Contributor; London
With the numerous contrived and supposedly 'inspiring' films that turn up around awards season each year, it's profoundly refreshing to unearth one from over half a century ago that is genuinely just that. Without adhering to a now well-worn template of inspiring movies by numbers (and possibly made before such a thing existed),  Michael Anderson'sThe Dam Busters is an inherently inspiring true story, told in a reassuringly straightforward manner. There's no cloying sentimentality or self-congratulatory worthiness here, just honest British endeavour, innovation and determined stiff upper-lipped-ness. Excellent.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Dam Busters was the nickname given to RAF squadron 617, formed during WW2 to take out the Ruhr dams in Germany. By destroying the dams, the enemy's industrial productivity would be severely damaged, potentially shortening the war considerably. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson (played here by Richard Todd) 19 specially lightened and modified Lancaster bombers were prepared for the task of dropping a number of revolutionary 'bouncing bombs' from just 60ft above the water. The bombs would then bounce along the surface until they reached the dam, whereupon they'd travel down the side of the structure, to a pre-determined depth, before exploding. The film charts the progress of the bomb's creator, Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave), as he battles to perfect his creation and convince the top brass of its worth. Meanwhile Gibson contends with his own challenges of low flying and the precise trajectories required to successfully deploy their new weapon. Eventually tests are completed with some success, and the squadron heads for Germany.

It's easy to mock films of this period as quaint, mannered, unrealistic. So too, if you've only ever seen this (edited) on TV you may be a touch surprised to hear the name of Gibson's faithful black Labrador... Although made a decade after the war, this is very much a propaganda piece in tone, where any fatalities are swiftly dealt with (off screen) by a respectful platitude along the lines of 'they knew what they were getting into, and would have done the same regardless'. Of course, it's dated, but it's also still a thoroughly enjoyable and well constructed film. Despite weighing in at around two hours, there's barely a wasted word with direction that harks back to an age before those French auteurs got all showy and 'invisible storytelling' was still on the agenda. Performances too are spot on, with Redgrave a sympathetic presence, convincing as the obsessive and slightly eccentric inventor. Todd meanwhile is the epitome of the dashing airman; suave, handsome, and relentlessly cheery.

A triumph of British ingenuity, the story The Dam Busters served to highlight the best of the war effort in a wonderfully celebratory fashion. Now, in an age of heightened cynicism and knowing winks, there's a joy in watching such a simple yet uplifting tale of integrity and determination.

The Disc

Newly re-mastered for Blu-ray, it's an impressive disc in terms of quality. The transfer is crisp for a film this age, but avoids an overly cleaned-up feel, with some imperfections from the original material still present despite the restoration. The soundtrack is a very clear mono with minimal hiss - though, as with a lot of mono discs, the volume needs to be fairly high. There's also a new documentary, The Dam Busters: 617 Squadron Remembers, featuring interviews with the last remaining survivors of the raid, and presented by renowned historian Max Arthur.

The Dam Busters: Special Edition is out on UK R2 DVD and Blu-ray from 14th June 2010 through Optimum Classic.

The Dam Busters

  • Michael Anderson
  • Paul Brickhill (book)
  • Guy Gibson (based on Wing Comdr. Gibson's own account in "Enemy Coast Ahead")
  • R.C. Sherriff (screenplay)
  • Richard Todd
  • Michael Redgrave
  • Ursula Jeans
  • Basil Sydney
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Michael AndersonPaul BrickhillGuy GibsonR.C. SherriffRichard ToddMichael RedgraveUrsula JeansBasil SydneyDramaHistoryWar

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