Everyone has heard of The Dam Busters. Even if you have never seen the film itself, and many of the modern generation probably haven’t, most people would passably be able to hum the theme tune by Eric Coates, which has resonated across cinematic history as one of the best pieces of film music ever brought to bear. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the real-life mission of Wing Commander Guy Gibson and his Lancaster bomber squadron’s raid on a group of German dam’s in the Ruhr in 1943, which helped the collective Allied effort to turn the tide of the war. A historic mission which led to a historic film by Michael Anderson.
While celebrating the legendary wartime endeavour is a cause for celebration, and was marked on May 17th by a commemoration at the Royal Albert Hall which included a screening of the film, it was tinged with sadness a little this year given the death of Anderson at the ripe old age of 96. This allows for an honest retrospective on the film, and a brand new 4K collector’s edition of the picture from Studio Canal, festooned with impressive extras which delve deep into the making of the film, and includes interviews with some of the surviving men who undertook the raid. With such time and distance, over sixty years now since the movie was made, does The Dam Busters really hold up?
The answer is mixed. There is no doubt that the climactic sequences which involve the bombing of the dam’s over Germany remain hugely compelling, even if the effects have naturally dated significantly over the decades. Gibson’s squadron working to drop their tricky payloads at just the right place at the right time to blow the dam is nail-biting, and you can see the influence on films as diverse as George Lucas’ original Star Wars and even Christopher Nolan’s recent Dunkirk. Anderson knows how to handle the broad, wartime set pieces which underpin the entire picture, as indeed does he tease a fine performance from Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis, the genius engineer who builds the aircraft capable of delivering the bombs.
Where The Dam Busters has dated, and stands out as an example of post-war, pre-counter cultural British film making, is in just how upper-class white British the whole thing is, dash it all. You’ll barely see a woman in Anderson’s movie, and you’ve no chance in seeing anyone ethnically diverse. Indeed, controversially, the name of Gibson’s dog now stands out as horrendously of its age, and the film opens on this new release with a disclaimer that Studio Canal chose to keep the name in for reasons of ‘historical accuracy’. This is fair, even if the word will doubtless offend many today. It is important to reflect on how far we, and cinema, have come since the days when this would be considered acceptable.
Anderson shows no interest in depicting the German side either, with the focus squarely on Wallis’ attempts to build the aircraft and test the weapon, before building toward the raid, and honestly Redgrave is the only character who gets anything in the way of decent characterisation. Richard Todd is the other major star as Gibson but his concern at whether the mission will be a success, and the pressure on him as the commander, is scant – he’s just there to be the male lead. Anderson and the script are more interested in Wallis and his own determination to prove his engineering works, even at the potential expense of his own health as a sallow-looking middle-aged man.
To be honest, though, if you come looking for deep characterisation and emotional character journeys in The Dam Busters, you’re watching the wrong picture. This is a war film, first and foremost, dramatising the real-life events of 1943 as accurately as possible while allowing for some dramatic license, as many pictures of the 50’s and 60’s tried to do. The Dam Busters is all about reliving a past, British war time glory for the post-war years of austerity, filled with middle-class flying aces who risk their lives for King and country. Imagine a serious version of Blackadder Goes Forth and you’re not far off.
Therefore while The Dam Busters doesn’t really hold up to in-depth scrutiny as an all-round magnificent cinematic experience, it is still a well-made, technically skilled cultural artefact of British filmmaking in the 1950’s, and will always remain a favourite for many as an example of old-school, patriotic British cinema. If you’re a fan of the film, this release–which lovingly restores the film with a 4K sheen–is decidedly unmissable.
- The Making of the Dam Busters documentary (39 mins – NEW)
- Restoration featurette (4 mins 57 sec – NEW)
- 617 Squadron remembers documentary from 2010 (56 mins)
- Sir Barnes Wallis documentary from 1972 (28 mins)
- Footage of the bomb tests (6 mins 42 secs)
- Dam Busters Royal premiere in 1955 (3 mins 9 secs)
- Dam Busters reunion in 1955 (2 mins 55 secs)
- Behind the scenes stills gallery
Collector’s Edition extras (includes above):
- 64 page booklet with foreword by Dan Snow
- 5 Art cards
- RAF Chastise Lancaster Bombers poster
- Reproduction photograph of the Mohne Dam after the raid signed by the original 617 Squadron
The Dam Busters: Collector’s Edition is now available on DVD/BluRay.