The war film is a most contentious genre. For decades theorists have locked horns to dispute its role or purpose in popular culture. Some have argued that war films are an essential part of a nation's identity, and when done properly can be as much of a mark of respect as many more traditional memorials. Others have likened the whole genre to propaganda: by bringing people up in a culture where war is primarily portrayed through entertainment, they come to believe that war is an essential part of human life, and are therefore more willing to give their lives in what might seem a futile cause.
Battle of Britain is an interesting talking point in this debate, coming between the initial jingoistic wave of British post-war filmmaking and the resulting revisionism and anti-war efforts of the later-20th century. While patriotic in both intention and execution, it is not as troubling as The Bridge on the River Kwai in its glamorised depiction of the British stiff upper lip. But unlike David Lean's film it is found dramatically wanting, being well-meaning but disappointingly dull.
It's difficult to judge war films in terms of historical accuracy because they are in the end dramatic constructions. While especially true of Lean's film, this even applies to documentaries like The World at War: the individual choices of what footage to include, and in what order, have a big influence on the nature and stance of the finished product. Certain older films could be written off because we now know a lot more about given conflicts through declassified secrets - an argument Peter Jackson has made towards remaking The Dambusters. But more information does not necessarily equal better drama: Saving Private Ryan may have the most accurate depiction of D-Day, but that is not enough to stop it slipping into melodrama.
Battle of Britain earns initial brownie points because of its unprecedented access to war-era equipment and personnel. The production employed a large number of decorated airmen to serve as historical consultants, and worked closely with the RAF to track down surviving Spitfires and Hurricanes to assemble a squadron for filming. It took 3 years for producer Harry Saltzman to round up 100 aircraft, of which only 31 were airworthy, to make up what was nicknamed "the world's 35th largest air force".
The flying sequences are thereby enhanced by the knowledge that we are watching real planes jockeying for position, rather than models on a rolling backdrop. But even without that knowledge, these scenes are spectacular. Guy Hamilton, who previously directed Goldfinger, structures the key moments like the showdowns in the Bond series, cutting between elaborate wide shots and intense close-ups of the pilots. Even if the blood on screen is a little day-glo, the deaths are sudden and surprising, just as they should be.
In a further plus point, the German characters in the film are not only played by German actors but speak in German all through the film, something which was unprecedented in this genre. Not only do the filmmakers want things to be accurate, but they have the confidence and conviction to get the audience to read subtitles for sizeable parts of the action. There is a level of respect for both the audience and the historical figures which you wouldn't get from English actors delivering their lines in a pantomime German accent - or doing what Alec Guinness did in The Bunker and simply dressing like a Nazi without changing anything else.
This level of respect for the antagonists belies another quality of Battle of Britain. Although it sticks very closely to the orthodox view of history, it is not as jingoistic as it could have been: it doesn't spend its running time constantly shouting about how Blighty beat Gerry single-handedly with men to spare. One of the film's big selling points is its acknowledgement of the role that foreign pilots played in ending the battle. The film concludes with Sir Winston Churchill's famous quote - "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" - followed by a comprehensive breakdown of the casualties by nationality.
In its production values and treatment of the subject matter, Battle of Britain is a very noble piece of filmmaking. But all of this is in vain because it lacks the one ingredient which is desperately needed: drama. For all the meticulous preparation and research, and all the respect shown to both sides in the conflict, the film quickly gets bogged down because we can't connect with the characters emotionally, and simply admiring their courage isn't enough.
One of the film's biggest problems is its all-star cast. There is an extraordinary breadth of talent on offer, from relative newcomers like Michael Caine and Edward Fox to more established talents like Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier. But once the novelty of seeing these talents together has worn off, we realise that there is very little in the way of character focus or development: unlike Saving Private Ryan, there is no strong central performance on which to hang the story.
The film paints such a broad and episodic picture of the battle that we are given no real indication of whom we should be following. To some extent this is fair play: no-one can choose when their friends get killed. But because there are so many plot points going on at any one time, when people do meet a sticky end it comes more as an annoying diversion than a nasty shock. Even during the bombing of RAF Duxford (when a working hangar was accidentally destroyed by the film crew), you spend more time admiring the pyrotechnics than worrying about the people underneath them.
Because there is no central character among "the few" on whom we can focus, Battle of Britain ends up squandering most of its talented cast. Robert Shaw, one of the most intense and charismatic actors of his day, has surprisingly little to do besides barking orders to his men and telling the mechanics to hurry up. Caine turns up about 20 minutes in, acts a little stroppy, and the next thing we know he's been shot down. Even Olivier is on autopilot, as if he had been told in advance that The World at War was being made, and was using this film as an elaborate form of practice.
In order for this kind of film to be compelling, we have to believe that the characters are genuinely in danger, not only on a national scale but in terms of their relationships with each other. But beyond the occasional scene of men arguing with their wives, there is nothing in Battle of Britain which creates this level of tension. It often feels like hanging out with a bunch of actors in the bar after a day's shooting, with them having a jolly good time reminiscing while we sit there looking confused.
Because of its shortcomings in character and storytelling, Battle of Britain becomes less of a film than a re-enactment of newsreel footage with the (perceived) benefit of colour. Some sections of the film are so silly that they feel like propaganda - the worst being Edward Fox bailing out, crash-landing on someone's greenhouse, and being promptly offered a cigarette by the young boy standing nearby. Ron Goodwin's soundtrack is very stirring, but the film often relies on it so greatly that it becomes ridiculous. Without his stirring strings or bombastic brass, whole sections would consist of nothing more than cars driving very slowly, or people walking nowhere in particular.
Battle of Britain is an admirable but ultimately insipid effort to put the Battle of Britain on the big screen. It was made with all the best intentions and immense technical skill, but it lacks directorial and narrative vision. It pales in comparison with Lean's work in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and for all its similar faults A Bridge Too Far is a much better film. It's completely inoffensive and thoroughly watchable, but also total tosh and very bland.