In the Fifties, war films were like vampires at a blood bank. So many and so many… If they didn’t have Johnny Mills, they had Ken More, and if they didn’t have him, they had Dickie Todd. Someone of the calibre of Michael Redgrave was unexpected.

The Dam Busters stood head and shoulders above the stiff-uppered, jolly-good-show-chaps, congratulatory, feel right, post war propaganda movies of the time, in which Tommy was brave and Fritz wasn’t. It avoided comic support characters, essential to The Colditz Story and the like. It avoided sentimentality, too, which was most surprising, and the only woman is Barnes Wallis’s wife (Ursula Jeans), who behaves like his mother.

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In the spring of 1943, when the war was not going well, Wallis was working on a private project in his garden; how to make a ball bearing skip across water. In the Ruhr valley were three huge dams. If they could be breached, it would cripple Germany’s industrial power. As well as being exceptionally well defended, their breaker walls were double strength, which made an attack appear suicidal. Wallis’s plan was to perfect what he called “a bouncing bomb” that would act like skipping stones across a lake, allowing the device to sink finally at the wall’s base before exploding.

The film follows the misfortunes of failed trials and the frustration with War Ministry scepticism, until Bomber Harris (Basil Sydney) gives Wallis the go ahead. Who would lead this mission? None other than Richard Todd, in the guise of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, optimistic, fearless, a splendid fellow, don't you know.

In order to get the bomb to bounce, Gibson’s planes had to fly at 150ft, but when Wallis tested them, usually with a phalanx of top civil servants in tow, the bombs went off when they hit the water. There was only one thing for it, he told Guy.

“We have to go down to 60ft."

Gibson gulped.

“One hiccup and we’re in the drink,” he said.

Beautifully filmed in midsummer moonlight, the tension is electric. As a reconstruction of one of the great moments of a long and bloody war, this could hardly be bettered, even with the aid of CGI. Michael Anderson had three bombers at his disposal and he makes them look like a full squadron.

Redgrave personifies a workaholic inventor, so obsessed with his task he forgets how to interact with people. It is a performance of outstanding merit. Todd, by comparison, puts on the uniform and fills it with a certain boyish charm. Considering its age (55), the film lives up to its reputation. Certain things have dated. The airmen smoke a lot, but that’s understandable. Death is taken for granted, like slipping on ice, and Guy’s dog has a name that offends no one. It is a black lab, called Nigger.

Reviewed on: 16 Jun 2010
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The Dam Busters packshot
The daring raid on the Ruhr dams by a squadron of Lancaster bombers in 1943
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Director: Michael Anderson

Writer: R.C. Sherriff, based on books by Paul Brickhill and Guy Gibson

Starring: Richard Todd, Michael Redgrave, Ursula Jeans, Charles Carson, Basil Sydney, Ernest Clark, Derek Farr, John Fraser, Raymond Huntley, George Baker, Bill Kerr, Robert Shaw, Nigel Stock

Year: 1955

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK

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