Adolf versus Adolph


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Adolf versus Adolph

The movie The Battle of Britain, 1968, reviewed by Everard Cunion in April 2014

This is my review of the 2004 DVD by MGM.

The film starts in France in the spring of 1940, where a force of RAF Hawker Hurricanes fought the Luftwaffe while the German army pushed an ‘expeditionary force’ of the British army north to Dunkirk on the channel coast.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Bad news (in French)

The minor action from which the accompanying screenshot is taken is bracketed by a scene that, in my opinion, demonstrates the thought that went into the making of this film. An RAF sergeant pilot and an officer stand listening to a French soldier manning a field telephone. The officer, a fellow pilot, says “For the uneducated, I shall translate.” However, the sergeant says quickly, “They can’t believe Sedan’s fallen. I can.” A minute later, their squadron commander, known only as Skipper, tells them they are to take off immediately. The first officer asks where they are going. Skipper tells him to follow him to find out. The sergeant pilot tells him where they are going.

Just because somebody did not go to a private school (which the Brits call public schools) does not mean he (or she) is uneducated, even in 1940.

The opening titles are on top of a sequence depicting high ranking German officers inspecting a Luftwaffe bomber airfield.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Ready for inspection…

From Dunkirk, the British expeditionary force was withdrawn by ships and small boats across the Channel to Britain, although they left most of their equipment behind. (The USA had not at this time entered the war.)

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

A German official visits the British ambassador’s den in Switzerland

Eagle attack

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Heinkel 111s approaching to coast of England

Susannah York plays Section Officer Harvey of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Harvey is newly married to one of the main characters of the movie, a Canadian squadron leader.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Damsel in distress

While there is no principal viewpoint character in this film, it follows the fortunes of several characters. (For more of Susannah York, see Paint it black, my overview of the 1976 movie Sky Riders.)

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Simon and Skipper. Notice the girly painting on the wall.

The character Skipper is based on the South African ace, and later anti-apartheid campaigner, Adolph Sailor Malan.

Adolph 'Sailor' Malan

The real Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan


Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Dowding’s den

The war legitimized turfing out the rich folk from their stately homes in Britain to provide office space for the military brass. (However, they moved right back in after the war.)

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Susannah York again. Not quite an up-skirt photo. However, more to come…

Top actors of the time were used in the film. For example, Air Chief Marshall Dowding is played by Laurence Olivier. According to what I have read, he comes across like the real Hugh Dowding.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Stairway to hell

The makers of this film scoured the world for airworthy aircraft of the era and they assembled a remarkable number of Spitfires and Hurricanes. The air force of Spain still had many airworthy Heinkel 111 twin engine bombers and derivatives of Messerschmitt 109 fighters, all retrofitted with Rolls Royce Merlin engines, which they donated for the duration. (That is, they donated the aircraft, not just the engines…)

A Spanish pilot was killed flying one of the fighters for the film.

Blackout

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Stocking tops

There is even a bedroom scene featuring Susannah York in her uniform shirt and tie, but no skirt, so you see her knickers and some bare thigh above stocking tops and suspenders. There is something in this film for everyone…

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Night bomber crew momentarily caught in a searchlight beam

While Section Officer Harvey is undressing in a London hotel, in the sky above, the navigator of a Heinkel 111 is ‘uncertain of his position’. Believing that they are well clear of London (Adolf Hitler had prohibited his air force from bombing the capital) the aircraft commander orders the jettisoning of their bombs. That is based on historical evidence, as is the case with all the important events in this film.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

The Italian Job. Michael Caine plays a Spitfire squadron leader.

Although not shown in the film, Italy used its air force to attack Britain in early 1940 (launching from an airfield in German occupied France).

The German air crewmen held responsible for bombing London are summoned to Berlin, where we see the crowds in the brightly lit night time streets of that capital city in the twilight of its heyday. According to Wikipedia, that part was filmed in Donostia-San Sebastian, Basque Country. However, it looks convincing enough to me.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Summer night city. Berlin in 1940

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

The Fuehrer announces a change of battle plan

The RAF drops bombs on Berlin in reprisal, and Adolf Hitler addresses the people of Germany…

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

More women in uniform

Hermann Goering was a fighter pilot during the Great War (1914-18) but by 1940, as well as being in charge of the Luftwaffe, he was well overweight and pompous. He wore an ornate sky blue uniform, which made him look even bigger.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Goering’s personal train arrives at Pas de Calais

London’s burning

The RAF having bombed Berlin, Hitler ordered the bombing of London. As dialog in the film explains, that was possibly the greatest mistake the German command made at that time.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Workmen at London docks ignore the air raid sirens. Huge mistake.

Meanwhile, the sergeant RAF pilot who flew a Hurricane in France has converted to Spitfires and he visits his wife and small sons in London. However, because of an unexploded bomb in their street, the family has been evacuated to a nearby church hall.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Bomb site

Although I was born after World War 2, I lived in London up to the mid 1960s, and these scenes (filmed in about 1967) seem to me to capture the flavour of old London: Endless dirty streets of drab greyness. Red buses and black taxicabs. Burst water mains and gas leaks.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Last goodbye

The family reunion in that public place is interrupted by firemen and air raid wardens asking for volunteers to help free someone trapped in a bombed building. The pilot heads for the door and tells his wife that he will be back shortly…

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Early warning

Polish RAF pilots depicted in the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Poles apart

The film employs creative but subtle camera work to illustrate the technology of aerial warfare in the 1940s, which included radar (known then as radio direction finding).

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Hawker Hurricanes

While the Supermarine Spitfire (together with its principal fighter adversary, the Messerschmitt 109) is perhaps the aircraft most popularly associated with the Battle of Britain, the less advanced but more numerous Hawker Hurricane did the majority of the fighting on the British side. (Having said that, I read somewhere that more RAF bomber crewmen were killed in 1940 than fighter pilots; on missions of dubious value using outdated aircraft.) The British (and Poles, Czechs, Canadians, and so on) might still have won the battle without Spitfires, but they could not have won it without the rugged looking Hurricanes.

The air-to-air filming is excellent (there were no digital effects at this time) particularly in the latter stages of the movie, during which the pace becomes more frantic and the style of the film changes somewhat.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

“Good afternoon, my arse…”

A Polish RAF pilot is shot down and lands in a field. Nearby farm workers rush towards him and they assume he is German. The scene is meant to be humorous, but the reality of enemy pilots falling into the hands of civilians – on either side – was often worse unless the police or army arrived in time. (Education cannot make the dull more intelligent, but it does seem to improve people’s behaviour.)

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Sky Marshall Goering and the Luftwaffe fighter leaders

Adolf Galland, the youngest general in the Luftwaffe, famously asked Goering for a squadron of Spitfires, although he later admitted that he preferred the Messerschmitt. That scene is reproduced in the film, the impertinent character being named Falke. I do not know whether Messerschmitt ace Adolf Galland fought Spitfire ace Adolph Sailor Malan in aerial combat (Adolf versus Adolph) but I assume it is possible.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Spit fire

Hawker Hurricane pilots on alert

Real Hurricane pilots

Sound of the underground

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Rooftop observers. For completeness, the guy at right is holding a tea pot.

Citizens of London sheltered from the bombs by retreating to the stations of the underground railway system.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Tubeway army

The aerial battle scenes constitute mini stories.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

This Spitfire is hit by gunfire from a Heinkel 111

The stereo sound is effective. You not only see an aircraft crossing in front of you, you hear it crossing in front of you.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Londoners in the streets below look on

In an extended scene, a Spitfire is hit by gunfire from a Heinkel bomber and its engine starts smoking. However, it curves round and attacks the Heinkel while Londoners in the streets below look on. The burning Heinkel eventually plunges into a London city railway station.


20th Century Foxley

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

“Stick to me like glue.”

Near the start of the film, Simon was a newbie and Skipper went up flying alongside him for extra training. (I initially thought that is Simon in this still, but after watching it again I don’t think it is.) The fellow on the left (whoever he is meant to be) has just been appointed flight leader and is about to provide a similar training ‘sortie’ for two new pilots.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

View from one of the camera ships

The familiarisation/training flight runs into hordes of German fighters and bombers. The new pilot with the neat hair is shot down, then two Messerschmitt 109s pursue the other one — here streaming engine coolant.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Spitsmoke

The second new Spitfire pilot bales out, but he suffers an unfortunate fate.

The style of the movie changes at this point. The sound track of the aerial battles consists of orchestra music, occasionally interrupted by radio calls. No propeller or engine or machine gun sounds are heard. It imparts an almost dream-like quality to the action, which becomes furious.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Repair under warranty

Another campaigner in the film is Bill Foxley. Not anti-apartheid this time, but a campaigner for better treatment of burns victims. Foxley played the part of Squadron Leader Tom Evans who, after having bailed out of a burning Hurricane, is assigned to the radar reporting function. In real life, Foxley was a bomber navigator who was badly burned while attempting to rescue another crewman from their crashed aircraft.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Squadron Leader Tom Evens is played by real life bomber navigator Bill Foxley

In the movie, WAAF Section Officer Harvey is visibly shocked by Evans’ (Foxley’s) appearance. She subsequently receives news that her Canadian hubby has been shot down and she says, “Is he badly burned?”

No reply.

Forever autumn

Another sunny day in the late summer of the first full year of war. Why is the ready room phone not ringing? At group headquarters, why are there no radar plots of incoming bombers? The day’s attack by the Luftwaffe is late.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Skipper wonders why the Germans are late today

Air Chief Marshall Dowding takes a moment to step outside and look out over the countryside and up into another clear sky. (That’s not him in the photo. That’s Skipper.)

I find much film backing music pointless and intrusive, but in The Battle of Britain it seems to enhance to the visuals. At that point (Dowding looking out over the countryside and up into the sky) a rising series of violin notes (a sort of leap-frog stair step effect – I am sure musicians have a term for it) makes you feel the proverbial weight lifting from his shoulders.

Although the German invasion of Britain was stalled, it was clear by then that years of war lay ahead and the outcome was uncertain. Nevertheless, the respite from air attack enabled the production of armaments for the British military to replace the army’s losses of equipment at Dunkirk and the RAF losses during the subsequent summer air battles. Those rising notes merge surprisingly into the Battle of Britain theme tune and the film ends.

Criticisms

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Maltese Falke

Southern England experienced an Indian summer in 1940. Unfortunately, when the movie was made, it experienced a regular British summer; therefore much of the aerial action was filmed in Spain and (according to Wikipedia) in Malta. However, the aerial filming and editing is so well done you would never know it. Nevertheless, I did notice a brief segment that shows Spain, from which the accompanying screenshot is taken.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Heinkel 111 down

Some of the aircraft explosions early in the film are not up to modern standards. (They improve greatly in the second half.) In addition, where they used models instead of real Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, they are less than convincing. Nevertheless, seeing a burning Heinkel 111 plunge into a London railway station (a model against a backdrop) looks convincing enough unless you step through it frame by frame. (I know, I really should get a proper hobby.)

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Late Spitfire

Some of the Spitfires have the longer noses and symmetric pair of under-wing air intakes of versions that appeared later in the war, but only aircraft enthusiasts would notice that.

1/48th scale Spitfire Mk. 1

My Tamiya 48th scale Spitfire Mk1

More noticeable are the Buchons – derivatives of the Messerschitt 109 – of Spain’s air force. Unlike 109s, they have Rolls Royce Merlin engines, as did the Spitfire and the Hurricane, and they look significantly different from early Me/Bf 109s.

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Flight briefing. The early Messerschmitt 109 really was small.

The paint schemes are well done apart from one flaw: The RAF squadron code letters on the fuselage sides were painted white, whereas in reality they were grey. (I was not born in time for World War 2, but like many of my generation, I was a plastic modeller and an avid student of aircraft colour schemes.)

Still from the 1968 film The Battle of Britain

Hangar workshop

In mitigation perhaps, the hangar scenes are so well done you can almost smell the hot metal, oil, and drying paint.

Assessment

A stunning film depicting a major air battle. Every time I watch it, I notice something new.

Related

Paint it black, my review of the 1976 film Sky Riders in which Susannah York stars in a major hang gliding movie

Saving Major Tom, my review of the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice

Saving pilot Durant, my review of Blackhawk Down (2000)

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