With the newly remastered 4G version of the legendary film, The Dam Busters, which premiered in May 2018 in the Royal Albert Hall, I’m reminded of the first time I saw that remarkable movie back in 1955.
There was no cinema in the village, and the Kinema at the RAF base close by was still off limits to the general public. The cinema in Stratford, five miles away, was a bit off limits too for an eight year old like me, and it was a bit too far to peddle there on my blue trike.
Our saviour was a man who visited the village in a green GPO van every other Friday evening. He and his van, and the large film projector it carried, was one of a small fleet that serviced villages and out-of-the-way places to show the latest films. What a good idea that was in those pre-techno days.
It was my sister who usually took me to the film shows, but on the occasion of The Dam Busters showing my father came too — unusual for him. The Womens Institute Hut ( it was a hall really)was full that night, including thirty or more airmen.
For me it was an event that was almost unbearable: this was going to be the first war film of my limited film going career. Up to then it had been a Frankie Howard film set in the fog, and a couple of Norman Wisdom outings that were very funny. But this was the real thing. A serious film about a war that had only ended ten years previously and touched the village in many ways, not least by the building of an RAF base.
When the film started I was completely gripped by the assembly of the main characters as they came back from bombing raids looking forward to a much needed period of leave. As I watched I was onside with Dr Barnes Wallis, who wanted to bomb those German dams with a new sort of bomb, an action that was going to shorten the war by at least six months. It was always six months. I loved the way he, Barnes Wallis, explained to an officious civil servant in the office of a minister in the Ministry for War that perhaps he, the minister, might see him, Barnes Wallis, if he, the civil servant, told him, the minister, that he, Barnes Wallis, had designed the Wellington bomber. It worked too.
I knew all these RAF characters who were appearing before me because they all came into my father’s bakery: the wing commanders and group captains, the ground crews and the flyers, the flight engineers and navigators, and the boffins as well.
Back then, in the 1950s they were still flying the occasional Wellington and Lancaster bomber, plus the new Canberra jet bomber — there was the carcass of a Wellington still firmly wedged between two trees on the south eastern edge of the airfield where it had crashed trying to land in 1944.
When those characters I knew appeared on the screen in the guise of Richard Todd as Guy Gibson, and the Australian actor, Bill Kerr (whose voice I knew from Hancock’s Half Hour), as a young Aussie airman, and a very young Robert Shaw — plus the rest of a splendid acting crew — I became just a bit confused: my poor eight year old brain was struggling to separate the film from the RAF base just half a mile up the road. It bothered me for the rest of the film.
I now realise it was the craft of the film makers, and the skill of the actors, that was drawing me in (as it should) to another land that had started to live in my imagination, an imagination that was already full of the aircraft and flyers at the base. It was stimulation overload.
Obviously I’ve seen the film many times since then — it was a BBC favourite on Sunday afternoon TV in the late 1950s and early 60s — and over the years I’ve realised what an important piece of British film making it is, not least for the direction by Michael Anderson.
Anderson was what I might call a lingering director, not unlike John Ford, who often kept the camera very still, allowing actors to come and go in and out of shot. At other times he’d allow the camera to move slowly amongst the actors, as he does in the scene in The Dam Busters, where the bomber crews are relaxing on the grass at the side of the runway waiting for the signal to go. It’s a touching scene where we, the viewer, are allowed to eaves drop on conversations of men, many of whom, in reality, did not come back and collect their washing from my mother. It’s one of those magical single takes that builds in tension until the arrival of the crew trucks. For a minute or two we were there amongst them. Clever and very moving stuff, but then Anderson was a clever man who could create great cinematic emotion. He went on to film Around the World in Eight Days, plus many more, including a huge amount of TV stuff. He died in 2014, aged 92.
But that Friday night in the WI Hut (a corrugated iron self assembly Thompson building from the 1890s), all those years ago, has stayed with me. The emotion, and the over stimulation are still alive, as is the humour, not least in the character of Barnes Wallis who, in the hands of Michael Redgrave, is something of a driven, vague, and slightly batty scientist who needs to get the bouncing bomb to work so that the war is shortened and the casualties minimized, which is something of a dream and only realised when Richard Todd’s Guy Gibson tells him that half of those flyers who started out did not returned. It’s one of those great cinema moments of truth, which many of the airmen watching the film in 1955 would have understood all too clearly.
The screenplay was written by playwright, R.C. Sherriff, whose own experiences in WWI, expressed in his definitive play about that war, Journey’s End, first staged in 1928, made him the ideal candidate to write the script for The Dam Busters, which is as lightly written as his masterpiece, and like all good scripts never intrudes.
Richard Todd’s portrayal of Guy Gibson is never exploitative, and is played straight down the middle as a man doing a job, and doing it well. It works on screen beautifully. Todd never puts a foot wrong, knowing full well, as an officer himself in WWII, what Gibson must have been going through.
Back in 1955, when I saw the interior shots of the Lancaster bomber as they followed canals and rivers to the three dams in the heart of industrial Germany, it was all very familiar. The previous year I had sat in the cockpit of a ‘Lanc’ at the RAF base’s annual Air Show.