Somehow I missed this BBC4 documentary the first time it was aired in 2013, but I’m happy to say that I caught up with it on Monday evening. The journalist Simon Heffer, who has a longstanding interest in the British war films genre, wrote and presented a fascinating programme which looked at the plethora of 1950s films about the war.
What made it even more interesting were the interviews with the people who were involved with these films. These included the actors Donald Sinden, Virginia McKenna and Sylvia Syms, and Guy Hamilton, who directed The Colditz Story. For me, of course, the star of the show was Michael Anderson, the director of The Dam Busters.
Interviewed in his home in Canada and looking very spry, Anderson described the first time he had heard Eric Coates play the Dam Busters March and knew instantly that this was the music for the film. He also praised R C Sherriff’s script, a ‘masterpiece of understatement’, something that he was keen to preserve in his direction. And he confessed that he was still moved by the final scene, where Gibson tells Barnes Wallis, distraught at the loss of 56 men, that even if all the men had known that they wouldn’t be coming back, ‘they’d have gone for it just the same. I knew them all and I know that’s true.’ Wallis isn’t really consoled, but he accepts what Gibson says, and suggests that the CO should get some sleep. This Gibson cannot yet do, and he delivers the film’s final line of dialogue: ‘I have to write some letters first.’ Without another word, Wallis stumbles out of shot and Gibson marches towards his office, exchanging salutes with a passing sergeant. As John Ramsden remarks in his BFI monograph: ‘It is as fine a moment as actor, screenwriter or director ever managed in a film, and coming at the very end, its result is devastating.’ (John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003, p.95.)
Anderson has had a long and distinguished career in the cinema. He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days (the film itself won Best Picture that year).
Fifties British War Films is being repeated on BBC4 on Friday 12 February at 0140. Or you can watch it on iPlayer for the next four weeks.