The Dam Busters Review

In a house in the English countryside, Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) invites a friend into his home and, closing the blinds in lieu of the approaching blackout, talks about what's currently on his mind. For every ton of steel produced by Germany to drive its war effort, it requires 100 tons of water, a lot of which comes from three dams in the Ruhr valley. Barnes Wallis has had various ideas in the past about how to best cripple these dams but none are feasible, being that the bombs are too big, the planes too small and the dams too well protected. Of course, the Air Force have already rejected most of his ideas for these very reasons but it doesn't stop Wallis from thinking of another means of destroying German heavy industry. What he turns to is the simple skipping of a stone across the water, the kind of thing that he first did during childhood.

At first Wallis works with a water tank, having his little bouncing bomb skip over the torpedo nets that the Germans have in place around the dams. When this proves successful, Wallis takes his idea to the Air Force, who reject it in light of the extremely low flight path the bombers will have to take, the risks involved in the mission and that it has never been tried in combat. Wallis, however, doesn't give up, with a meeting with Arthur 'Bomber' Harris securing him the backing that he needed to continue. Leaving the water tank, Wallis and a squad of pilots, Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) amongst them, leave for the Lake District where they begin conducting tests, all of which go disastrously wrong at first with each bomb shattering on impact with the water. One such test conducted before Air Force officers only weeks before the planned attack ends terribly, leaving Wallis little time to prepare. As the flight crews begin their final checks on their Lancaster Bombers, Wallis works through the remaining nights to ready his bouncing bombs...

Being a graduate of UMIST back in the days when it was an entirely different university from its bigger and older partner down the road, it was always somewhat interesting to see them name their student union the Barnes Wallis Building. It suggested a sense of kinship with the inventors of technology as well as, given it not being called the Mandela Building or the Biko Building, an avoidance of politics. However, it never seemed to be quite the place you'd have wanted to see The Verve, Gallon Drunk or Lush in, all of which I did at one time or another. It did seem right, though, for a place such as UMIST to honour Barnes Wallis by naming a building after him, leaping out of the tradition of naming university buildings after previous vice-chancellors and the like - jumped-up headmasters all - in favour of someone whose efforts turned the outcome of the war slightly in favour of the Allies. It does seem unlikely that he's as well known, even in his home land, as the likes of Robert Oppenheimer but that might say something about the reluctance of the British to celebrate their engineering successes. Unfortunately, it might be argued that he's not even as well known as the music that opens this film, the same Dambusters March that can be heard alongside the theme from The Great Escape that has accompanied every England game over the past decade or so.

This dramatisation of the story of the Dam Busters is rather matter-of-fact at times. I suspect that Barnes Wallis didn't meet quite as much resistance from the Air Force as is claimed here and though it's likely that those living near the lakes might well have complained about the late-night flights, that only functions as an aside to break up the straightforward build up to the attack on the dams. There is, though, quite enough in that for the film to work as a telling of the story of Barnes Wallis' invention of the bouncing bomb and of the attack itself, with the film dividing itself neatly by giving each part roughly an hour each. In each half, the roles are reversed with Wing Commander Guy Gibson having little to do in the first hour, even to guessing at times what it is that Wallis is up to before the second half has him lead 617 Squadron out to Germany whilst Wallis waits with the rest of his team for messages about the success or failure of the mission from bomber command.

The early part of the film has Barnes Wallis as the archetypal engineer messing about in water tanks and on work benches. When Gibson arrives, his work begins to take more of a focus and though it was only made nine years after the end of the Second World War, the RAF were happy to let two Lancaster bombers out of storage to be used in the film at the cost of £310/day. With their support, The Dam Busters has a documentary feel about it at times but made more interesting by the credited writers - Robert Sherriff, Paul Brickhill (author of The Dam Busters) and Wing Commander Guy Gibson (author of Enemy Coast Ahead) - adding small touches to events, such as the pilots getting a fried breakfast on the morning before a mission, saying that if they didn't return the next morning, their's could be enjoyed by someone else in the squadron. But it's clear that The Dam Busters is most interested in the inventions of Barnes Wallis and in the flight of 617 Squadron to destroy the dams. This last part of the film is marvellous, using the real bombers and some simple special effects to portray the risks taken by the Air Force in dropping the bouncing bombs. It's also clear how much George Lucas owed to The Dam Busters in his making the end of Star Wars the attack on the Death Star as these pilots in their big aircraft negotiate steep terrain, their proximity to the water and gun turrets to drop their bomb at exactly the right distance. It's hugely exciting and though it doesn't get very far in trying to capture how terrifying it was, the explosions and the obvious relief do give the viewer the feeling of making a success out of something that might otherwise have been described as Barnes Wallis' folly.

The film itself has been overshadowed in recent years by the name of 617 Squadron's dog, a black Labrador that they named Nigger. There are numerous times when the dog is called by name, not least a little tour of the site that it does with everyone stopping to say hello and, "Where are you off to, Nigger?", with the air and bombing crews even giving one of the target dams the codename nigger. With that word being something left unsaid these days, ITV have presented The Dam Busters in a more politically correct cut at times whilst the US market dubbed the name of the dog. Optimum have, however, released the original cut with all mentions of Nigger intact. In spite of the ugliness of the word when used as an insult or to describe someone, I would prefer to have what Optimum have released here with anyone so offended by it doing better to understand that social mores of the time and how the film reflects that than to work themselves into a lather about it.

But such is a minor issue with a film that is rightly regarded as being one of the better war films. Yes, it's less gung-ho than others, it features no daring infantry assaults and enemy loss of life is minimal but it is fundamentally about heroism and as the remaining pilots return home to bunks that will now remain empty, The Dam Busters pays service to those in 617 Squadron that never returned. There are, as the final shot of the film shows, very few for the fried breakfast the next morning.


Like so many of the other war movies released by Optimum at this time, The Dam Busters hasn't been afforded a particularly good print. There are numerous scratches and spots on it, which tend to come and go throughout the length of the film. However, it is watchable with the documentary-style of filmmaking ensuring that it has few obvious stylistic touches to get lost in the picture. It is reasonably sharp, though, and just right in terms of brightness and contrast, thereby allowing one to overlook the minor faults on the DVD in favour of a fairly enjoyable overall experience. The DD2.0 audio isn't bad either, particularly not when The Dam Busters march strides onto the soundtrack. But other than that memorable theme it all sounds fine, letting the dialogue lift clear of the thrum of the Lancasters as well as giving a space to the silence of the bombing runs. Finally, there are no subtitles on this release.


There are no extras on this DVD release.

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