It’s such an old man thing to say, but sometimes, a movie just makes you think, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to. That’s not to say everything made before a certain time is better than what’s made today. It’s just to say that certain styles, aesthetics, methods and approaches to film making that were common place at one time, simply aren’t seen in movies made today. And a movie that is sure to make you think, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to, is The Dam Busters.
It’s early in the Second World War and Barns Wallis (Michael Redgrave) listens to German planes fly over his country house, on their way to bomb London. A skilled engineer, he has determined that one way to cripple the German war machine would be to blow up three key dams, the water of which supplies all the major manufacturing plants of the Nazis. The only problem is, they’ve been fortified against underwater attacks and there’s no way for planes to drop bombs from directly above. Until Barns develops a new bouncing bomb, that can be launched from planes flying low enough to avoid the major antiaircraft measures of the krauts.
After convincing the British government that has plan has legs, Barns is given an elite squad of allied airmen, and the training begins. Here’s one of the big surprises I got form The Dam Busters. Saving all of the traditional action for the final act when the planes launch their attack, the majority of the film is built around the scientific and mathematical work of Barns, as he refines is theories and puts them into practice. The Dam Busters does what I would have thought is impossible. It makes trigonometry exciting, edge of your seat, compelling stuff.
Like I said, it saves the action until the final act, and if you’ve ever seen the 1977 original Star Wars, this final attack run will look more than just a little familiar. Director Michael Anderson did such an effective job of depicting the tense thrill and danger, that George Lucas openly and admittedly ripped it off, almost shot for shot, more than 20 years later to make one of the most iconic action sequences in movie history, when Luke Skywalker takes out the Death Star.
I know it was a different time and that the writers had no idea what they were writing would become offensive or insensitive, but when you watch a movie in 2014, it’s gonna be just a bit jarring when the good guys have a dog named “Nigger”. Not only that, the devotion of the one of the main characters to this dog is supposed to be one of the reasons the audience sees him as a top bloke. Nothing builds audience sympathy for a character like bandying about the N-word. Oh wait, there’s one thing that does it even more, a delightful montage of half a dozen characters all spouting the N-word as the loveable pooch wonders the base, looking for his master,. Hilarious and heartfelt.
The Dam Busters is British. Terribly, terribly British, old chap. And that is one of the main things that makes this movie so watchable. That stoic, English reserve, the old friends who, even at their most casual, talk to each other like they’re at royal engagement, addressing the Queen. If I was watching a WWII movie and saw American soldiers in anything less than hellish, muddy, battlefield squalor, I’d think the movie was sugar coating things. But for some reason, when I see British airmen in a well appointed, borderline luxurious dining room, sipping tea from delicate cups and saucers, it just seems right.
This is the kind of good old war picture that makes me love good old war pictures. The characters might teeter on the edge of being on dimensional and overly idealistic. The special effects, cutting edge at the time, look amateurish now. And the N-word is thrown around like confetti in a parade. But all of those things work as strengths, not weaknesses. The simplicity of the characters is so optimistic, it’s infectious. The dated special effects are charming, not cheesy. And the N-word thing… Well, there’s no way to see that glass half full.
The Dam Busters
Directed By – Michael Anderson
Written By – R.C. Sherriff