… you’ve never seen it before, or you don’t have it on video/DVD, there will be another chance for UK viewers to see the original 1955 film The Dam Busters tomorrow night, Sunday 17 October, at 11.30pm on BBC2.
Category Archives: Dam Busters 1955 film
In 1954, Richard Thorp was a young actor at the start of a career which would take him to the dizzy heights of playing the pub landlord in Emmerdale when he was offered the role of one of the pilots in The Dam Busters. Like many of the cast he bore a strong resemblance to the character he played, Sqn Ldr Henry Maudslay.
Mr Thorp has recently been involved in a campaign for a permanent memorial to the real life men of 617 Squadron at one of the dams they used for training – the Nant-y-Gro dam in mid Wales.
He told the Western Mail:
I loved filming Dam Busters. I was very proud to be in it. It made me realise how incredibly brave these young men were…The Lancaster bombers used to shake like jellies. I’ve been up in one and they are freezing cold with the wind rushing right through them…When we were making the film, three batty Polish pilots were the only ones brave enough to fly them.
At exactly the moment when sound films were about to sweep all before them, in 1928, Sherriff captured in Journey’s End the way in which a certain type of British officer and gentleman spoke and behaved. He then carried these manners and forms of expression into his screenplays, was much imitated in doing so, and saw them develop into clichés of cinematic Englishness.(John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris, 2003, p.38.)
Gibson: ‘I wanted you for this. You’re the low-flying expert.’Martin: ‘Low flying? Fine.’—WAAF: ‘Are you flying tonight?’Pilot: ‘That’s the general idea.’—Wallace: ‘Why don’t you turn in, Gibby?’Gibson: ‘I have to write some letters first.’
The recent DVD from Anchor Bay was sharp enough but lacked a proper filmlike grayscale. That image, having very little in the way of midgray tones, appeared overly bright. All has been put right in Optimum’s new Blu-ray, which hardly seems struck form [sic] the same source – and, indeed, may not have been. Sharpness, resolution, and that most important aspect of black & white film, contrast control, are now nothing short of jaw dropping. Dimensionality is palpable, aided by a near absence of edge enhancement, which was somewhat evident on the DVD. There are many scenes against a bright, threatening sky where both foreground characters and sky that now appear in correct proportion and tonal balance. Interior shots have a reach out and touch it quality rare these days; clothing textures are equally realistic.
The audio is LCPM (2.3 Mbps – 48kHz/24-bit), which offers a much appreciated crispness, clarity, nuance and weight to the proceedings. Take for example the first outdoor model test very early on. It takes place at an airstrip, out of the way. On the Blu-ray we can clearly make out background sounds of other airplanes taxiing about as well as other machinery and people out of the frame; also, the sound of walking on wood planks is correctly manifest, where on the DVD we assume the wood only because we can see the people walking on them. Of greatest importance is that the uncompressed audio track permits an emotional inflection of voices utterly absent on the DVD. How else are we able to make sense out of and empathize with Michael Redgrave’s hesitant enthusiasm as he tries to sell his idea for the destruction of the dams, or Richard Todd’s boyish matter of fact delivery of the mission to his men? On the DVD if you close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue, there is very little in their speaking that supports the drama. Next to these improvements, the extra slam we hear from explosives on the Blu-ray is just icing on the cake.
Over on the Classic British Flight Sims forum (yes, there is such a thing!) member Trevor Clark has posted a wonderful find:
Whilst installing an internet connection at a friend’s house this morning, she asked if I was interested in seeing ‘aircraft photos’ she came across in a box of old photos.What she showed me, will all be scanned and put up on the internet!!!Her uncle was Erwin Hillier, the director of photography on the 1954 Dambusters film (as well as many other famous films).The photographs are wonderful 8×10 B/W production stills, about 20 odd of them… I am not sure if they have ever been in the public domain before??
Calypsos is right. He has now posted all the pictures and I don’t think some have been seen since the 1950s, as they don’t appear to be in the BFI’s collection.
The picture above is particularly fascinating to me, as it shows the ‘crew’ of aircraft AJ-J (played by unnamed extras, who may have been real life RAF servicemen) standing behind actor George Baker, in the role of Flt Lt David Maltby, my uncle. This scene doesn’t appear in the final cut of the film. It would be fascinating to know if any unseen sequences of film remain — no special extras kept for the DVD release in those days!
Erwin Hillier is a giant in 20th century British cinematography, although his name is largely unknown to the general public, and it was his skill, along with that of director Michael Anderson and writer R C Sherriff, which made The Dam Busters such an iconic piece of cinema. I will be writing more about him another time.
The British Film Institute is a treasure trove of material for anyone interested in the history of cinema, and much of it is now online. Check out, for instance, its page on Michael Anderson’s classic film, and you will find links to stills, other stuff about the cast and crew, and a wonderful, slightly sniffy, contemporary review from the BFI’s own Monthly Film Bulletin, which ends:
The film is over-long (the flying sequences include some repetition) and the music score is, regrettably, very blatant; but despite these drawbacks, a mood of sober respect is maintained.
Little did the reviewer know how popular the ‘blatant’ musical score would become.
My favourite piece of Dam Busters trivia derives from the scene shown above, showing on the left the great Robert Shaw, later to star in no less a movie than Jaws, where he ends up meeting a spectacularly gory end. Here he plays flight engineer Sergeant John Pulford, which means he gets to sit alongside Richard Todd, playing Guy Gibson, for a large section of the film but has very few words to say. Their on-screen interaction is thought to be a pretty accurate reflection of the real life relationship between Pulford and Gibson.
I was shocked and saddened by the news of the death of Professor John Ramsden, from cancer at the comparatively young age of 62. (Another obituary here.) Just the evening before I had read a chapter of his excellent book about the relationship between Britain and Germany, Don’t mention the war. This is essential reading for anyone who thinks that many Brits need to develop a more mature relationship between ourselves and our German partners and colleagues. Ramsden lists many ways in which the histories of our two countries are intertwined (many pubs called the King’s Head, for instance, are named after Frederick the Great of Prussia) and provides a counterblast to the puerile nonsense frequently peddled by the redtop press and the likes of Jeremy Clarkson.
But it is as the author of the wonderful book on The Dam Busters in the British Film Guide series that Ramsden should be respected and mourned by anyone interested in the subject of this blog. It’s a short book, but an invaluable guide to the film itself, to the times when it was made and to the reaction to it over the half-century since.
I don’t know who watches Channel 4′s Big Brother these days – I certainly don’t, and nor do my two teenage children and their friends – but people who do might be intrigued to know that underneath the house is the water tank used in the 1955 film, The Dam Busters. Although various locations around the UK were used in the making of the film, much of it was actually shot on three huge sound stages built at Elstree Studios. One of these was presumably constructed around the tank (although Jonathan Falconer’s useful book, Filming the Dam Busters, is not specific about this). Other important landmarks in cinema history shot here include The Young Ones (Cliff Richard! Robert Morley!!?) and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (the one with Mr Creosote).
Australian actor Bill Kerr, a sprightly 86 years old, recently recalled his part playing Flt Lt ‘Mick’ Martin in The Dam Busters. Sitting in the restored Lancaster in the Aviation Heritage Museum in Bull Creek, near Perth, WA, he told a reporter from the West Australian that it had been an honour to play the Australian Dambuster:
“But it took two hours of make up, a wig and a moustache before I really looked like Micky Martin,” he said.
A sprightly Kerr, who calls Perth home, took a trip down memory lane this week sitting in the pilot’s seat of the Avro Lancaster housed at the Aviation Heritage Museum in Bull Creek.
“You know the attention to detail in this Lancaster is incredible — they have done a marvellous job restoring her,” he said. “And the attention to detail in the original film was extraordinary. They even put chocks behind my ears so they stood out to look just like Micky Martin’s.”
Kerr also told the paper that he got the job straight off the boat from Australia when his agent drove him directly to Pinewood Studios for a casting session. However, this might be a slight exaggeration since by 1954 he had already been in a number of films, including the only film about Bomber Command to predate The Dam Busters, the under-rated Appointment in London. This was released in 1952 and starred a young Dirk Bogarde. It was written by John Woolridge, who had served as a flight commander in 106 Squadron when Guy Gibson was its commanding officer. Some commentators think that the Bogarde character is based on Gibson.
Bill Kerr’s role in Appointment in London, according to IMDB, was Flt Lt Bill Brown. The cast included other actors on the cusp of a successful career, including Bryan Forbes, Sam Kydd and Richard Wattis, with the female lead played by the well-established Dinah Sheridan.
John Woolridge not only wrote the script for this film but also, in an unusual combination, its musical score. He was to write more film music over the next few years, before his death in a car crash in 1958. His daughter is the actress Susan Woolridge, well known (in Britain at least) for many TV and film roles.