Director: Michael Anderson
Starring: Michael Redgrave, Richard Todd, Basil Sydney, Derek Farr, Ernest Clark, Patrick Barr, Ursula Jeans, Raymond Huntley
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff, based upon the books The Dambusters by Paul Brickhill and Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC
The Dam Busters recounts the true story of one of World War II’s more remarkable episodes: “Operation Chastise”, the destruction of the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley using the infamous “bouncing bombs” designed by scientist and aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave). The Ruhr Valley was Germany’s industrial heart, the hydro-electric power generated there driving the surrounding manufacturing complex, and its waterways used for transportation of both raw materials and finished products. An attack on the three huge dams that controlled this industrial centre had long been a dream of the British military command, and of Barnes Wallis in particular, who believed that such a strike would significantly shorten the war.
Knowing that underwater netting was in place to protect the dams from torpedo attacks, Wallace had initially tried to design a conventional bomb powerful enough to destroy the dams outright, but soon realised that the device would have to be so heavy, no existing plane would be able to carry it. An alternative, radical theory began to take shape in his mind: smaller bombs could do the job if they were dropped close enough to the faces of the dams so that the cushioning effects of the water – the very forces that would protect the dams from conventional bombing – could be made to work in their favour.
To get the job done, Wallis proposed to a startled RAF Command that they use low-level flying to skim a specially-designed bomb across the surface of the dam waters, arguing that if delivered at the correct altitude and speed, the bombs would skip across the water, stop at the dam face and sink to the desired depth to breach the wall. Initially, RAF Command responded to this proposal exactly as you might imagine; but Wallis persisted, and eventually managed to demonstrate that his theory was correct. Finally willing to believe that such a bizarre approach might actually work, the RAF put together “Squadron X”, the 617 Squadron of Lancaster Bombers, an elite outfit consisting of the very cream of Britain’s fliers under the leadership of Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd). On the night of May 16th, 1943, the 617 set out for Germany with their experimental weapons…
The Dam Busters is a film divided neatly into thirds: the development of Wallis’s theory, and the move from theory to reality; the creation and training of the 617 Squadron; and the mission. Naturally, it is the first section of the film that is dearest to my heart – “Science!!” – although such pains did the producers take, that I am confident that lay-viewers will find it just as fascinating as I do. The Dam Busters opens in Barnes Wallis’s backyard, with the scientist using a jury-rigged catapult system to fire marbles across the surface of a small tank of water, his puzzled but intrigued children eagerly retrieving their father’s projectiles from various corners of the garden. (It should be mentioned that the producers somehow managed to resist the temptation of a “lost marbles” joke at Wallis’s expense.)
The film then follows the scientist as he battles endless red tape in order even to get the chance to even try out his theory; as he demonstrates that theory with great success; and as he suffers through the distress and humiliation of seeing test after test fail dismally. The development of the “bouncing bombs” was not an easy matter, and The Dam Busters makes no effort to disguise how close Wallis came to complete failure – nor indeed how much his ultimate success depended upon an almost suicidal heroism on the part of the men who would carry those bombs into Germany. Still, perhaps the moment that lingers most when The Dam Busters has finished is not any of the battle scenes, but the image of Barnes Wallis, shattered by yet another test failure, resignedly rolling up his pants legs to wade into the water of his test site in order to retrieve the fragments of his bomb and work out what went wrong this time.
Much of the success of The Dam Busters can be attributed to Michael Redgrave’s performance as Wallis; one all the more remarkable when it is compared to the actor’s far more famous role as the debonair Jack Worthing in Anthony Asquith’s adaptation of The Importance Of Being Earnest, made only two years earlier. The Dam Busters, in contrast, sees Redgrave grey-haired, bespectacled and cardigan-ed; a remarkable act of professional self-abrogation. There are moments, granted, when the characterisation teeters on the brink of cliché Absent-Minded-Professor-dom, but Redgrave’s beautifully judged performance never allows us to lose sight of the scientist’s essential humanity – and humility.
(He also gets the line of the film when, in response to an apoplectic official’s furious demand to know why on earth he should be lent a precious Wellington bomber at the height of the war in order to test out his idiotic theory, Wallis inquires diffidently whether the fact that he designed the planes in the first place would make any difference…?)
My praise of the first half of The Dam Busters, and of Michael Redgrave in particular, is not meant to denigrate the rest of the film, which is equally fine. It is evident just what pains the producers went to, to pay full tribute to the men involved in Operation Chastise, many of whom were destined to lose their lives. Guy Gibson was literally given his pick of all the men in the RAF when he came to form his team – something which, as you might imagine, went over like a lead balloon with the commanders of those squadrons plundered. (Fascinatingly, the first four men chosen by Gibson were “foreigners”: two Australians, a New Zealander and an American, prompting the semi-comic exclamation, “Hey, let’s not forget the British!”) As Barnes Wallis battles to complete his work on time, the men of the 617 practice low-level flying, overcoming such problems as inaccurate altimeters and a lack of appropriate bomb-sights – only to have Wallis break the unwelcome news that in order for his bomb to function properly, it would have to be released not from the expected height of one hundred and fifty feet, but from precisely sixty feet over the water. So they practice that.
The home stretch of the film follows the squadron in flight, approaching Germany from over Holland, and following a route pre-determined to bring them under only light fire. Of course, when you are being shot at, “light” is a relative term. Two of the planes are lost before the target is reached; six more will be downed before the mission is complete.
The battle scenes of The Dam Busters are a bit of a mixed bag. The photography and editing are very good, making clear just how difficult was the task that lay before the 617; but the special effects used to realise the destruction of the Mohne and Eder dams are a disappointment, even considering the film’s vintage. (A third target, the Sorpe, which was of a different construction, was hit but not breached.) However, The Dam Busters is one of those films whose intrinsic merits supersede its technical limitations – and has, over time, proved enduringly influential. Viewers coming to the film today with fresh eyes might find sections of it strangely familiar: The Dam Busters is one of the many – many – acknowledged inspirations for Star Wars, with sections of that production’s climactic battle scenes transferred over from their model with remarkable fidelity. Even some of the dialogue is copied!
Historical opinion remains sharply divided over the success or failure of Operation Chastise, particularly in view of the losses suffered by the British. In immediate terms, the mission certainly was a success; yet within a year, German industry was running again at full capacity. However, it is generally conceded that whatever its military shortcomings, the mission was a great success in terms of morale, raising the spirits of the British (granted, contemporary reports were very much exaggerated) while striking a blow at the complacency of the Germans, who had previously considered their heartland unreachable – hence the comparatively light defences on the dams. And indeed, one practical outcome to the mission was the strengthening of the defences of many inland targets in Germany, with men taken away from the lines in order to accomplish this.
But all this is wisdom after the event. One deeply significant aspect of The Dam Busters is that it offers, in the microcosm of Barnes Wallis’s story, a depiction of what scientists worldwide must have experienced during war-time: the moment at which their idea stopped being merely a fascinating theory, and became in truth the means of widespread destruction and the taking of human life. It is, of course, impossible to judge such matters in simplistic terms – there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel, or to behave, in such a situation, let the individual react how he might.
It is, however, a fact that Wallis was devastated by the outcome of Operation Chastise, which saw over twelve hundred casualties in Germany – more than half of them, it was later discovered, Russian POWs – and the loss of eight British planes and crews. (Three of the fifty-six crewmen survived to be captured by the Germans; the rest were killed.) On Britain’s side, considering the way in which the 617 Squadron had been constructed, these losses represented a devastating blow to the RAF; and yet the notion of elite forces for specialist missions took hold. It is generally accepted that this attack on the Ruhr Valley gave birth to the idea of what today we would call the “surgical strike” – precision attacks on definite targets, rather than the use of carpet bombings.
Despite its losses, the 617 was re-built following Operation Chastise, and continued to fly these dangerous pin-point missions – eventually, indeed, using new bombs designed by Barnes Wallis who, despite his feelings of guilt and remorse, continued to cling to the idea of shortening the war, which had drawn him to military work in the first place. (With tragic irony, it would be during one of these later missions that Guy Gibson would lose his life.)
Historically, the screenplay of The Dam Busters does take a few liberties. The bombs we see used in the mission are round, not cylindrical; they are based on Wallis’s earlier designs, before his realisation that he would have to remove the bombs’ casings to get them to function properly. There is a simple enough explanation for this: in 1954, the real bombs’ design was still classified information. Wallis himself is depicted as a lone wolf, wholly responsible for the scientific side of the bombing project, whereas in reality he had a team of technicians who made significant contributions to the project. Conversely, the film does have Wallis declining to claim sole ownership of the “bouncing projectile” idea, chalking it up instead (and, I believe, truly) to observations made by Horatio Nelson with respect to his cannon-fire sinking of an enemy ship.
(On the other hand— Call me a cynic, but I somehow question whether Nelson did in fact describe the French as being, “Dismissed by a yorker”. [And yes, I know there are some of you out there who don’t know what a “yorker” is. Neither did the French, and look what happened to them.])
The film’s one egregious mis-step comes when it has Guy Gibson coming up with the idea of how to overcome the altimeter problem – while watching a kick-line at a music hall! In truth, the use of fixed beams of light to determine the altitude of a plane had been developed during World War I. As for the rest of the film, some of its events have been—not altered, precisely, but sanitised. As portrayed by Richard Todd, Guy Gibson is an ideal officer, courageous and self-sacrificing in the air, protective of his men and popular on the ground. Sadly, this seems not to have been entirely the case. While no-one would dare question Gibson’s abilities in the air, it seems that on the ground he was anything but popular, being cold, aloof, and rigidly class-conscious. (In Gibson’s defence, in a recent documentary the woman who acted as his driver at the time of these events advanced the scornful opinion that he was “too intelligent to be popular”, which has a nasty ring of truth about it.)
The film’s other piece of fudging concerns the treatment of Gibson’s outfit by the men of the other squadrons, who were still flying routine missions while the 617 was undergoing its training. In The Dam Busters, the clashes between the two factions are depicted as nothing more serious than a bit of good-natured ragging; something resolved by a few timely mess-hall debaggings. In reality, the open hostilities that arose between the combat fliers and the 617 over the latter’s removal from active duty was a serious problem, hugely detrimental to morale.
Despite these tamperings, The Dam Busters is as historically accurate as, perhaps, we have any right to expect such a production to be. Of course, when dealing with a film of this nature one must always distinguish between its qualities as history and its qualities as cinema. There are few doubts about the latter. The Dam Busters bears a warranted reputation as one of the great British war films – and is made all the more interesting by its overall tone. There is no question that there was a wide attitudinal difference between the war films produced in Britain and those produced in the United States, particularly those made during the actual time of the conflict. The reasons for this are debatable. Difference in cultural temperament accounts for some of it; the “vetting” of American films by the Office of War Information for some more. (OWI nursed a strange delusion that the forced insertion of lengthy speeches explaining “Democracy” and “What This War Is About” into screenplays would “gently propagandise” [their term] the American public without it being aware of the process.)
The most significant factor, however, is undoubtedly the fact that the war hit the British civilian almost as hard as it did the British armed forces. Consequently, there was little room in the films of the era for speeches, or kind lies, or platitudes; the people had seen too much, and suffered too much, to put up with that. It was not until the highly unpopular Korean conflict that the tone of American war films began to shift, becoming more questioning and ambiguous. British films, devoted as they were to celebrating the heroism of their people, had always had such undertones; and The Dam Busters lies firmly within this tradition.
Although the film, as it stands, tells the story of a military and technological triumph, the hard questions asked about Operation Chastise after the event were beginning to cast a long shadow. The Dam Busters ends on the bleakest, most downbeat note imaginable. No celebration here; no speeches; no flag-waving. Instead, we conclude with a pan around the mess-hall, showing the places set for the men who would never return; with shots inside the deserted rooms of some of the casualties; with Barnes Wallis in tears (“All those boys! All those boys!”); and with Guy Gibson going sadly to his quarters to “write some letters”. The audience itself is left to confront the unanswerable question of what, exactly, constitutes an “acceptable loss”.
For all its merits, The Dam Busters is not much screened these days; not because of the continuing disagreements over the success or failure of Operation Chastise, but rather because shifting social mores have made the film something of an embarrassment. One of the key subplots of The Dam Busters involves Guy Gibson’s beloved dog, which unhappily was run over and killed on the very eve of the historic mission. As a tribute to his pet, Gibson requested that its name be used as the codeword to signify the successful destruction of the German dams. As it happens, however, the name in question is a word that has since become socially unacceptable in the extreme: the dog was a black labrador, and its name was “Nigger”. (Watching this film with an unprepared modern audience is a fascinating experience: you just sit back, and listen to the sound of jaws thudding into the floor…) The casual and repeated usage of the animal’s name throughout the film is jolting, and becomes almost surreally so when the radio operator receives news of the mission’s success, and responds by shouting gleefully across the room, “Sir! It’s Nigger! It’s Nigger!”
Appalling as this word usage may seem to modern sensibilities, it is evident that no conscious malice was intended either when Gibson named his pet, or when the film was made – which is precisely what makes it so difficult to cope with. Contemporary films in which the word was indeed used with malice – the vitriolic tirades of Richard Widmark’s character in No Way Out, for example – are easier to accept simply because we are given a context in which to deal with it. In The Dam Busters, it’s simply – there. This subplot serves as a salutatory lesson of just how deeply ingrained in British society of the time was a racist mindset, all the more so since the guilty parties here are otherwise so entirely “nice”.
Changes in social conditions over time have led to The Dam Busters becoming something of a hot potato, with the film suffering censorship in most parts of the world; when, that is, it is screened at all. In Britain, the contentious material was often cut out altogether, leaving the latter portions of the film disjointed and confusing. In the US, more sensibly, the offending word was simply overdubbed. At the present time, Australia is one of the few countries where The Dam Busters continues to be screened intact. Whether that says good things about us or bad things, I haven’t quite been able to decide.
Sir Barnes Wallis