Thursday, November 16, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #14: Battle of Britain

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding), Robert Shaw (Squadron Leader Skipper), Christopher Plummer (Squadron Leader Colin Harvey), Susannah York (Section Officer Maggie Harvey), Michael Caine (Squadron Leader Canfield), Ian McShane (Sergeant Pilot Andy), Kenneth More (Group Captain Baker), Trevor Howard (Air Vice Marshal Keith Park), Patrick Wymark (Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory), Ralph Richardson (British minister in Switzerland), Curt Jürgens (Baron von Richter), Harry Andrews (Senior Civil Servant).

Crew: Guy Hamilton (director), Harry Saltzman and Benjamin Fisz (producers), James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex (writers), Ron Goodwin (music), Freddie Young (cinematography), Bert Bates (editor), Maurice Carter (supervising art direction).

Synopsis: In June 1940 advancing German forces drive the retreating British troops out of France and back across the English Channel. But rather than attempting an immediate invasion, the Germans pause – giving British forces time to regroup. The Royal Air Force (RAF) prepares for the next phase, the Battle of Britain. German planes outnumber those of the RAF by four to one. The Luftwaffe strikes on August 10, attacking vital radar stations and blowing up RAF airfields. The bombing runs continue for weeks, with British planes winning the dogfights in the air but losing a war of attrition. In September Reichmarschall Goering arrives in France to take charge of the campaign. After Berlin is bombed, he directs the Luftwaffe to attack London. This gives an advantage to the RAF and the Luftwaffe suffers heavy losses. The planned invasion is postponed – the Battle of Britain is over…

Battle of Britain sought to recreate one of the most famous aerial conflicts in history, using material from a 1961 book, The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster. To ensure authenticity, ten technical directors who had fought in the battle were on set – including several former Luftwaffe pilots. Dozens of planes that survived the Second World War were gathered to recreate the aerial skirmishes. Producer Harry Saltzman boasted he had assembled the eleventh largest air force in the world for his film.

More than a dozen of Britain’s most respected actors were cast in the principal roles, led by Laurence Olivier. Caine had been under contract to Saltzman but the producer had recently released him from the deal as a birthday present. Caine agreed to help fill out the cast for Battle of Britain, spending two weeks with the production in the role of Squadron Leader Canfield. The film was shot on location in Spain, England and France, with studio work at Pinewood near London. Helming the picture was Guy Hamilton, who had just directed Caine on Funeral in Berlin (1966).

Battle of Britain was released in the UK (rated U) during September 1969, with a US release following a month later (rated G). The film was dismissed by the critics and ignored by audiences, reportedly losing $10 million. It was first released on VHS in 1985 rated PG and re-released in 2000. Unfortunately, the tape is only available as a full screen edition, hampering the visual impact of the many aerial sequences. A widescreen DVD edition is due for release during 2003. [Update: A two-disc special edition DVD was released in 2004.]

Reviews: ‘Once they are airborne and covered with goggles and oxygen masks, it is impossible to distinguish between any of the actors.’ – Time magazine

‘On the ground an impressive assemblage of stars appear and disappear. But that is all they are given a chance to do … human interest is kept to an absolute minimum.’ – The Times

Verdict: Battle of Britain means well but drains all drama and suspense from what should be a gripping story. Striving for authenticity, it becomes a crashing bore. The script tries to create poignant character moments but evokes bathos, not pathos. The film’s big selling point is also its great weakness. The aerial conflicts are spectacular at first but take up far too much screen time. Few things date a film like special effects and Battle of Britain has some that would provoke laughter from a modern audience. Caine’s role is strictly a bit part, despite his prominent credit. File this film under noble failure.

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