Battle of Britain (1969)

Directed by Guy Hamilton
Cinematography Freddie Young

Battle of Britain is a 1969 British Second World War film directed by Guy Hamilton, and produced by Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz. The film broadly relates the events of the Battle of Britain. The script by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex was based on the book The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster.

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The film endeavoured to be an accurate account of the Battle of Britain, when in the summer and autumn of 1940 the British RAF inflicted a strategic defeat on the Luftwaffe and so ensured the cancellation of Operation Sea LionAdolf Hitler‘s plan to invade Britain. The film is notable for its spectacular flying sequences, in contrast with the unsatisfactory model work seen in Angels One Five (1952) and on a far grander scale than had been seen on film before; these made the film’s production very expensive.

Aircraft models

Permission was granted to the producers to use the Royal Air Force Museum’s Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber (one of only two that survive intact). The 1943 aircraft was repainted and slightly modified to resemble a 1940 model Ju 87. The engine was found to be in excellent condition and there was little difficulty in starting it, but returning the aircraft to airworthiness was ultimately too costly for the filmmakers. Instead, two Percival Proctor training aircraft were converted into half-scale Stukas, with a cranked wing, as “Proctukas” though, in the film, they were not used on-screen.Instead, to duplicate the steep dive of Ju 87 attacks, large models were flown by radio control.

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To recreate airfield scenes in the film, with the limited number of period aircraft available for the film, large scale models were used. The first requirement was for set decoration replicas. Production of full-size wood and fibreglass Hurricanes, Spitfires and Bf 109s commenced in a sort of production line set up at Pinewood Studios. A number of the replicas were fitted with motorcycle engines to enable them to taxi. Although most of these replicas were destroyed during filming, a small number were made available to museums in the UK.

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The other need was for models in aerial sequences, and art director and model maker John Siddall was asked by the producer to create and head a team specifically for this because of his contacts in the modelling community.  A test flight was arranged at Lasham Airfield in the UK and a model was flown down the runway close behind a large American estate car with a cameraman in the rear. This test proved successful, leading to many radio-controlled models being constructed in the band rehearsal room at Pinewood Studios. Over a period of two years, a total of 82 Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and He 111s were built. Radio-controlled Heinkel He 111 models were flown to depict bombers being destroyed over the English Channel. When reviewing the footage of the first crash, the producers noticed a trailing-wire antenna; this was explained by an added cutaway in which the control wires of a Heinkel are seen shot loose.

Both the village of Denton and the resident pub, The Jackdaw Inn, appear in the film. The airbase appears in the film looking just as it did during WWII.

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Aircraft

The film required a large number of period aircraft. In September 1965 producers Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz contacted former RAF Bomber Command Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie to find the aircraft and arrange their use.Eventually 100 aircraft were employed, called the “35th largest air force in the world”. With Mahaddie’s help, the producers located 109 Spitfires in the UK, of which 27 were available although only 12 could be made flyable. Mahaddie negotiated use of six Hawker Hurricanes, of which three were flying. The film helped preserve these aircraft, including a rare Spitfire Mk II which had been a gate guardian at RAF Colerne.

During the actual aerial conflict, all RAF Spitfires were Spitfire Mk I and Mark II variants. However, only one Mk Ia and one Mk IIa (the latter with a Battle of Britain combat record) could be made airworthy, so the producers had to use seven other different marks, all of them built after the battle. To achieve commonality, the production made some modifications to “standardise” the Spitfires, including adding elliptical wingtips, period canopies and other changes. To classic aircraft fans, they became known as “Mark Haddies” (a play on Grp. Capt. Mahaddie’s name). A pair of two-seat trainer Spitfires were camera platforms to achieve realistic aerial footage inside the battle scenes. A rare Hawker Hurricane XII had been restored by Canadian Bob Diemert, who flew the aircraft in the film. Eight non-flying Spitfires and two Hurricanes were set dressing, with one Hurricane able to taxi.

Battle Of Britain 1969 Moviestills

A North American B-25 Mitchell N6578D, flown by pilots John “Jeff” Hawke and Duane Egli, was the primary filming platform for the aerial sequences. It was fitted with camera positions in what were formerly the aircraft’s nose, tail and waist gun positions. An additional camera, on an articulating arm, was mounted in the aircraft’s bomb bay and allowed 360-degree shots from below the aircraft. The top gun turret was replaced with a clear dome for the aerial director, who would co-ordinate the other aircraft by radio.[11]

N6578D was painted garishly for line-up references  and to make it easier for pilots to determine which way it was manoeuvring. When the brightly coloured aircraft arrived at Tablada airbase in Spain in early afternoon of 18 March 1968, the comment from Derek Cracknell, the assistant director, was “It’s a bloody great psychedelic monster!” The aircraft was henceforth dubbed the Psychedelic Monster.

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The Luftwaffe armada included over 50 real aircraft. (screenshot)

For the German aircraft, the producers obtained 32 CASA 2.111 twin-engined bombers, a Spanish-built version of the German Heinkel He 111H-16. They also located 27 Hispano Aviación HA-1112 M1L ‘Buchon’ single-engined fighters, a Spanish version of the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. The Buchons were altered to look more like correct Bf 109Es, adding mock machine guns and cannon, and redundant tailplane struts, and removing the rounded wingtips.[13] The Spanish aircraft were powered by British Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, and thus almost all the aircraft used, British and German alike, were Merlin-powered. [Note 2] After the film, one HA-1112 was donated to the German Luftwaffenmuseum der Bundeswehr, and converted to a Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2 variant, depicting the insignias of German ace Gustav Rödel.

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A good film, unfortunately for Hollywood, WW2 started in 1939!

7/10
Author: jmb3222 from United Kingdom
5 March 2002
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This film does have its flaws, but is still a great film. It had to be made when it did (sic) if only because the Spanish Air Force still had their Merlin engined Hispano HA-1109 and HA-1112 “Me 109s” and Casa C.2111 “111s” flying in 1968!

It’s good that some “stars” do not have big roles. Michael Caine whilst being “hot box office” is shot down – many pilots who seemed invincible were lost. A number of the parts are based on real characters Robert Shaw’s is based on Adolf ‘Sailor’ Malan – 74 Squadron Ace, Susannah York’s Harvey is based on one Felicity Hanbury (who later became the Commandant of the WRAF). The scene where she has to deal with a bombed slit trench is based on what happened when Biggin Hill was attacked. Being burned and still being alive was one of the biggest risks – sitting next to a tank of 100 octane whislt being shot at was risky.

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It’s chief flaws are i) Hurricanes shot down the bulk of the German losses during the Battle – this “error” is primarily because there were more flying Spitfires available. More serious is depicting “The Few” as a group of equals – in reality the class system was still to the fore in some places more so than others. Officer would not mix with NCOs, Auxilliary Air Force pilots (predominantly from the upper classes) looked down on Volunteer Reserve pilots (predominantly from the working/middle classes). But bear in mind this was made less than 30 years after the event when some of the myths and propaganda surrounding it were still treated as the truth, unlike “Pearl Harbor” and “U-571” and other recent films they haven’t just thrown historical fact out because it doesn’t fit the desired story line!

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Many pilots were killed simply because of the stupid tatics they used – fighting by the 1930s RAF rule book until lessons were learnt. Many didn’t see what hit them. In most other ways the film is by and large correct. The British were very reluctant to use Polish and Czech squadrons; despite many of these pilots being much more experienced than British.

Oh and having read the other comments here – this does not follow just one squadron, Robert Shaw is one, Michael Caine another, The Czech/Poles others, Christopher Plummer another. I seem to remember that the film makers went out of their way not to show any one squadron as being the “winners” hence no squadron numbers are mentioned – all aircraft codes are ficticious.

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A film has to keep an audience’s attention for 100+ minutes real life isn’t like that just showing the fear and boredom of sitting around on hot summers days dreading the ‘phone call would not make a good movie instead compromises are made. When you watch it remember that this wasn’t just dreamt up by some scriptwriter this really happened.

A Classic!!!

Author: tom sawyer (sawyert2003@yahoo.com) from Waterford, Michigan
2 April 2003

The Battle of Britain is a classic movie about one of the key battles of World War 2. It stands up there with the epics The Longest Day, Tora,Tora, Tora and a Bridge Too Far. The all-star cast has well known and lesser known English, Canadian, German and others actors who play their roles well. The movie does a good job of portaying both sides of the battle. The special effects and the air battles hold up well after well over 30 years. The criticisms that people have to me are quite unfair. As for charcter development, the movie is about the battle, much like the Longest Day was and there was no time to develop that part of the movie because it focused on the entirety of the battle. Also this is not like Cross of Iron that someone compared it to. Cross of Iron was a fictious story, while this is done in semi-docudrama style.It is an unfair comparison.

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The best comparison would be with the three previously listed movies. I liked that fact that some big stars characters did get hurt or died just like many of the better pilots did in the the battle and the war. The movie gives an excellent overview of the battle, much like the other movies listed here. I like the fact about the bit of English snobbery concerning the foreign pilots that they were training even if some were as good or better than they were.This is a four star war movie obout Britains Finest Hour. Where if it wasn’t for the Brits holding off the German’s, the Allies would not have been able to launch D-Day against the German’s. The movie showed bravery and courage from both sides men and pilots. It is a great portrayal of young men in battle as knights of the early war skies. Rent it or buy it, because this is a classic.

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Holds Up Well

9/10
Author: Bruce Jones (bl.jones@charter.net) from Southern California
21 January 2002

I recently reviewed this film after having not seen it since it was new. Being a 31 year military veteran I have a somewhat different frame of reference for watching films such as this. I look for things in a film many civilians never will. I don’t think this one has ever been shown on TV in the US, at least not within a couple of decades, so it’s certainly not overplayed here. Luckily, the tape I accessed was in excellent condition so it was crisp and new in appearance. It is still a very excellent film depicting one of Britain’s most harrowing times and the unwavering heroism of those who fought so desperately to secure their victory. The film didn’t enjoy many fine reviews when it was new as it was compared, as most war films are, to the plethora of fiction produced by the movie industry and REAL history usually comes off looking mundane by comparison.

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I have found this a similar oddity for many excellent films of war. This is one film that more than adequately stands the test of time and I would absolutely love to see a wide-screen DVD version of it offered. Although it helps to have an understanding of war in general, and in particular the second world war and the actual battle of britain, one can be ignorant of those facts and still come away well entertained. It is a wonderfully produced film, acted with talent and grace by a cast of performers who are now legendary. The sets, costumes and musical score are wonderful and perfectly compliment the cinematography. If I can find a copy I am going to add it to my library.

Their Finest Hour

Author: Britlaw from London UK
17 January 2000

This has some of the best aerial fight scenes ever – ‘Top Gun’ nothwithstanding. If it has faults it is that it can sometimes be a bit dull as it is very historically accurate, as it was a very well documented battle and presumably because when it was made many of the participants were still alive (and some still are).

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It might have been better if like the ‘Dam Busters’ it had adopted a rather more documentary style, rather than having ground based ficticious sub-plots.

There are no particular stars (save the aircraft) but many cameos and it is even handed to the Germans as well, who lost many brave men.

The bits I liked were, as one other has commented, British diplomat Ralph Richardson telling German Curt Jurgens (over tea of course) that we wouldn’t be dictated to and the scene in the RAF command bunker as one of the biggest daily air battles develops, where Churchill (suggested only by a puffing cigar but very much a hands on war leader), on surveying the plotting board showing hundreds of attacking German aircraft, orders more reserves into the battle only to be told there are none left, everything we had was in the air or on the ground being refuelled.

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If the technology looks dated now, we must not forget that at the time radar was ultra secret and definitely cutting edge – this was the start of electronic warfare.

I believe I am correct in saying the film opened on 15th September 1969, celebrated in the UK as Battle of Britain day and the actual anniversary of the Churchill incident above.

This was truly the finest hour of those young pilots and we did it all without American help or even a Yank guest star……….

PS Christopher Plummer is Canadian!

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Cinema’s Finest Hour

10/10
Author: John Mclaren from London, England
28 February 2003

Top drawer war film (indeed THE top notch war flick), in which our chaps (the Brits) give Jerry what-for over the coast of Blighty. Stiff upper lip rules OK as they scramble their Spits into the blue autumn sky, exchange tally-ho’s over the intercom, bag a couple of Messerschmitts- and then head home for tea and buns.

OK, I’m biased. My grandfather fought in the battle. However it reminds us what really matters is not Holywood celeb tittle-tattle, but real life and death struggles for our world. As usual the Brits do it with class and dignity. Yes, the impression in the film that all foreigners are clearly bloody (except the Yanks, Canadians, and Anzacs) is perhaps a little dated. However it is a tribute to the heroism of a remarkable generation at a truly momentous point in history.

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Stirring, Beautifully-Done; the Difficult-to-Do Story of Britain’s Blitz in WWII

8/10
Author: silverscreen888
7 July 2005

This dramatized biography to my mind represents one of the most difficult sorts of film to make. I believe the makers of “The Battle of Britain” succeeded in making it a stirring war film, and one that deserves to be watched and remembered often. Many people find the battle scenes in the air in this film among the best ever staged. Cliff Richardson deserves praise for his special effects; and Guy Hamilton, director in charge, has frankly done marvelous work of a very difficult-to-achieve sort. He has interiors, intimate scenes, outdoor lectures, strafings, bombings, aerial battles, airplane landings, group shots and conferences to handle.Wilfred Greatorex and James Kennaway. In addition, Ron Goodwin and William Walton supplied memorable music, veteran Freddie Young the lucid cinematography and Maurice Carter wonderful art direction.

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The story-line chronologically follows the “Battle of Britain”, No aspect is overlooked. The success of Luftwaffe air attacks on forward bases is noted; and so is the lucky decision by Hitler to start bombing Londoners instead that caused a shift it tactics and saved Britain’s radar towers, key to targeting incoming attackers for interdiction by British aircraft. We hear a lecture by an Air Marshal, see firefighting squads and female drivers in action; we see both sides talking in their own languages–the Germans being subtitled; and we see action in the British War Room and at the highest levels of military planning. A couple is followed to illustrate what pilots and their wives, she being part of the war effort also, had to undergo and the pressures they faced.

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The pilots are also seen waiting between sorties at their bases; and finally when none come, the first phase of WWII, the expedition and subsequent Battle of Britain is over. In the huge cast are most of the leading male actors in England, including Laurence Olivier as Hugh Dowding, chief of the air effort, Trevor Howard as Keith Park, Patrick Wymark as Mallory, their chief opponent within the air corps,, plus Christopher Plummer and Susannahh York as the troubled couple, Harry Andrews, Michael Caine, Ian McShane, Kenneth More, Curd Jurgens, Nigel Patrick, Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw, Robert Flemyng, Michael Bates, Ralph Richardson, Isla Blair and Edward Fox. This is a splendid, well-paced and beautiful recreation. The music is superb; the combat footage unexcelled and the acting far-above-average. I rate this film on many counts above anything else ever done concerning the defense of Britain by its air forces during the late war.

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