In the early 1950s, Richard Todd was halfway through a seven-year contract with Associated British Pictures when its director of productions, Robert Clark, bought the film rights to Paul Brickhill’s book The Dam Busters. Todd was already an established star, having received an Oscar nomination for The Hasty Heart in 1949, and playing Robin Hood in the Walt Disney movie of the same name. Clark wanted a vehicle for Todd, and the physical resemblance between Todd and the character he was chosen to play, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, obviously helped him in the choice.
What is perhaps surprising, given that Todd is now remembered for his roles in ‘war’ films, is that The Dam Busters was in fact his first such part. (He was to be seen in naval uniform in The Yangtse Incident (1957) and played various army officers in D Day, Sixth of June (1956), Danger Within (1959), The Long and the Short and The Tall (1960), and The Longest Day (1962) before ‘rejoining’ the RAF and director Michael Anderson in Operation Crossbow (1964).) In The Longest Day, he played the role of Major John Howard, who commanded the glider force at Pegasus Bridge, and had a scene opposite another actor playing himself, an officer in the 7th Light Infantry (Parachute Battalion), who was amongst the first to meet Howard at the bridge. (Todd’s account of his real life role on D Day is here.)
Most of the obituaries (Telegraph BBC) single out Todd’s part in The Dam Busters as the highlight of his career, and he certainly took great pride in being remembered for the role, regularly turning up for reunions, other events and signings. It was, as American critics of the time pointed out, his ‘characteristic British understatement’ which made his portrayal of Gibson so memorable. His own war experiences must have contributed to his decision to play his ‘war’ roles in such a way – he was determined never to demean or trivialise the memory of the actual war and its casualties.
[Information from John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003.]