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Battle of Britain Print E-mail
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
ImageIn 1940, the British recalled their air force, which had been assisting the French, in order to defend the British Isles from impending Nazi attack.  Although woefully outnumbered by the Germans, squadrons of worn-out British pilots, with the assistance of hundreds of pilots from other countries, fought off the Nazi attack and turned Germany’s attentions away from British soil. 

The series of attacks, known as the battle of Britain, would seem to be fitting material for a rousing, fact-based spectacle; with the blitzkrieg of London as the story’s centerpiece, the story has the makings for a classic underdog success story.  Unfortunately, while filled with stars, aerial dogfight sequences and production value, “Battle of Britain” is a complete dud.  The script by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex (based on “The Narrow Margin” by Derek Dempster and Derek Wood) is one of the most dramatically inadequate and turgid of all spectacles.

The primary failing of the script is that it doesn’t dramatize the events and their effect on a few memorable characters, but instead tries to depict too much of the historical events, spending too much time on unmemorable appearances by notable actors playing real-life British generals and support staff, as well as depicting even more characters on the German side.  The approach is diffused, unfocused, and emotionally distancing without any kind of impact.  The casting of dozens of memorable character actors and legendary stars is fairly indicative that the producers understood that the characterizations are thin and the number of characters is much greater than an audience’s ability to remember.  By filling these underwritten roles with memorable faces, they must have felt that it would give the audience a greater sense of the characters’ personae, and would enable them to remember who the characters are when (and if) they reappear later.  Virtually the entire roster of talent in British Equity appears in the film, utterly wasting dozens of great actors in nothing roles.  Laurence Olivier appears several times, each scene a slight variation of him sitting behind a desk, grimly stating, “We need more pilots or we’re buggered.”  There’s an awkward attempt to give Christopher Plummer and Susannah York a storyline, with Plummer as a Canadian pilot grumblingly trying to maintain a marriage with his WRN wife, but it’s limp, wet, and so jars with the patchwork tone of the rest, that it feels tacked on and awkward.  A scene, where a post-coital York playfully tries to woo Plummer back to bed despite the fact that the Germans have just begun to bomb London, is jaw-droppingly wrongheaded and utterly stupid.  Later on in the film, Plummer’s character is badly burned, and survives, but surprisingly, their story doesn’t end with them being reunited--which would have been emotionally strong--but as she gets the news about his injuries and reacts somewhat distantly, giving the audience no confidence that she’ll be able to cope with his disfigurement. Michael Caine’s character appears for a longish chunk of the film, then he’s gone, never to be seen again, with nary an explanation.  According to dialogue, Robert Shaw’s squadron leader is shot down late in the film, but the actual event is not included, or (more likely) was too confusingly filmed to register.  One of the chief problems with the film’s aerial fight scenes is coherence— with all of the pilot’s faces covered by goggles and breathing apparatus, one needs to pickup on their voice or recognize their eyes instantly, in order to follow what happens.  Caine’s and Shaw’s voices are distinctive enough to discern, 3 times out of 4, but when the film starts cutting away to the faces of all the rookies and Czech pilots, or to German pilots, then cuts to multiple planes exploding, our sense of what happens to whom becomes uncertain at best.

Given the desperation of the characters in the story, one would assume that a sense of tension and anxiety would be the prevailing tone, but instead, any sense of suspense dissipates in one dull static scene after another, as pilots sit around waiting, generals watch strategic markers being moved around a map, and support staff mutter into phones, ruminating grimly to each other.  “Midway” also has the same problem, but there’s a feeling of escalating tension in the first half of that film, and the audience is given a clear sense of what is going on and what is being achieved or lost, strategically.  Not so here.  After awhile, the cutting from static info-dump exposition scenes to turgid airfield drama to vaguely coherent combat sequences becomes stultifying.  By the time the film arrives at the blitzkrieg, you’re almost completely disengaged.  The final battle isn’t shot or cut any differently than the previous battle scenes, and could almost be assembled from earlier battles (it wasn’t), as they all begin to look the same after a certain point.  The filmmakers try to differentiate this particular combat by dropping out most of the sound effects and bringing Walton’s piece into the foreground, but doing so makes the sequence harder to follow, and our sense of it being a finale is sorely missing.

With Harry Saltzman as producer (co-producer of the James Bond films up through “Man with the Golden Gun”) and Guy Hamilton (director of “Goldfinger” and many of the Roger Moore era films) on board, the static, unsatisfying, undramatic final product seems like some kind of fluke, since their sensibilities have been so strongly proven elsewhere.  The amount of genuine wartime aircraft used in the film was quite a logistical achievement, as was the combination of miniatures, optical effects, rear projection cockpit scenes, and actual stunts.  The optical effects have dated a bit, particularly when there’s an aerial shot featuring an inserted effect of a plane explosion far below.  The flyover shots of the fires of London are also pretty unconvincing, as the superimposed fire effects are completely unstable, wavering all over the screen as the camera moves.  It’s possible that optical effects were not then up to the level where this could be done on a moving shot, but if that’s the case, then these scenes should have been shot with a static camera.  With an enormous amount of technical behind-the-scenes wrangling going on, clearly the focus of Saltzman and Hamilton was on production logistics, when it should have been addressing the work the script so desperately needed.  Contemporary audiences clearly agreed, as the film was a major flop financially, despite the enormous marquee cast.

Sir William Walton originally scored the film but most of his cues were replaced by ones by Ron Goodwin.  Two pieces by Walton remain, the most notable during the climactic final air battle.  The Blu-ray release (as well as the 2004 DVD) includes the option to view the film with the Ron Goodwin score or with the William Walton track, a very welcome feature.  Walton’s Stravinsky-esque score is a nice piece of music, but doesn’t mesh well with the film, seeming more like a separate element.  Goodwin’s score works better as accompaniment. With only 10 or so cues written for the film, regardless of which score one prefers, “The Battle of Britain” is woefully underscored in either version, and cries out for more music, anything that would give the endless scenes of waiting and planning some kind of dramatic tension.  Unfortunately, the score is mixed about eight notches louder than the dialogue and effects and one must constantly alter the level of audio to make audio not so overbearing.  Both tracks are in 5.1 and in each the dialogue is clean and the scores are given solid stereo presence.  The DTS-HD MA track offers a wider range of multi channel separation for the sound effects, but in both the LFE channel is weak and surround effects are nearly non-existent.

The Blu-ray transfer is solid, but there are minor caveats.  The image is clean, bright and very colorful.  The primary tones are greens, grays, and blues and all of the colors have a particular film-like appearance.  It feels like a transfer that has been accurately color timed to look like 1969 Eastmancolor.  Clarity is such, that one can easily detect the reduction in quality when optical effects or on-screen titles appear, as well as notice that in Ralph Richardson’s scene, he has a bit of a physical tremor.  Faces are detailed and imagery is crisp, though there are instances of aliasing.  The imagery retains the grain structure of the film elements, but there are instances when the camera pans within wide shots, that seem a bit unstable, and feel as if the imagery is a bit overcompressed.  Utilizing only a single 25GB layer, the disc could have benefited from some more room for the film itself, plus a 50GB disc would have allowed them to include the voluminous extras included on the 2-disc standard def DVD.  On this disc, MGM includes no bonus material, not even a trailer.  In order to move more units of this stinker, they should have kept the materials—anything to make it appealing to those who already own it.

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