It’s sad to have to report that the film director Michael Anderson died on Wednesday night, at the age of 98. He was best known to readers of this blog as the director of the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, but this was just part of his long career in the film business. At the time of his death he was the oldest living Oscar nominee for best director.
Anderson was born in London on 30 January 1920, and started work before the war as a runner and office boy at Elstree studios. He worked as an assistant director on several films, including Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, where he also acted in a small role. He then served in the Royal Signals. When peace came, he returned to the film business and gained a reputation for being able to work with some of the industry’s ‘difficult’ characters, such as Peter Ustinov and Robert Newton.
By the early 1950s, he was under contract as a director to Britain’s biggest film studio, Associated British Pictures, for whom he would eventually produce five films. ABP had bought the rights to Paul Brickhill’s best-selling book, The Dam Busters and commissioned a script from the writer of Journey’s End, R C Sherriff. Anderson was selected as director. ABP also had one of the country’s famous actors, Richard Todd, under contract and his physical resemblance to Guy Gibson made him an obvious choice for the part. Many other actors were also chosen for their similarity to their real-life counterparts, including the other main star of the film, Michael Redgrave, who was handed the part of Barnes Wallis.
Anderson chose to tell the story in a straightforward documentary style, reflecting the script which Sherriff had written with his usual understated economy. Brickhill’s original 1951 book had been prevented by government censors from revealing how Barnes Wallis’s weapon really worked. But four years later, the censors permitted the bouncing bomb to be shown on screen. This led to Barnes Wallis’s actual films being used in the scenes where he is trying to convince service and Air Ministry chiefs that his idea will work. A collective ‘Wow’ must have swept through the nation’s cinemas as the general public saw for the first time the big secret behind the successful attacks.
What is not widely known, however, is that the film was nearly scuppered by a contractual dispute with Guy Gibson’s widow, Eve, after the shooting was completed. She maintained that Brickhill had used material sourced from her husband’s book Enemy Coast Ahead in his own book The Dam Busters without permission. ABP were furious that their film project was at risk and demanded that Brickhill sort it out, and if he didn’t they would sue him for all the production costs.
The production company’s records are lost, so exactly how the matter was settled is not clear. It appears that Brickhill never paid any money to Eve Gibson but it was agreed that Enemy Coast Ahead would be credited in the opening sequence. More remarkably, it appears that it was also agreed that two more short sequences would be shot to appear in the final film. These are the cockpit scenes which take place after Gibson’s AJ-G has crossed the Dutch coast. In the original edited version of the film, all that Richard Todd as Gibson says here is ‘Stand by front gunner, we’re going over.’ This is allowed by a scene where Wallis, Bomber Harris and others are shown waiting tensely. But in the final cut, instead of going on to show the progress through Holland, two rather odd scenes then follow. The first shows the cockpit of Melvin Young, leading the second group of three in AJ-A. His navigator then says ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’. An external shot is then followed by a scene in Henry Maudslay’s AJ-Z, where the pilot fastens his oxygen mask and says ‘Enemy Coast Ahead.’
The double use of the title of Gibson’s book seems to have been enough to placate Eve Gibson, and she called off her legal action. More importantly the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film ensured that The Dam Busters took a permanent place in British cinema history. Anderson was always proud of the film and its continuing influence. In a 2013 TV interview he described the first time that he had heard composer 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.’
To the wider world, Anderson is known for his direction of the winner of the 1956 Oscar for best film, Around the World in Eighty Days, where he was also nominated for best director. He went on to direct several more war films, and a host of other features.
Time has not been kind to some 1950s British war films. However, this is not the case with The Dam Busters, which many critics have now taken to re-evaluating. It appears regularly in lists of important British films (No. 68 in the one published by the BFI) and is widely seen as an important influence (in Star Wars, George Lucas based the sequence showing the attack on the Death Star on The Dam Busters.) It will remain Michael Anderson’s greatest legacy, and for that alone, he should be saluted.
The new high definition print of The Dam Busters will be shown at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 17 May, the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid, and simulcast in more than 300 cinemas nationwide.
John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003
Stephen Dando-Colins, The Hero Maker, Vintage Australia, 2016
Obituary in The Times (paywall)