The Dam Busters Review
Following their 60th anniversary release of Ice Cold In Alex, StudioCanal now commemorates the 75th anniversary of The Dambusters. And it’s an excellent release. It is not as ambitious a film as Ice Cold In Alex, which was released only three years later, but 1955 was a limbo period for British film. That said, the straight-laced, routine approach to the story means it is allowed to stand for itself. Michael Anderson’s economic direction puts across an astonishing amount of information without distracting from character and emotion, especially in the films closing moments (which would inspire the Death Star run in Star Wars). The plan was the original impossible mission and, to this day, the brazen ingenuity and the astonishing bravery is humbling. The Dam Busters is a solid gold classic of British Cinema and the story is just wonderful.
The year is 1943, Dunkirk is over, the Battle of Britain too and the frontlines of the Second World War are established, the Allies looking to strike a blow to turn the tide properly. Several dams in Germany have been identified as integral to their industry, but how to destroy them? Dr Barnes Wallace (Michael Redgrave) has come up with a bonkers solution; a bouncing bomb, dropped from less than 100 feet, to explode under the water, breaching the dam wall.
Just think about that for a moment. What kind of mind could even envisage such a solution? To make the bomb bounce, on water, like skimming stones. The first portion of the film follows Dr Wallace as he designs the method and persuades Whitehall to allow him to test it and there’s an effort to show some resistance that he met on the way, resistance that by all accounts hardly actually happened. You can’t blame the screenplay though; it’s a narrative puzzle to maintain pacing considering the ending is a foregone conclusion, a puzzle that it admirably solves as it is a thoroughly entertaining film despite little action.
More important is how characters are presented. Michael Redgrave’s wonderful performance as Wallace finds the balance between an eccentric boffin and respected engineer. It would have been so easy to condemn his character, to tolerate him, to have to have him prove himself, just to generate conflict in the narrative, but this would have been untrue. Another gear is found when we are introduced to Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) and his 617 Squadron. These are the guys that will have to fly the mission. It’s one thing to make a bomb bounce, but it has to be dropped by a Lancaster from an extraordinarily dangerous low altitude, with German anti-aircraft fire tracing them all the time.
What these men are owed is incalculable, as is their skill and professionalism, and Richard Todd was a perfect choice to play their charismatic, likeable commander. A classic leading man whose upper lip wasn’t too stiff, he’d probably smirk at the praise Tom Hardy received for acting with his eyes in Dunkirk, having done so himself in an impressive, rounded performance that both pays tribute to the incredible Wing Commander Gibson and makes him human. Gibson would die a year after Operation Chastise and such a fate seems terribly unfair considering his achievements, but on the other hand, busting dams was just one mission. A sobering thought emphasised by the film in the closing scenes, mining a vein of powerful emotion that, without a shred of sentimentality, quietly honours the 56 men that did not return.
There's something about British film of this era. Dunkirk is an astonishingly good modern example, but the lack of cynicism in the era lets this story breathe with integrity and the cast gleam in a polished production. Michael Anderson’s direction is understated and commendable for restraint. The name of Gibson’s adorable dog is an unfortunate tone-deaf note for modern audiences but would have been disingenuous to remove. It’s impossible to be cynical anyway. There are delicate touches of irreverent humour, notable especially in a war film in which very little war actually happens. You’ll hardly notice that it’s 80 minutes before Gibson says, "Well chaps, my watch says time to go".
The mission is underway, Eric Coates’ iconic theme is playing and the hairs on the back of your neck are prickling. At 75 years young, The Dam Busters carries a weight of history with undiminished pride and dignity.
The transfer of this brand new restoration is faultless, the mono photography bright and sharp with a healthy grain that allows for extraordinary detail, especially in texture. It's clean as a whistle and the same goes for the mono audio; clear, centred and nicely balanced. Eric Coates' classic score - so much so it is attributed to the mission as much as the film - is used several times and whether subtly placed in the background or bombastically thrust forward, it powers the film. While rather routinely made, the film is still a handsome looking thing that has its moments and the bombing runs are thrilling, even if the effects have dated. The aerial photography is wonderful and coupled with the growl of those Lancaster engines, still has a raw power to stir the soul. The collector’s edition Blu-ray release includes both 1.37 and 1.75 aspect ratios.
This is a wonderful release from StudioCanal; as well as crystal clear restoration, the extra features beautifully compliment a film whose importance cannot be understated. The collection unpicks The Dam Busters with a lively and fresh making-of documentary and also takes a thorough look at Sir Barnes Wallace, including the original fascinating bomb test footage, and interviews with the surviving members of the squadron.
Squadron 617 Remembers (56m)
‘The Making of The Dam Busters’ documentary (40m)
Restoration Featurette (5m)
Royal Premier (3m)
Bomb Test Footage (7m)
Sir Barnes Wallace documentary (29m)
The collector’s edition is well worth considering. Not only does it include both aspect ratios, but also a 64-page booklet and a rare aerial photographic print of the Möhne Dam following the raid (signed by the surviving members of 617 Squadron).