Monday 14 November 2022

Movie Review: The Dam Busters (1955)

A World War Two mission drama, The Dam Busters is a methodical recreation of a famous British raid, filled with engrossing technical details but lacking human depth.

In England of 1942, aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) develops a far-fetched idea to destroy three crucial German dams using bombs designed to bounce on the water's surface. Breaching the dams is expected to flood and severely damage Germany's industrial heartland. The plan requires bombers to fly low and release their bombs at a precise altitude and distance from the dams. After some convincing up the chain of command, the military approves testing and training for the mission.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) is selected to assemble and train the new 617 Squadron, consisting of accomplished pilots with expertise in flying low. Months of intense training follow on Lancaster bombers, with Wallis frantically working to fine-tune his calculations and develop bomb casings to survive the initial water impact. Finally the big night of the raid arrives, with Gibson leading the squadron of Lancasters deep into enemy-controlled airspace and Wallis anxiously awaiting the mission's results.

A British production directed by Michael Anderson and written by R.C. Sherriff, The Dam Busters is an inside look at Operation Chastise, although the debate surrounding strategic outcomes and overall merits are studiously avoided. Clocking in at a long 124 minutes, this is relaxed and comprehensive storytelling, closely following actual events as recounted in two books: The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill and Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson. 

The opening act showcases Wallis as he conceives the idea and battles bureaucratic scepticism. Gibson takes centre stage in the middle segment, focusing on training and team-building under a shroud of secrecy. The final act is the raid itself, concept and execution tested under fire and presented with enough nail-biting intensity to serve as partial inspiration for the attack on the Death Star.

While acing the mission's mechanics, Anderson is much less adept at humanizing the men. Wallis is surrounded by a warm family, Gibson safely channels his affection towards his dog, but everybody else is unfortunately reduced to an interchangeable yessir uniform. Despite a laudable tone of respect for the high price paid in men lost, Sherriff appears satisfied to have the full name and rank of every serviceman who participated in the mission faithfully listed in the credits, but forgets to colour-in any of them as people worth knowing.

The flying sequences and special effects are a mixed bag. Actual Lancasters were used for many scenes, and some majestic low-flight moments are brought to life. However, the anti-aircraft fire and the bomb explosions are reduced to either mediocre or painfully awful superimpositions. The German perspective is entirely absent, robbing the drama of any counterpoint tension. A more pointed source of awkwardness is Gibson's faithful black dog, unfortunately saddled with a now utterly contemptuous name.

The best moments reveal the depth of problem solving and innovation required to pull off the unexpected. Every time Wallis and Gibson overcome one hurdle, they encounter another. Measuring the bombers' exact altitude over the water, determining the precise moment to release the bombs, and developing a bomb that will bounce without disintegrating upon initial impact contribute to moments of despair and jubilation as the clock ticks towards the designated mission date and time.

Despite a few wayward bombs, The Dam Busters hits the designated targets as a respectfully constructed salute to thinking on the bounce.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.


  1. They show Barnes Wallace grieving over the air crews who were killed in the raid, but he doesn't waste a single thought on the hundreds of slave labourers in those German factories, who died when the dams burst and the water came roaring down. A Dutch friend of mine had an uncle who was one of those slaves. He was one of the lucky ones who managed to make it to the roof of the factory. The Nazis left them sitting there for four days, without food or water, before they bothered to rescue them.

    1. Yes, the entire "perspective from the other side", whether military or civilian, is missing.


We welcome reader comments about this post.