Today, once more, a UK TV channel is upholding the Boxing Day tradition of showing Michael Anderson’s 1955 film, The Dam Busters on free-to-air television. This year it’s the turn of More4.
If past experience is any guide, the showing will prompt a number of searches on Google from people wanting to find out what is happening to the remake which was promised by the New Zealand film mogul Peter Jackson almost thirteen years ago, when he and the late Sir David Frost purchased the film rights.
There was a flurry of excitement on this subject a year or so ago, when Jackson was widely reported as saying that he was once more pressing ahead with the project. “It’s always been a great story,” he was quoted as saying, adding that he only had the rights for “another year or two”, so he would have to make a positive move soon.
This was followed in April 2019 by more speculation, which would appear to have come from a briefing by Jackson associate Christian Rivers, that Rivers was “trying to convince Jackson to produce the piece as a ten-part mini-series rather than in a straight movie format.”
Since then, in a scenario which will be familiar to readers of this blog, there has been silence. The failure of Jackson and Rivers’ Mortal Engines film project with a loss of almost $175 million (nominated as one of 2018’s “biggest box office bombs” by Deadline.com) may have focussed their minds.
Michael Anderson died last year at the age of 98. It is fair to say that The Dam Busters was widely regarded as one of his best films, and one which will probably maintain its position in any future list of great war movies. In 2018, the hardnosed film production company StudioCanal spent a lot of money making a new high definition print of the original, and released it nationwide. It would not have done this if it did not think that it remains a commercial proposition. As I have said before, 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. And he has a limited time left in which he can make his move.
(If you missed today’s showing, don’t worry. It’s being screened again soon on More4, on New Years’s Day at 5.25pm!)
Buried deep in the recently-published book Anything You can Imagine, Ian Nathan’s new doorstep-sized biography of Peter Jackson and his Tolkien-inspired film trilogies, are two tiny mentions of the projected remake of The Dambusters. The first remark occurs in a description of the director as a ‘military aviation buff’ who possesses a fine collection of antique aircraft and who ‘came close to remaking The Dambusters.’ A footnote explains that in 2008 the remake was to be directed by Christian Rivers from a script by Stephen Fry but that the ‘financing would eventually fall through’. The second mention is some 300 pages later, where Jackson is described as at one point starting to ‘develop a new version of The Dambusters… but it failed to secure funding.’
And that’s it. It is now more than a decade since Jackson acquired the rights to remake Michael Anderson’s 1955 film. At first, he invested significant funds – commissioning a script from Stephen Fry, getting full size models of Lancaster aircraft built in China, and buying several possible props and other artifacts. These included the original wooden bomb sight used by Plt Off John Fort on the Dams Raid. I can now reveal that Jackson was the anonymous bidder who paid more than £40,000 for this when it was sold at auction in January 2015. A member of his staff attended the auction in person, taking instructions over the phone while the sale was going on.
At various times over the last ten years, Jackson has said that the Dambusters project was still going ahead. The last of these statements was issued as recently as the summer of 2016. However these positive thoughts contrast with what would seem to have been recognised as reality inside his camp well before this time.
Nathan’s book is based on many interviews with Jackson and his entourage, and his remarks would not have been published in this form without Jackson’s knowledge, even if not his specific authorisation. What is significant is Nathan’s use of the past tense on both occasions, and we can therefore assume that the Dambusters remake has, to all intents and purposes, now been cancelled.
So this is how it ends. The remake project, which started in 2005 with a big bang and loud fanfares when David Frost bought the film rights from the Brickhill family, ends with the whimper of a couple of sentences in a book about a fantasy film series. A sad day but, to misquote another film set in wartime: ‘we’ll always have Michael Anderson’s original film.’ Maybe that’s how it should be.
[Hat tip to commenter RdS who drew my attention to Ian Nathan’s book.]
The good news: once again, Peter Jackson has indicated that his remake of the classic 1955 film, The Dam Busters, is still an ongoing project. The bad news: it has been shunted to the back of the production queue by what sounds like another interminable series of fantasy fiction films.
WingNut Films [will] be producing a feature film based on Philip Reeve’s book Mortal Engines, to be directed by Christian Rivers. The script has been written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and myself.
Some of you may recall that Christian was going to direct the Dambusters a few years back. Since then he’s kept himself busy, making short films, and directing Second Units on The Hobbit and Pete’s Dragon.
Our involvement in Mortal Engines actually pre-dates Dambusters (which is still happening) – Christian actually worked on Mortal Engines previs [sic] way back in 2009. It’s very exciting to finally get it underway!
This is obviously great news for the writer of Mortal Engines, Philip Reeves. There are four books in this series, and adapting and filming them will keep much of the New Zealand movie industry busy for years to come. But it does mean that the chance of the Dambusters remake hitting the screens anytime in this decade becomes more and more remote.
Jackson obviously included the four words in parentheses above in his statement (‘which is still happening’) to forestall the questions he would inevitably be asked by Dambuster enthusiasts. But if it is ‘still happening’, would he like to give us an update? A comment below would be appreciated.
[Hat tip: Graeme Stevenson]
UPDATE: More about this from the Waikato Times in New Zealand.
Pic: © Sean1552
An alert aviation buff called Sean in Wellington, New Zealand, spotted some interesting activity back in October near his workplace. Writing on the Wings over New Zealand forum, he reported: “The rumors that five Lancaster’s were / are stored next to where I work have now proven to be true, as over the last few days I have seen three truckloads of Lancaster parts being put back into storage. These included wings, and engines and other big parts. The trucks were uncovered, so they were not trying to hide anything. Have no idea where they came from but I am guessing Masterton, as that was where there were seen last. Not sure if this means they are going back into storage as there is no further need for them (no film), or they may have finished some filming…. hopefully someone here might know. I know Peter Jackson stores a lot of his stuff here as we are always seeing his WW1 tanks and buses etc being moved in or out usually in the weeks up to ANZAC day.”
A few days later, Sean saw another shipment in transit, and took a series of photographs, one of which is shown above. The fact that one segment of fuselage displayed the code letters AJ-G is of course confirmation that the models were made for the Dambusters film remake. However, as Sean points out, there has been no clue from the notoriously secretive Wingut Films as to when the remake will go ahead.
Sources do continue to suggest that Peter Jackson remains personally committed to the project. This was confirmed in the interview given by Jackson in Oxford in the summer, which appears to have been reported only in the hitherto obscure medium of the website of Exeter College, whose ex-students include JRR Tolkien.
Asked what projects he might want to pursue next, Jackson stated he was in “no rush” to recommence filming. Nor indeed, to return to Hollywood.
“At the moment . . . a lot of the films there are not the sort of films I particularly enjoy. So what Fran and I are probably going to do is make some smaller movies, make some New Zealand movies.
“I’ve got The Dam Busters too: I’ve been working on a script with Stephen Fry over the last few years on and off. But whatever we do over the next few years, it will be quite a lot smaller.”
So there we have it. A small Christmas bonus for Dambusters fanatics.
If you want another treat, then scroll backwards in the Wings Over New Zealand posting mentioned above, and find some great pictures from the New Zealand premiere of the 1955 film:
Peter Jackson has been giving interviews to mark the end of the process of making The Hobbit trilogy, which combined with the Lord of the Rings make up a series of six films that have taken his company almost fifteen years to complete. Already the films have grossed $4.89 billion in worldwide box office takings and by the time The Battle Of The Five Armies, the finale to The Hobbit trilogy, plays out, the total may reach $6 billion.
Now, in an interview posted on the Deadline blog, Jackson has admitted that he probably would have started on the remake of The Dam Busters four or five years ago, having handed over directorial duties on The Hobbit to Guillermo del Toro. But del Toro left this project in May 2010 and Jackson stepped back behind the camera, saying that it was important to protect Warner Bros’ investment. He admits that all the time since there has been pressure on him to say what he will be doing next:
I’ve had so many people the last five years come and ask, ‘When are you going to make The Dam Busters? When are you going to make The Dam Busters?’ Honestly, you ask me what I got out of five years of making The Hobbit? It was me feeling like I have to make The Dam Busters, because of the endless people asking, ‘When are you going to make The Dam Busters?…
[W]e still have the rights, and it’s one in a little pot of movies. We don’t have a next movie nailed down, but certainly The Dam Busters is one of them. There is only a limited span I can abide, of people driving me nuts asking me when I’m going to do that project. So I’ll have to do it. I want to, actually, it’s one of the truly great true stories of the Second World War, a wonderful, wonderful story.
I reckon that’s as near as we have come to a real commitment from Jackson to make the film. But when will it happen? He has a pretty busy schedule: Hobbit 3 is due for worldwide release in December 2014, and then there is the small matter of the second Tintin movie, scheduled for release in 2016, which he is also due to direct. (He did a deal with Steven Spielberg.) He won’t be directing The Dam Busters, but it will surely take up quite a bit of his time so it could fit into his schedule here – before a third Tintin movie, so far untitled.
If The Dam Busters is ever going to get to the clapperboard stage, the next thing to expect would be news that the difficulties with the screenplay have been ironed out, that the director is confirmed (a role earmarked eight years ago for Jackson protegé, Christian Rivers) and, most important of all, that Universal Pictures and Studio Canal are still behind the project.
Watch this space.
Maybe it’s a mark of how far this subject has dropped off the radar, but I have only just caught up with a four-month-old snippet of news from Down Under. New Zealand Herald film critic Dominic Corry met Christian Rivers at the premiere of The Hobbit last December (yes really!), and asked him what was the situation with the remake of everyone’s favourite 1955 war film.
In 2008, it was announced that Jackson would produce a remake of 1955 World War II classic The Dam Busters, which was to be directed by Weta staple Christian Rivers (who won a special effects Oscar for his work on King Kong). The project seemed a natural fit for a war plane-obsessed ‘wingnut’ like Peter Jackson, but nothing has come to pass as yet, despite a bunch of replica planes having apparently already been built for the project.
I spoke to Rivers briefly on the red carpet at the Wellington premiere of The Hobbit, and he told me they are still planning to make the film but that it’s on hold at the moment due to script issues. I hope it happens eventually – there’s such a wealth of creativity at Weta, it seems crazy that we haven’t seen a film come out of that talent pool yet.
‘Script issues’ eh? To me, the problem is time. Jackson and his cohorts are getting a whole lot of moolah for spinning out The Hobbit over three films. Then there’s the small matter of a sequel to Tintin, and various other fantasy film projects. A remake of The Dam Busters, however much it might appeal to readers of this blog and a few million other war film buffs, would never make as much money as these high profile movies. That’s the way the economics of the film industry works.
On the other hand, we can’t discount the fact that Jackson is a self-confessed aero nut, and is probably still personally committed to the project. And so is Christian Rivers, despite the rumour a year or so ago that he was off doing something else.
Jackson’s involvement in the Dambusters remake was originally announced in 2006. Will we see it completed by the tenth anniversary of this historic day? I wouldn’t bet on it.
[Hat tip: Wings over New Zealand Forum.]
I can’t believe that I missed this, more than three years ago! When filming their Last Chance to See natural history TV programme, Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine interviewed Peter Jackson in New Zealand. And there, right in the hangar, was one of the full size model Lancasters built for the Dambusters remake.
A very perceptive recent visitor to this blog has sent me these screen shots, taken from the programme which was first broadcast in 2009:
From these pictures, the level of detailing on the model seems extraordinary.
In recent interviews, Jackson has said that ten models have been built. It is noticeable, however, that only one seems to have been on show here.
By the way, this edition of Last Chance to See became notorious for a film clip showing the very rare kakapo flightless parrot attempting to mate with Mark Carwardine’s head. Far be it from me to suggest that you amuse yourselves by watching it again on Youtube.