Monday, 27 February 2017

Battle of Britain (1969)

In June 1940, Nazi Germany reigned supreme in Europe.  They'd swept through Poland, Denmark, Norway and France, defeating all in their path, and driven the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk.  All that stood between the United Kingdom and the seemingly unstoppable blitzkrieg was thirty miles of water.

In earlier times, the might of the Royal Navy would have meant that the UK was inviolate, but in this new era of warfare it had already become clear that air power could dominate a surface navy.  If Germany would win control of the skies, an invasion might be possible.  This is a very big "might", to be honest, given the Nazis' lack of proper troop transports, but nobody wanted to test it to find out, so the country's first line of defence became its newest, smallest military service: the Royal Air Force.

For five months, until winter and then Hitler's scheme for an invasion of the Soviet Union rendered British shores safe, a vital struggle was waged in the air.  This film chronicles that conflict.

Like The Longest Day, this is the kind of war movie they don't make any more: one where the progress of the war itself is the focus of the narrative, and the characters we meet exist only to provide a context to that conflict.  They may have their own miniature storylines within the film, but the emphasis there is on 'miniature'.  For instance, we might meet a pilot in a scene, learn some particular tidbit about them in their second scene, and then see some kind of fallout related to that information in the third.

This is not to say that the film doesn't give you characters to care about: just that it does so not by providing us with deep insight into them, but by using instantly recognisable archetypes and scenarios in their individual tales.  We get the struggling marriage, and veteran officer, the plucky young pilot, and so forth.  Many of these characters will experience less than perfect outcomes, of course.  There's a war on, after all.  But the film also injects a few moments of levity to change up the atmosphere, where it is appropriate to do so.

If you've an interest in a period of war that led to one of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches, this is certainly worth your time.  While the style of film-making is one that has gone out of fashion, it is still an effective one.  In addition, being made less than thirty years after the events it depicts, the movie has the advantage that much WW2-era equipment was still available for use on screen, and people who lived through the actual events were on hand to provide expert advice.  This provides it a degree of verisimilitude that I expect a more modern film would lack, even if it ultimately had more spectacular visuals.

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