BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1969)

Robert Shaw and Christopher Plummer in a still from Battle of Britain
  • Release Date: 15/09/1969
  • Cast: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Edward Fox, Susannah York
  • Director: Guy Hamilton

Brimming with energy and breakneck pacing, Battle of Britain has some of the best dogfight action ever to have graced the silver screen

Battle of Britain documents a series of aerial battles of World War II that was collectively referred to as “The Battle of Britain” and made Winston Churchill utter the famous line “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. No matter how much I despise Churchill for all the atrocities that he committed on the people of India before her independence, I have to agree with him on the above thought. His words truly capture the essence of the struggle that the men and women of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and a gamut of other assorted pilots from the commonwealth nations had to endure to keep England and the fire of resistance from being brutally squashed by the marauding German Luftwaffe and their desire to crush the RAF once and for all and then proceed to invade English mainland. If the nefarious German plan worked as per design it would essentially seal the fate of England and Europe as a whole for eternity. The only line of defense standing between Europe and annihilation were the brave men and women who fought the “Battle of Britain” for them. This is their story.

Guy Hamilton’s film is mesmerizing in so many ways that it is hard to put together in one review. Having said that, I am still confident that there must have been many in those days who would have hated this film as it shuns everything that films have taught us to expect from a commercial war film. At the very beginning, we learn that the RAF is in a dilapidating state and are shown retreating out of France within the first few minutes. They are short on pilots. Their airfields are constantly under attack and their force is grossly outnumbered in the face of a well-equipped and larger German Luftwaffe. Churchill has promised the French Prime Minister that he would continue to send them flying squadrons to defend France but that promise is proving increasingly difficult for the RAF to maintain.

Laurence Olivier in a still from Battle of Britain

Soon there comes a time when Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief RAF, Fighter Command informs Churchill that they shouldn’t be sending any more aircraft to aide France as it would jeopardize their own security in case of a German attack. Through the rest of the film, we see how the RAF gradually recovers from this precarious position as its the men and women gradually chip away at the enemy and through some luck and exceptional fighting skills and endurance are finally able to thwart the Germans long enough to force them to abandon their plans of a land invasion of Britain. Each RAF pilot had to take down 4 Luftwaffe pilots if they had to stand their ground against the Germans and they did exactly that.

The film takes us through one aerial battle after another and even though most of it feels very similar, the fights never lose their charm. What I loved about these battles was the amount of realism and physicality that Guy Hamilton was able to bring to the sequences. He evidently used real aircraft and a quick read through the Wikipedia page of the “Battle of Britain” is enough for us to understand how accurate the recreation of the different battles and the hardware and techniques used in them were. The actors, most of whom were big stars of their times were trained so well and directed with such conviction and control that almost all of them disappear behind the characters that they are playing.

A still of a combat sequence from Battle of Britain

As the film progresses, we see major characters dying in the line of duty but strangely enough, each of these deaths is either reported or shown without any fanfare or heightened drama. I just loved this aspect of the film and I cannot imagine how much shock it must have sent across the audiences who were watching this film in the theaters in 1969 without any idea of what was about to happen. By doing so, the director has just reiterated the fact that the actors were not bigger than the picture and that the characters they were playing lost their lives in a similar unceremonious manner adding to the shock and awe of their already awe-inspiring bravery and achievement.

The aerial cinematography of the film is flawlessly intertwined with the sequences of the interior of the aircraft which was evidently shot indoors. The editing comes to the aid of the film in these sequences as it helps create a feel of organic motion and unbroken flow of action that adds a sense of realism, intrigue, and affectivity to the action sequences. One has to realize that most of the actions feel similar in nature but a sense of freshness is maintained using innovative techniques of capturing the chaotic and sometimes claustrophobic feel of these battles in the sky and also by putting the audience smack in the middle of the action through various techniques of filming and innovative camera angles.

Hein Riess in a still from Battle of Britain

There are very little interpersonal relationship and connection developed between the audiences and the various characters and also between the different characters but that never comes in the way of you enjoying the film and being moved by the actions of the characters. This is where the star power and charisma of the big names come in handy and help forge quick bonds between the characters and the audiences. I just loved Robert Shaw’s performance. We don’t even get to know his real name in the film and he is referred to only as the “Rabbit Leader” or “Skipper”. However, every time he appears on the screen, he lights up the proceedings. He maintains such a commanding presence that it is hard not to like him. His chemistry with his men who share a unique love-hate relationship with him is interesting and entertaining to watch.

The same can be said about the character played by Christopher Plummer. His is the only character that has a romantic angle associated with it. Between his duties of fighting the Germans, he tries to keep his relationship with his wife alive by meeting her in a hotel from time to time. He wants her to take a transfer to his squadron but she has her own priorities in the war. This difference of opinion between the two leads to some interesting drama that is milked to its full potential by the end of the film. Michael Caine is ever likable. He has a short screen time here but makes the most of his role. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that his fate, in the end, is the source of one of the biggest jolts of the film.

Christopher Plummer and Susannah York in a still from Battle of Britain

One of the film’s most poignant scenes takes place during a blitz by the Germans in London. Non-commissioned fighter pilot Andy Moore (Ian McShane) comes home on leave and is furious to discover that his family has returned to London from their place of evacuation. Meeting them in a shelter during a raid, he gives his children presents of carved aircraft models and tells his wife that she must return them to the country at once. As they argue, a warden arrives with news of a family trapped in a burning house. Andy goes to help but returns later to find the shelter destroyed by a bomb and his family dead.

They just don’t make the war films as good as they used to and Battle of Britain that was made in 1969 stands testimony to that. Made at a time when CGI didn’t exist, the film’s greatest strength proves to be its realistic rendering of the battles using real planes and hardware that invariably inspired the actors to deliver even stronger performances as they had the luxury of being a situation that gave them a taste of the real deal. The film may not have a story filled with twists and turn as it is based on actual events but what we experience here is no less thrilling. It ends on a nail-biting note as both the British and the Germans don’t know after the final battle whether or not they will be at each other’s throat the following day. The way Hamilton ends the film only reiterates his ability to add certain deft touches that elevate his films to a whole new level. Battle of Britain is one of the best films ever made about aerial warfare and you have to experience it to understand my reverence for it.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars) 

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