Tuesday 6 October 2020

Movie Review: Battle Of Britain (1969)

A World War Two historical drama, Battle Of Britain recreates epic dogfights and bombing raids, but fails to generate any sense of narrative engagement.

It's 1940, and with France's capitulation to the advancing armies of Nazi Germany looking assured, Britain's Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) concludes all air force resources should be consolidated at home for the upcoming defence effort. After the Allies are defeated and evacuated from Dunkirk, the United Kingdom stands alone and braces for an invasion.

Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring (Hein Riess) is confident an air force bombing campaign can quickly gain command of the skies. But the British rally, aided by the superior maneuverability of the Spitfire compared to the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. In months of aerial combat including the bombing of cities, both sides endure heavy losses.

A Harry Saltzman production directed by Guy Hamilton, Battle Of Britain features numerous sequences of painstakingly staged combat in the skies. Most of the budget was invested in authentic scenes of Spitfires intercepting German bombers and engaging with Messeschmitts, as the Luftwaffe attempts to knock out radar installations and airfields before targeting London in retaliation for the British bombing of Berlin. In return the Royal Air Force musters every available fighter plane and pilot to mount a spirited defence, taking advantage of German hubris and strategic mistakes to inflict heavy losses on the attackers and Göring's pride.

Unsurprisingly the combat scenes grow quite repetitive. Scenes of planes catching fire, exploding in mid-air or hurtling to the ground become tiresome with incessant recurrence, as do the visuals of pilots killed in cockpits or air crews attempting to bail out of flaming bombers.

And outside the combat scenes, Battle Of Britain stutters and stalls. Despite an overlong running time of 132 minutes, the strategic, tactical and personal contexts are either sketched at rudimentary levels or missing altogether. The on-the-ground interludes are haphazardly assembled with no regard for flow. In a case of quantity over quality, a cast featuring a who's who of British acting talent fails to create a single memorable character or worthwhile storyline. Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews, Michael Redgrave, Patrick Wymark and Ralph Richardson (among many others) get a few glib lines each in poorly defined roles as airmen, squadron leaders or commanders, all to no effect. And as pilots masked and belted into their cramped cockpits, all the actors are essentially undifferentiated.

Some of the attempts to create human stories are laughably inept, including a clunky marital tiff between Plummer and Susannah York. Ian McShane receives what should have been the one good moment involving family sacrifice, but his chapter drops in and out with no meaningful setup or follow-through, losing all impact.

Battle Of Britain is all about flying hardware, hearts and souls forgotten on the ground.

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  1. Well, thats war. People are essentially undifferentiated then. Personal sacrifices doesnt matter. In a war, there is no soul or heart. And this movie shows exactly that.

    1. That's a good way to look at it. But the absence of both human engagement and strategic context make for a poor cinematic experience.


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