Sunday 3 September 2017

Battle of Britain

Original poster for the film (author's collection)

Regular readers may remember that in the October 2016 edition of this blog, we looked at "Real to Reel" an exhibition covering a century of war films that was held at the Imperial War Museum, London and selected my own ten personal favourite examples of the genre.

One of those I selected was Battle of Britain a film released in 1969, appropriately enough on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September. This film used to get regular airings on television but seems to be less frequently seen nowadays and remains one of my personal favourites. It was one of the last of the great British war movies and was directed by Guy Hamilton, himself a Royal Navy war veteran and director of four of the iconic James Bond films.

On 15 September 2017, as part of the Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival I'm delighted to be hosting a special open air screening of this classic British war movie at the wonderful atmospheric surroundings of the Royal Garrison Church of St George, Woolwich. For those that don't know the area, this church was the victim of a direct hit by a V-1 Flying Bomb on 13 July 1944. Despite being largely destroyed, the church remains as consecrated ground and is the home of the Royal Regiment of Artillery's VC Memorial, as well as the memorial to Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was murdered by terrorists in Woolwich in May 2013. The church is now managed by the Woolwich Garrison Church Trust, who are responsible for the management of the building and who have made great strides in preserving the building for the future.

Plaque outside the Garrison Church explaining it's wartime past (author's photo)

Going back to Battle of Britain the film is an extremely faithful re-telling of events running from the Fall of France in June 1940, culminating in events on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 1940. The film had a budget of $13,000,000 (equivalent to $91,000,000 today) and therefore represented a considerable financial risk to the producers Harry Saltzman and S Benjamin Fisz. Shooting of the film took place in the spring and summer of 1968, with much of the filming taking place on location. Many of the airfield scenes were filmed at Duxford, Debden, Hawkinge and North Weald - all genuine Battle of Britain airfields. One of my abiding memories as a nine year old boy growing up in Southeast London at this time was seeing large formations of Second World War aircraft appearing in the skies overhead, including what looked like Heinkels and Messerschmitts. I found this very exciting but looking back, I suspect that my parents, grandparents and others of their generation may perhaps have been less enthusiastic as it would have no doubt rekindled some less than happy memories, especially to my Mother and Grandmother, both of whom lived in London throughout the Blitz.

Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie (Bomber Command Museum of Canada)

To recreate as authentic a group of aircraft as possible, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, a former Bomber Command Pathfinders officer, was hired to source suitable aircraft, both British and German. He managed to locate over hundred Spitfires in the UK, of which twenty seven were made available for the film, although twelve were in flying condition. Two of these were authentic Mark I and II variants, with the others all later marks, which had to be suitable modified to look the part for the period. The Hurricanes, although far more numerous than the Spitfire during the real Battle of Britain, were far fewer in surviving numbers by 1968, with only six being made available for the film, half of which were flyable. On the German side, there were no surviving flyable Heinkels, Dorniers, Junkers and Messerschmitts in 1968 but a ready solution was found in Spain, whose air force were still flying Spanish built CASA 2.111 twin engine bombers, virtually identical to the Heinkel III. Mahaddie obtained the services of no fewer than thirty two of these authentic looking aircraft, along with twenty seven Hispano 'Buchon' fighters, Spanish built versions of the Me 109, so in 1968 as in 1940, the RAF found itself outnumbered. Together, these aircraft represented what was described in 1968 as the thirty fifth largest air force in the world. The Ju 87 Stukas were represented in the film by large scale flying models and the aircraft destroyed on the ground and in flying scenes, were also models. The other flying scenes were all shot 'for real' as this was many years before the advent of CGI technology and the film in my opinion is much the better for being shot in this way. Even today, the flying scenes remain amongst the best ever put on film.

Other locations used for filming were St Katherine's Dock, Aldwych Tube Station, Peckham Rye and Dragon Road in Camberwell, which were all used for the sequences of the London Blitz. Sir Hugh Dowding's office at RAF Bentley Priory was used once again as such in the film but the 11 Group Bunker at RAF Uxbridge was recreated at Shepperton Studios as an almost exact replica of the real thing. Huelva in Spain doubled up for Dunkirk at the start of the film, whilst some other airfield shots were filmed at Tablada in Spain. 

Apart from Hamish Mahaddie, the other technical advisors for the film included Tom Gleave, Bob Stanford-Tuck and Ginger Lacey, all real life Battle of Britain pilots for the RAF. Squadron Leader Boleslaw Drobinski advised on the Polish scenes and General Adolf Galland was the main technical advisor for the German scenes. Galland was anxious to ensure that the German pilots were not portrayed as 'Cartoon Nazis' and was involved in a furious argument on set when he objected to a scene in which German pilots were shown giving the Nazi salute and threatened to walk off the film if the scene was included. Galland was adamant that German pilots didn't use this salute and insisted that even he had never used it in normal circumstances, even when meeting Hermann Goring. After much debate, the scene was left in the film, although other scenes do show the German pilots using the conventional military salute. Galland was also instrumental in the decision to show the German actors actually speaking German, with English subtitles being used, rather than speaking heavily accented English, as has usually been the case in other war films prior to this time.

Robert Shaw as he appeared in the film (author's collection)

The cast for the film represented a veritable 'Who's Who' for the period and included Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Kenneth More, Michael Caine, Susannah York and Kurt Jurgens, as well as appearances by younger actors who were to subsequently become well known in their own right such as Edward Fox and Ian McShane.

Most of the senior figures of the Battle are portrayed as themselves, so we see in the film portrayals of Hermann Goring, Albert Kesselring and Erhardt Milch on the German side and Sir Hugh Dowding, Keith Park, Trafford Leigh-Mallory on the British. Further down the chain of command, for reasons of brevity in the film, characters are merged to greater or lesser degrees, so the character played by Robert Shaw, known somewhat enigmatically in the film as 'Skipper' is largely based on the South African 'Sailor' Malan, who had acquired his nickname due to his having served in the Merchant Navy in a previous career. It was a nickname adopted by all who knew him and happily used by Malan as well, perhaps because his real Christian name was Adolf!

The character played by Christopher Plummer, Squadron Leader Harvey is loosely based on Squadron Leader Foxley, not a Canadian as in the film but someone whose real-life experiences closely matched those of Plummer's character in the movie. Edward Fox's character in the film, a Sergeant Pilot known simply as 'Archie' is heavily based on Sergeant Ray Holmes and as with Foxley, a character whose exploits in real life closely matched those of his film alter-ego. Similarly, on the German side, the character Major Falke is based on Adolf Galland, who really did inform Hermann Goring that he could use a squadron of Spitfires to help win the Battle for the Luftwaffe.

General Adolf Galland (Bundesarchiv)

There were other issues that arose during the production of the film, most notably concerning the musical score. The original composer for the score was Sir William Walton, who was recommended to the producers by Sir Laurence Olivier, who had collaborated with Walton on three of his own film productions, Henry V, Richard III and Hamlet and who was also a close personal friend of the composer. Walton wrote a classical orchestral score for the film, which all of those involved with the production felt was perfect for the film, if perhaps a little on the short side. The executives at United Artists thought differently and felt that the score was old-fashioned and ordered that it be scrapped. This caused Olivier to threaten to walk off the set and he stated that if he were to leave the production, he would not allow his name to be shown in the credits to the film and any of it's publicity. This would have been a major blow as Olivier was still a major player in the film world, even in 1968 and as a result of this, a compromise was reached. A new score was commissioned from the British composer Ron Goodwin, who had previously scored films such as Murder at The Gallop, 633 Squadron, Where Eagles Dare and Operation Crossbow amongst many others. However, a sequence from Walton's score, entitled Battle in the Air was retained and used towards the end of the film to accompany the climactic air battle which is played out with almost no dialogue and no other extraneous sound effects.

At the time of it's release, the film had indifferent reviews and this was perhaps thought to be a result of the generally pervading anti-war feeling at the time resulting from the Vietnam War, although the film did perform well in the United Kingdom. Over the years though, the film's reputation has recovered and it is today regarded as probably the definitive film covering the subject.

If you've never seen this film before, or if like me, it is one of your favourites, come and join us on Friday 15 September when you will get the opportunity to watch this film at a truly unique venue. The film is being screened at 19:45 but before that at 18:15, I will be guiding a free walk starting from the church, lasting around an hour, during which we will discover something of the area's wartime past. There will be a licenced bar available on the night and also hopefully snacks as well - full details of the timings and other events during the Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival can be found on the event's website.

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