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.]
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.
Fascinating account of a day’s filming, sometime in early 1954, on location in bracing Skegness for the famous scene in The Dam Busters where Barnes Wallis watches his mine being dropped for the first time. The article, written by a junior reporter, was published in the Skegness Standard, and the journalist himself writes an afterword, telling how he got an exclusive interview with Richard Todd who drove him back to the town. No luxury trailers or personal drivers in those days!
(NB: A link I posted last May to an earlier version of this article now seems to have vanished.)