Peter Jackson’s recent announcement that he is pressing on with his project to remake The Dam Busters film has been widely welcomed. “It’s just a great story. It’s always been a great story,” he told the Daily Telegraph on Thursday. “But it’s an even greater story now than it was in 1955 because back then there was still so much of the story that was under The Official Secrets Act.
“They couldn’t show the bomb spinning because the fact that they applied backspin to the bomb to make it jump on the water was still a state secret. The film had a slightly romanticised view of what happened. It’s reasonably accurate but the real story is so much more interesting. It’s a story of politics, of ingenuity and peril, and it’s also a story about trying to make a weapon to destroy these dams and that cost an awful lot of money.”
However, the most solid evidence that the production will go ahead comes in the next paragraph of the Telegraph’s story with the announcement that Jackson has bought the film rights to James Holland’s 2012 book, Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams 1943. Holland will also be credited as an historical adviser.
This is a big step forward. Until now Jackson has owned the rights just for the remake of the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, directed by Michael Anderson. The script for this was written by RC Sherriff, based on Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book of the same name (and also acknowledging Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead). Brickhill’s book was revised for a second edition in 1971, and it is this version which is still in print. This is presumably the volume for which Jackson also owns the rights.
However, a lot of material has been declassified since this book was published, with the first tranche of UK government records being released in 1973, thirty years after the raid. Much more has followed, and historians have been working through these in the years that have followed. The definitive account based on these sources remains the various revised editions of John Sweetman’s book The Dambusters Raid, first published in 1982 as The Dams Raid: Epic or Myth.
James Holland’s 2012 account built on the official sources and also quarried material from various letters, a collection of recordings in the Imperial War Museum and his own interviews. This enabled him to write a much more reliable account of the raid than that of Brickhill. In turn, use of this text should allow Jackson and his scriptwriters to draft a screenplay which may be more historically accurate than Sherriff’s version, which he finished in 1952.
The difficulty will be in condensing the whole story into a single movie lasting, presumably, something under three hours. It is not really fair on the Anderson/Sherriff film to describe it as presenting a “slightly romanticised” account – it is all the more powerful for not bringing in unnecessary heroics or extraneous love stories. Whether Peter Jackson can manage to deliver something as good by today’s standards will be a big test. But a film-maker of his talents is presumably relishing the challenge.