Andrew Dickens explores why The Dam Busters deserves to be seen by a new generation of film-goers:
Is The Dam Busters still relevant today?
by Andrew Dickens
Can The Dam Busters be both timeless and of its time? Well done me for coming up with an oxymoronic soundbite, but it’s a question worth asking. After all, you are in possession of a brand new edition of a 63-year-old film marking the 75th anniversary of a unique historical event: Operation Chastise or, as we all know it, the Dam Busters raid. (P.S. thanks for not binning this essay along with the packaging.) This means a hopefully large number people – possibly including your good self – who don’t remember its original release, let alone the events it depicts, have laid out good money to have it on their shelves.
Not remembering a film’s release does not preclude someone from appreciating, even loving it. Hands up if you were first in the queue to see Citizen Kane in 1941. But being good does not stop a film from being dated; it does not stop it from being outmoded. Nostalgia and appreciation will go so far, but it will not make a film relevant today or tomorrow. A vintage car might look beautiful and have a delightful leathery whiff, but that doesn’t make it ideal for the school run. So there’s the debate: is The Dam Busters still relevant, or is it merely documenting a moment in time?
THE OLD AGE PROBLEM
The first thing we need to acknowledge is that the film is old and the raid is even older. There is an unmistakable leathery whiff. It is not a work of fiction that can be edited or updated to suit modern tastes. It is, as they say, what it is, and that comes with some very archaic elements.
To begin with, there’s the overriding poshness. Your ears are awash with the crisp and almost extinct sound of Received Pronunciation – or RP – once the staple accent of anyone from the upper middle classes, any working British actor, and the dear old BBC. It’s a way of speaking so irrelevant today that even the Queen has toned it down. One might say RP has bought it, old chap. Unlike, sadly, the idea of well-to-do old white men wielding all the power in society (although there are signs of severe illness). In the film, the military top brass, the government big wigs, pretty much anyone with sway – other than the mess cook at 617 Squadron’s RAF Scampton base, that decides who gets a cooked breakfast or not – is an Anglo-Saxon male with an Etonian air about them.
Then there’s the most culturally dated feature of the film: the elephant, sorry, dog in the room. To be precise, Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s dog, N*gger. There aren’t many film character names you need to star out and he’s become a poster dog for discussions on retrospective censorship. For several years now, Peter Jackson has had plans to remake The Dam Busters, and nearly every discussion of it has focussed on what to call the dog. Trigsy? Digger? When the original was released in the USA – where the word was much more offensive – his name was dubbed over with ‘Trigger’. There have even been attempts to edit all mentions of his name from the film, but these rendered it senseless. There’s no doubt the name is painful to the modern ear, whatever your thoughts on censorship.
Of course, the most immoveable and obvious fixed point in the film is that it’s set in 1943, slap bang in the middle of World War Two – not something you can change, really. This is still, mercifully, the last truly global ‘hot’ war, which means much of the content is alien to anyone under the age of 80, and some of it alien to anyone under 95. Most of us have no concept of air raids, conscription, or the notion of friends dying on a regular basis in their teens and twenties. More on that later, though.
These people, that dog, that accent, all live in a Britain that no longer exists, for better or worse (on the whole, you’d have to say better, seeing as we’re not in the middle of a world war). They are museum pieces. So, what if we look beyond them, unchangeable as they are? Can we find things that matter today? Reasons why, close to pensionable age, The Dam Busters should still hold an appeal to you and others.
Let’s begin with its worth as a piece of cinema. Originally seen as (literally) a vehicle for Richard Todd, who plays Gibson, it evolved into a two-hander, as he shares the lead with Michael Redgrave, excellent as the driven-yet-doubtful designer, Barnes Wallis. But it became more than that: something obvious from very first second, when The Dam Busters March – surely cinema’s greatest opening theme – glides over the credits.
I’ve timed it and it takes precisely one second to recognise Eric Coates’s opus, and a fraction under 10 seconds for goose-bumps to cover your entire body. The first time you watch the film, it sets the tone; you know you’re going to see something inspirational, in the same way John Williams’s scores whip up your excitement ahead of Superman or Star Wars (unashamedly influenced by The Dam Busters, by the way) or Elmer Bernstein grips you during the titles of The Magnificent Seven. These tunes lift you every time you hear them, whether you’re watching their films or not. Feeling down? Pop on some Dam Busters. It’s an aural anti-depressant.
Then there’s the pace of the film. There are some who claim that it’s too long. These people, who probably sit quite happily through a dozen hour-long episodes of a TV box set, are wrong. Considering the epic scope of the subject, The Dam Busters fairly sprints along. After the march fades, we meet Wallis at his idyllic Surrey village house in the Britain that no longer exists. It’s as sleepy as the film gets. Moments later, Wallis’s ideas for the bombing the dams of the Ruhr valley, and his obsession with succeeding, are conveyed through a brief conversation with his GP. This is wartime attitude on film: no faffing around with niceties, dear boy, we must crack on.
It’s a 21st century pace, and it’s not the only thing that feels modern. The special effects, which by today’s standards would be laughed at in a homemade YouTube video, were at least ambitious – and indeed Oscar-nominated – attempting to recreate the dams’ destruction. There are grand-scale shots of the Ruhr valley flooding. The use of actual archive footage of the bomb tests (the reason the film was shot in black and white) helped bring scale, as did the use of four genuine Lancaster bombers, a decision which took up 10 per cent of the film’s budget.
By the standards of its time – and those today, in terms of aspiration – it was a blockbuster.
You also have the performances of the two leads. These feel well ahead of their time, especially for British cinema. Both Redgrave and Todd look and sound natural, lacking script-sticking starched collar rigidity when they speak and, in the rare moments they share on screen, interact. Credit must go to Michael Anderson, who had a reputation as a carrot-over-stick director. This was also the early Fifties, when the ‘realness’ of Marlon Brando was taking movies by storm, and perhaps that had an influence. Of course, it’s all done with plums in their mouths – as if Stanislavski had taught at RADA.
SOME THINGS LIVE ON
Is its artistic worth enough to make The Dam Busters important? To make it endure? For me, it helps, but no. Not quite. Its impact continues not because of how it was made, but when and why it was made. That taps into something deeper and more permanent than SFX technology.
The film was made 12 years after Operation Chastise and is as close as any movie ever gets to being historically accurate (we’re all allowed a little artistic licence). It’s not a documentary, but it documents one of the most significant I moments in World War Two, and it does it while many of the people involved were still alive to have their say; while the memory of the war was fresh, but not too fresh; and when it didn’t need to be a propaganda tool. No unnecessary politics and no Hollywood powdering of sentimentality. It is an authentic telling of an astonishing true story.
I say the raid was significant. From what I understand, it wasn’t the devastating blow to German infrastructure Wallis and the Allies had hoped, but if it underwhelmed militarily, it did wonders for spirits, even finding Gibson on a morale-boosting tour of the USA, probably the equivalent of doing the sofa circuit on Oprah and The Late Show, quipping and telling anecdotes about the boys in the squadron. And spirit is what lives on through the film. It shows us the best of Britain and of humanity, in the face of adversity and inhumanity.
From Wallis you get imagination, inspiration and determination. Although, as he says, there’s “a thin dividing line between inspiration and obsession,” he encounters problems, then finds the solutions. He gets knocked back, but keeps going forward. He believes he has a way for the Allies to strike a huge blow against the industrial might of Germany and, despite resistance from Whitehall and the laws of nature, he does not give up until he finds it. The UK has long prided itself on being a small country punching above its weight through innovation, wit and will – and Wallis represents that. Here it’s in war; in another place and time, it’s the start-up taking on the conglomerates, the small football club outwitting glamourous opponents. It’s the underdog scrapping away with every means at its disposal to secure victory against the odds. It’s an image that too often gets hijacked, romanticised or bastardised for the wrong reasons, but these traits are universally admired and aspired to.
The first quarter of the film is dedicated to Wallis’s campaign to get his bouncing bombs rubber-stamped. The rest of the film sees him trying to get them to bounce. This is when we meet Gibson and friends (and dog). It’s very easy to laugh at the “what ho!” personas and dorm room nicknames of the airmen; it’s easy to get angered by the clear class divide between pilots and non-commissioned ranks; but this wasn’t a bunch of chaps having some bally japes. These were privileged young men (Gibson was 24 when he commanded the mission) prepared to sacrifice their lives for the cause.
And they did: 53 of the 133 crew who took part in the raid never returned, while Gibson died in action 16 months later, aged 26. It was a time when members of society’s upper echelons saying “we’re all in it together” wasn’t a bare-faced lie. They faced death with what was once known as a ‘stiff upper lip’. When Gibson’s dog dies on the day of the raid, he buries the pain. When the missing crew’s quarters remain silent and empty (in the film’s most moving scene), the airmen move on, with only Wallis expressing remorse at the loss. In our age of extreme hyperbole, their understatement of something so genuinely profound is quite sobering. Not always healthy, perhaps, in normal life, but at that time, a necessity.
This genuine nobility, selflessness and courage is something people want to think they would match under similar circumstances, but almost certainly never will. They were heroes, and heroes are something we will always need. They have been needed since civilisation began, in war, in the arts, in philosophy, in sport. Thankfully, these days, we rarely need people to risk their lives, but who we choose as heroes reflects back on us. The perspective the Dam Busters give us can only help with that choice.
In Gibson and Wallis, you have two men who sum up what the British, as a nation, want to be, occasionally were, and occasionally are. And for ‘British’ you could really substitute ‘any sane human being’. And that’s why it’s still relevant: because we’re still trying to be like Gibson and Wallis, or at least the bits of them that really counted in 1943. What they exhibit in the film still matters in 2018: a year neither would live to see.
Ask someone like Barnes Wallis, with his whirligig genius mind, what the world would be like in 2018 and you’d probably get some Jules Verne-esque vision of interplanetary travel and Martian visitors, but with people still smoking Player’s Navy Cut. Maybe even Martians smoking Player’s Navy Cut. He almost certainly wouldn’t have expected a world, a Britain, where the messages of the Dam Busters’ story and the film that so brilliantly portrayed it – those of selfsacrifice, collectivism, innovation, and determination – would need telling more than ever. Because some things don’t die out as easily as RP accents.