As part of the UK Film Council's “Summer of British Film” (ideal suggestion that – encourage people to stay indoors during the 2 months of sun we get up here…), the 1954 wartime classic The Dam Busters was digitally remastered and being screened for one night only at the Shaftesbury Avenue Cineworld. So fellow Aussie colleague Paul & I thought the appropriate thing to do would be to venture into the wonderland of tackiness that is the Trocadero Centre and strap in for an onslaught of textbook British stiff-upper-lip-ness.
What can ya say? They sure don't make 'em like that any more! It was fascinating for a number of reasons. The plot focuses on Barnes Wallis and his idea & development of the Bouncing Bomb to break a group of dams in Germany's Ruhr region in WWII. The idea was that the only way to break the thick concrete walls would be to skim a bomb along the surface of the water – like you'd skim a stone – until the bomb came to rest at the wall, and then would sink down and detonate right next to it, thus also using the force of the water's buffetting to hammer at the concrete.
For starters, the film opened with a military man coming to visit Barnes Wallis, who was already experimenting in his back yard with the stone skimming concept. So unlike nearly every other film I've seen, there was no great dawning of realisation of the inventor that this could be the technique he needed. Instead the film just got straight into it and the premise of the technological innovation of the weapon was set within the first 20 minutes!
When Barnes Wallis was having trouble convincing the military chiefs to let him continue his experimentation he went & saw a guy he knew and begged him for more time (I can't remember the character's name). The other guy's response was “We'll have to see what the authorities have to say”. The authorities?! Effectively this guy was talking about the next level or 2 of management above him. I wouldn't ever DREAM of calling ANYONE I worked for The Authorities!!
It didn't seem like “acting”, as I know it – the manner of the people on screen seemed more one of “Right, this is going on film, so we must do it properly!”. Like when old people put on their Sunday best if they're meeting the Prime Minister, or suchlike. To that end, though it was a fascinating film and certainly a heroic tale with all the right points of tension & suspense, there wasn't necessarily a feeling of trying to recreate the grittiness and desperation of wartime – such as you'd find in Wolfgang Petersen's masterpiece “Das Boot”. However conversely as it was filmed around 1954 I would assume the mannerisms of that time to be closer to the time they were portraying, so it was partially accurate in that regard. Equally strange – to me at least – were the credits, where each character's name was meticiulously documented with the decorations that airman had received in the war. Rather than being a documentary it was a slightly romanticised re-enactment really, so the characters portrayed were actual people who had taken part in the mission.
Interestingly, the film focussed entirely on the protagonists and aside from some distance shots during various illustrative shots there was no sign of The Enemy. Paul referred to this as “faceless enemy” representation. I think the same thing was done in Das Boot, but I hadn't realised how vastly different this was to most “modern” war films where a story is crafted and played out rather than being a more documentary recording of what the Allies did during a certain campaign.
Anyway all that aside, I found it quite engaging and certainly got caught up in it all – as someone who works in the technology field I'm always fascinated to see how the technology of the time was used and the results they got given the limitations of what they had to work with.
Interestingly, Peter Jackson is currently working on a modern remake of this film which he intends to keep as close to the original as he can – and he seems to have been painted into a corner of correctness over whether or not to call Wing Commander Guy Gibson's dog “Nigger” or not, as it was in the original. I look forward to this remake, because I definitely remember sitting in the cinema thinking “What this would really benefit from is some ultra-cranked bass surround to accompany those Lancaster Bombers”.
By the way, there looks to be a memorial website set up documenting the actual mission of The Dam Busters, or 617 Squadron as they were officially known, which is all kinds of fascinating should you be interested in a more real-life perspective than the apparently sexed-up movie version.