The Dam Busters Title Card

There are a few tunes in English culture that make every old soul stir, every cataract-ridden eye flood with saltwater, and every mind over a certain age ache for an England long-since headbutted to death by hoodie wearing benefit frauds. Right at the top of the pile, (only narrowly beating raps about cups of tea) is the Dam Busters march. It’s not just the OAPs either. Unleash Eric Coates’ devastating tune amongst a group of 30-something Brits, and the room will be filled with cries of “Tally Ho!” and “Chocs away old boy!”. It is a tune so inseperable from British culture that it may as well be our National Anthem, and to be honest, if the film didn’t have a dog called “N*gger” in it, it probably would be.

Yes, N*gger. RAF Wing Cmdr. Guy Gibson’s dog is called N*gger. Before I offend anyone who may be reading this, bear in mind this film was made in 1955, and I am told by many people over 60 that this was quite an acceptable name for a dog back then. English people were weird in the 40s and 50s, my Gran used to have a cat called “Bastard”.

So, now the elephant in the room has been soundly addressed, onto the film.

The film is a near historically accurate portrayal of the RAF’s dam buster campaign in WWII, a plot to slow the German war machine by destroying 3 dams supplying the millions of tons of water required to build their weapons. Presumably it would also have a devastating effect on the amount of ice they could put in their Martinis. The dams could not be destroyed by conventional weapons and explosives, so it is up to the will and self-belief of Dr Barnes Wallis to create the famous  “bouncing bomb”; a bomb dropped by Lancasters at low altitude, which skims and skips across the vast German reservoirs to hit the dam at the perfect spot.

Michael Redgrave convincingly plays Dr Wallis, a man whose intellect is thankfully light years ahead of his taste in knitted cardigans. Wallis, who is really the film’s main protagonist and the only fleshed out character, admirably carries the weight of the entire first half of the film on his knit-clad shoulders. This first section of the film is devoted to the trials and tribulations of the scientist, as he struggles to get the military to take his outlandish idea seriously. Interest is maintained thanks to Redgrave’s performance, as he plays the socially awkward but brilliant man with veracious determinism, yet bumbling charm and humility.

The film steps up a gear as we meet the RAF flyboys destined to drop Wallis’ invention. Although we are introduced to too many one-dimensional characters at this point (N*gger the dog has more screentime than most), the real focus shifts onto Wing Cmdr. Guy Gibson, played by Richard Todd. Todd is solid, and fits the stereotypical English flyboy nicely. Surprisingly, despite Guy Gibson being the real life wing commander, and author of the book the film is based on, the film does a great job of showing that the real heroics come from cumulative accomplishments of everyone involved, rather than anyone individually.

As the film leads to its inevitable conclusion, we are treated to some fantastic shots of Lancaster bomber wings flying to stunning sunsets, along with slightly ropey miniature work, and poorly animated tracer fire as the boys fly to their mission’s objective. The actual mission itself is action packed, paced well, and there is a very real sense of satisfaction when it is all over, elevated further by the iconic score.

Aside from the good Doctor Wallis and Wing Cmdr. Guy Gibson, the rest of the cast exist purely to move the plot along, and are all fairly flat and under-developed, but this does not seem to harm the film, which is at its essence, a patriotic recounting of true events. A little reading will show you that the film uses a moderate dose of creative license with certain situations, but nothing which really changes the outcome or the main historical facts, and only in the interest of building suspense and entertaniment value. The film is shot beautifully in black and white to match the stock footage of the actual bouncing bomb tests, and is full of enough well shot fly-bys to fulfill most aviation buffs needs. Dialogue is handled with all the patriotic camaraderie and back-slapping you would expect from this era and genre, and while slightly stilted at times it thankfully avoids becoming too cliché.

Overall, The Dam Busters manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, helped in no small part by Michael Redgrave’s performance, an uplifting theme, some beautiful photography and the drama of the real-life story. Buy it, watch it, enjoy it, and if you aren’t that keen you can always give it to your Gran on her birthday. Just be prepared for her to start belting out the old war songs.

4 out of 5

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