't in fact see anybody drowning. But this is war and people die in wars, it's the nature of the beast. B) Seen in its current setting, especially in North America, the use of the name Nigger for the Black Labrador may seem upsetting and racist, explaining why that section of the movie is left out sometimes. But back in Britain in those days, it would not have been regarded as so nasty and derogatory as it now seems here. It was actually a fair common name for Black Labs at the time - though not any more of course. C) Nope, the movie isn't entirely accurate in all aspects - many years after I first saw it back in the UK, a bomber pilot from those days told me that they used not a Lancaster but I think a Halifax to plough into the ground. D) Maybe it did glorify Guy Gibson, but he earned that Victoria Cross, if I recall, for all his diversionary flights to draw off the flak from the other aircraft, who must have felt like sitting ducks the way they had to drop every bomb at precisely the same spot and height, very low over the water. If the movie gives him credit for thinking up the overlapping spotlights, we can take that as artistic licence. Finally, anything which slowed down the German war machine was crucial to Britain. This movie did its best with hardly-developed special effects and produced an exciting and fine picture, made still during the days of rationing in England. I know because I was there at the time. I was just six when this movie was made in 1954 but it's still a real favorite of mine, not least because we were living on the shores of Lake Windermere, England's largest lake, in the English Lake District at the time, and they flew right in over our house for about six weeks that summer to film some parts of it. Remember the scene where after one of the practice runs, they were picking bits of tree out of the undercarriage of one of the aircraft? My father always used to remind that they clipped one of our trees in the filming one day and he used to claim that those bits of branch and foliage actually came from our tree. I guess they probably didn't really and they faked it a bit for the movie, adding that bit of dialogue into the script after the incident because it showed how low they flew. Quite why they showed it in the landing gear I'm not sure, because of course they wouldn't have been flying with their landing gear down, but it is effective in showing how low they flew both in the raid and in the filming. I've always loved this movie though - it's a beaut, as they say - not least because I grew up with Black Labradors. I wept like a baby when Nigger died. Have just watched it for about the zillionth time - have literally lost count. It's still a fine and fitting tribute to the men who gave their lives in the raid all those years ago.
Just like to respond to Howard Morley's comments. The dam's raids were
urgently needed, and it took only a few months to form 617, train them
and attack the dams. Quite a feat I'm sure you'll agree. The film
nicely conveys the struggles and the friendships of the crews, put
together from the best of the Commonwealth fliers. Even if the
screenplay does take some rather large liberties with the story.
As to Guy, he was killed in 1944 on his way back from acting as Master Bomber on a raid over Germany. His Mosquito crashed in Holland, killing him and his navigator. To this day there are no explanations for the crash. Guy should not have been flying at all, but he was so desperate to get back in the air that Bomber Harris gave in and let him. A tragedy. Of the crew of G-George (Guy's ship on the raid) none of them survived the war. The crew crashed whilst trying to bomb the Dortmund-Ems canal later in 1943.
The film is a fitting tribute to the raid, and the massive losses of 617. Of the 19 ships to go out, 11 came back. Of the 77 crew lost on the raid, only 1 survived. This is why the dams were not bombed again. And the problem with the Sorpe was that it was an earth damn, the bombs were not very effective as with the Eder and Moehne.
How do I know all this? My Great-grandmother was a Gibson.
Watch the film and marvel.
By God, this is as definitive as a war film gets. It's on every year, and is as much a part of Christmas as getting drunk and Monopoly. Everyone in this Sceptred isle knows the theme to Dam Busters, and it causes more people to stand up and salute than God Save The Queen. It has moustachioed R.A.F boys, politely bespectacled scientists, laughable special effects, and an entirely predictable ending. It's a British institution, and I don't know where we'd be without it. You can keep your devolution and your New Labour, I've got Dam Busters and I'm not bloody budging.
The Dambusters is a true story in which the men of 617 Squadron (originally Squadron X) are sent to bomb three key dams in the Ruhr Valley with the famous bouncing bomb. The film shows the young bomber crews training and eventually the mission itself. Many people have said that this raid was a waste of human life and resources but war IS a waste of human life and resources and these men gave the UK a boost in morale and made the Germans realize we weren't beat yet. Apparently Mel Gibson wanted to recreate this movie some years ago but did not get the backing of the MoD,the BBMF or 617 Squadron. With fantastic performances from Richard Todd as Guy Gibson and Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis this is a classic film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ten years after the Second World War ended, the British film business had
covered most theatres and many episodes of derring-do. But the bomber
offensive against Germany presented a problem. On the one hand, it was a
huge and daring venture, more costly of life than almost any other. But
before the war ended "area" or "carpet" bombing had been denounced, within
Britain as well as by Dr Goebbels, as a callous terrorisation of
Thousands had burned or suffocated in Hamburg and Dresden. How to make
celluloid heroics out of that?
The solution was to depict a strategic shift from blanket to pinpoint bombing: the raid on the three key Ruhr dams. Historians have disagreed about its effects on Nazi Germany's war effort; after all, Albert Speer's astonishing improvisations kept industry churning out weapons until 1945. However, the heavy new Lancasters which breached the dams using Dr Barnes Wallis's revolutionary bouncing bombs struck an almighty blow against Germany's prestige and morale: comparable only with the A-bombs on Japan, impressing the rest of the world and encouraging the British while we waited for America to augment our land and sea forces for the liberation of Europe.
The film's screenplay by RC "Journey's End" Sheriff is a model of direct, purposeful exposition. We go from A to Z with no sidetracks, no "balancing" subplots or obtruded light relief. When posters complain that today's big budget films are let down by inept storytelling, this is the skill they are missing. Special effects are sometimes hokey, more suited to a cartoon than live-action, but it matters little: the film is not for little boys playing video games. It is among the most mature and memorable pictures of reluctant warrior-dom.
"The Dam Busters" conveys the dogged skill of Bomber Command pilots who flew hundreds of miles at zero height, below radar cover, to deliver their payloads with fantastic exactitude. Eight "Lancs" and 56 men did not return. But most of the film is about the delays, false trails and frustrations Wallis endured trying to make the bombs bounce and the bureaucrats and brasshats okay the project. Had the film's tyro director, Michael Anderson, seen Powell and Pressburger's "The Small Back Room", released five years before? Wallis's disconsolate trail through the committee rooms of total war, his dogged faith in his concept, and the young Guy Gibson's patient nursing of 617 Squadron into a finely honed instrument for delivering the triple punch unfold in concise scenes, carefully paced and reeking of the atmosphere of quiet suspense between 1940 and 1944.
The film is yet another beneficiary of the low-key, documentarist spirit which continued to infuse British fiction films long after John Grierson had migrated to Canada. Some American viewers may well feel exasperated by its downbeat quality. Nothing about the girls the pilots left behind. No evil Spielbergian Nazis- the enemy is barely mentioned and hardly seen except for a few figures fleeing the floods. It is as if the Royal Air Force is fighting Nature. No big speeches about saving Democracy, no invocations of service tradition: the RAF was barely 20 years old, though it was the world's first independent air force. Not even much jolly banter in the mess, and no dogfights in the skies either. Just a bunch of "types" thrown together by the need to get a tough mission over and done with. There is even a moment where Bomber Command's chief, Sir Arthur Harris (Basil Sydney), who was still very much alive and kicking, is implicitly criticised. Wallis recalls how the Luftwaffe wrongly thought London could be blitzed into ruins, hinting that the British are now making the same blunder about Germany.
Typical of Anderson's throwaway approach is the scuffle in the mess between 617's members and other pilots who jovially accuse them of shirking. As soon as the fight breaks out, he cuts away to Gibson saying that he must get his boys settled down. After the raid, the camera roams round the deserted sleeping quarters of the men who didn't come back. It is more cinematic to show symbols of fear and loss than to chatter about these emotions; here the British stiff upper lip, the equivalent of the grace under pressure which the anglophile Hemingway looked for in Americans, works in the service of visual communication.
Redgrave likewise shows his character more than he talks. His body language evokes the boffin who is better at thought than speech. He fiddles with his spectacles, shambles around with an unmartial gait, bunched up with his arms pressed to his sides as if pinioned by frustration. When the bomb finally bounces, he says nothing but flings his arms aloft for once. He utters mildly, donnishly, and at moments of maximum feeling he cannot speak at all. His performance is all of a piece: the best movie work by one who in other roles often looked unsuitably stiff on screen.
The airplanes are posted "missing" on a blackboard; a BBC radio announcer with only a hint of triumph tells of the raid's success and cost. Wallis and Gibson exchange awkward congratulations, tinged with remorse, in the justly famous final scene. "The flak was bad, worse than I expected" says Gibson, beginning to apologise for his triumph as soon as he lands. Perhaps only a Brit, soaked in the mythology of honourable defeats such as Dunkirk and Coruna, can understand such understatement. We are superstitiously afraid to gloat over victories, as Orwell noted.
Eric Coates's splendid march is played in full only at this finale, as if to reward the audience for understanding why the chief protagonists' hearts are too full for rhetoric. And even then the string-based orchestration sounds sober and slightly plaintive, not jaunty like Sousa or Miller, or bombastic like a German brass band.
In the spirit of economy which guides "The Dam Busters", no real life sequelae are given over the credits. "Gibby" was killed on a sortie after receiving the Victoria Cross (Britain's equivalent of the CMH) and publishing a guarded memoir, "Enemy Coast Ahead". Wallis was knighted and hailed, but Harris was insulted at the war's end by being denied a peerage- unlike Fighter Command's Dowding, winner of the Battle of Britain. Harris was also refused permission to issue a final despatch on his campaign. For the rest of his days he resented the slight on "my bomber boys", of whom 50,000 died. Like Wallis he lived into his tenth decade, old enough to see Speer confirm in his autobiography that area bombing had indeed devastated the Nazi war effort. War can be cruel even after it is over. But a statue of Harris now stands opposite Dowding's outside the RAF Church.
Two footnotes: (1) Flt Lt Edward Johnson- at 31 one of the oldest men on the raid- died aged 90 on October 1. He invented the simple Johnson Sight for aiming as shown in the film.
(2) The Germans were impressed enough to invent a smaller rocket-propelled bouncing bomb, codenamed "Kurt", which was never used in anger.
I plowed through the most recent 5 user reviews of this movie, burrowing
past the recitations of historical minutiae and the quibbles about its 50
year old (un)special effects, and thought to myself that everyone missed the
Yes, the effects are crude -- the film was made in 19-fricking-54, people! Yes, it gets some of the historical details wrong -- it's entertainment, people! The real point is that it's a fantastic yarn, told with great skill and excitement. When I first saw it (as a teen, before Star Wars) I was glued to the screen. I still am today. And evidently, I'm not alone because in 1977 a certain geeky film maker from Northern California stole a large portion of Dam Busters, mixed in a heapin' helpin' of Hidden Fortress, and peppered it all with a dash of Laurel & Hardy & Flash Gordon, calling it Star Wars.
So I'm giving props where props are due. Don't miss this classic.
I personally went to school in the town where the Raids were monitored
from (Grantham) by Wallis and Harris. There is hardly any memorabilia
recording this local fact, and no-one would ever know. I know of RAF
Scampton too, which I believe has closed down some years ago. For
Lincolnshire, the Dams Raid is remembered poignantly, as the 617
Squadron, who now fly Tornados
in Scotland, was formed and trained there. They practised on the Derwent Reservoir near Sheffield, and the Eyebrook Reservoir in Leicestershire.
Sir Barnes Wallis thought in innovative ways, and the fact that this 'far out' idea of bouncing bombs on a lake, actually breached two dams is an engineering marvel. To do so under heavy flak is beating the odds. Wallis and 617 Squadron collaborated again with the Tallboy and Grand Slam 'earthquake' bombs, which destroyed many important railway viaducts and tunnels, as well as sinking the Tirpitz.
Richard Todd, after the film, moved 3 miles from Grantham. Maybe the film was the reason for this.
The film is one of few about RAF Bomber Command, and is a good portrayal of the danger involved. 41% of crew were killed (55,000). After early 1944, the loss rate rapidly decreased, as the Luftwaffe had been destroyed, so from 1940-3 I would guess 60-70% of crew were killed, for the whole campaign. It may be higher. The RAF didn't even know the Germans had excellent radar until early 1942. The film is about team work and working under stress - your immediate future depended on 6 other people. Many things could go wrong along the way. It is also about strong resilience to new ideas. i.e. The RAF could have had jet planes before 1939 if they'd have developed Whittle's ideas in the 1930s, instead of foolishly waiting 10 whole years until 1941. Whittle was then humiliated after the war by forcing him to give all his designs to the Americans, who didn't waste any time in treating the idea as their own.
When I first saw the film, I thought the special effects were weak and I was astonished a bomb bounced in the first place. When older and seeing it again, you can empathise more with the RAF crews and the skill and daring they would need. It focuses on one story line, and does not have American accents mysteriously appearing from nowhere. I think at the time Guy Gibson was about 25. Imagine yourself having that responsibility at 25.
Many of the 'Upkeep' mines that were bounced, completely missed the targets. Certainly for the Eder dam, there was just one mine left, and was dropped in the right place and destroyed the dam in 'one go'. The film gives the impression many were exploded to breach the dam, but actually a single one did the 'job'.
The Germans are never shown, and I would love to have known what they thought seeing this strange sight of bombs skimming the water's surface. I think Spielberg would have enjoyed making this film, but half of it would have been about the Germans. If the dams had been breached six months earlier, when a water pumping system had not been installed, the Germans would have been seriously up the creek with no paddles. The Ruhr Industry would have been unable to function at all. Do not underestimate what hypothetical difference the dams breach could have made to the Germans in their biggest industrial area.
Do women enjoy the film too, or is all the technical wizardry just for the male audience?
Why did Pink Floyd use it in their film 'The Wall'? Carling Black Label used the lake scenes many times in notorious adverts.
In the spring of 1942, the English design engineer, Barnes Wallis, is
working on a revolutionary new bomb, capable of breaching Germany's
hydro-electric dams. This film, with its unforgettable "Dam Busters March"
by Eric Coates, recounts the story of the development of the bomb and the
devising of special tactics for attacking Germany's industrial heartland.
It is also a tribute to the genius of Wallis and the courage and skill of
the men who made the concept work.
The great dams of western Germany, harnessing the energy of the rivers Moehne, Eder and Sorbe, were an important power source for the Nazi war effort. If the dams could be breached, then the loss of electrical energy and the collateral flooding would, it was hoped, cripple German industry and shorten the war.
As the film opens, Wallis is pondering the one central problem associated with bombing a dam. Any explosion in the water (and direct hits on the dam wall are too much to expect) is cushioned by the fluidity, and no structural damage results.
We see Wallis eagerly experimenting in his back yard, surrounded and assisted by his adoring children. His brilliant idea is this - if a bomb can be delivered at the correct shallow trajectory and the right high speed, it will 'skip' along the lake's surface like a pebble on a pond, strike the dam and slide down the wall. A depth-sensitive trigger could then detonate the bomb where it would do maximum damage.
The idea is a daring and imaginative one, and predictably enough, the various government departments are slow to see its merit. Wallis spends many disheartening hours waiting to speak to unsympathetic civil servants. In a lovely piece of ironic humour, a Whitehall mandarin points out to Wallis the difficulties inherent in obtaining a Wellington bomber for tests, and Wallis quietly suggests that his own role as the creator of the Wellington might be of some assistance.
Wallis is constantly being told that resources are scarce, that the communal effort requires sacrifices, and so forth. There is, he is told, "a very thin dividing line between inspiration and obsession". However, the eccentric genius persists, and eventually Churchill gets to hear of the idea. From that moment on, the project gathers momentum. 'Bomber' Harris, the chief of Britain's Bomber Command, sets up trials. The 'bouncing bomb' is at last a reality.
Major disappointments accompany the trials. The casing of the bomb has to be drastically re-designed, and it transpires that the aircraft will need to approach the dam considerably lower and faster than had been envisaged. The RAF's standard altimeters are useless at heights of 50 feet, and the resulting danger to crews of flying blind at almost zero altitude are unacceptable.
At this point, Commander Guy Gibson, the pilot who will lead the raid, has his own flash of inspiration. The spotlights in a variety theatre give him the idea of two converging light beams, shining downwards from aircraft to water, which will fix the plane's altitude precisely. If this all sounds a little 'Heath Robinson', it is nothing compared to the viewing gadget which is cobbled together to enable crews to align on the twin towers of the dam.
The climax of the film, the actual attack on the German dams, is rather a disappointment. Anti-aircraft tracer coming up from the German defenders is superimposed on the photographic matrix in the most amateurish of ways. The sound of the ground batteries is unrealistic, staying at a constant pitch and volume however the aircraft manoeuvre. The explosions are the poorest efforts of all, being no more than scraps of film and drawings, patched unconvincingly onto shots of a model dam.
Michael Redgrave does a commendable job of 'creating' Barnes Wallis for the screen, quintessentially English and understated, with his runner beans and his cricket jokes. The man's boyish enthusiasm comes across. In this respect the bathtub in the yard, the setting for his primitive experiments, serves two cinematic purposes, showing us the simple, unprepossessing genius of the English people, and explaining in visual terms exactly how the bomb will work.
Good use is made of genuine Air Ministry film of the bouncing bomb tests. If the ultimate effect on Germany's war capacity is exaggerated, this can be forgiven.
Richard Todd is terrific as Gibson, the tough little leader of the mission, the emotional man who is able through intense self-discipline to keep his feelings in check and do his duty. The powerful ending is almost too much to take, with the empty seats in the officers' mess, and Todd striding off in stiff-upper-lip fashion to 'write a few letters'. No English heart can fail to be stirred by that marvellous theme tune.
There is a fundamental difference between British and American war
movies of the 1950's and 60's. Where as Hollywoods output tends to have
gung-ho heroes gun in each hand, knife in the teeth, winning the war
for Uncle Sam and getting the girl to boot, the British war movie
tended towards a more factual almost documentary style. Almost as if
British cinema was saying 'something of great importance has recently
happened, so lets document the facts for future generations lest we
forget.' Hence we have films like Dunkirk, Sink The Bismark, Battle of
The River Plate and most famously of all The Damn Busters.
Coming back to this movie 54 years after it was made and over 60 since the events portrayed this movie can at time seam rather odd. The acting is stilted and dialogue clipped, but this is a stylistic thing rather than bad acting, after all the same style of acting can be witnessed in Ealling Comedies, the proto-hammer horror films and any number of 'The Blue Lamp' type police films. The bulk of the cinematography is also nothing special, being straightforward 'one' or 'two' shots with lighting that can be described as bog standard.
However this film really scores on two fronts. Firstly the use of real true to era aircraft (Leased from the RAF who still used Lancasters as trainers at the time) flown by genuine RAF bomber crews and filmed using the various lakes around Cumberland and West Yorkshire where the real 617 squadron trained for the real mission. And secondly it's dogged sticking to historical detail, or at least as much that could be adhered to without breaking the official secrets act!! There is no Pearl Harbour rewriting of history here. What you see is as near as damn it what really happened. Even now the a comparison of the attack as portrayed on film and the most recently published accounts of the raid as released by the British ministry of defence show very few factual flaws.
Also it must be born in mind that the early 1950's were not a pleasant time for the UK populous. The nation was still crippled by US war debt, many items were still rationed and the teething pains of the change that would lead to the welfare state and the cultural and economic boom of the 1960's were still cutting deep. So it is hardly surprising that a film showing a heroic and resourceful Britian would strike such a strong chord with its viewers.
I must be said some aspects of this film haven't aged well compared to some of the other Brit war flicks of the time ('Battle Of The River Plate' springs to mind), but as a historical document and comment on Britian in the immediate post war era it stands tall as one of the most important films of its time.
A very well made film, with a good script, actors and supporting cast. The film recreates the technical problems of the bombs development and squadron training. However, being made so soon after the raid the film ignores the relative lack of impact of the raid on German war production. However, the bravery of the air crews is very well portrayed. Guy Gibson, who was killed later in the war, won a Victoria Cross for his part in the raid and his leadership.
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