Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 3, 2003)
According to the DVD case for The Battle of Britain, “when the outnumbered Royal Air Force defied insurmountable odds in engaging the German Luftwaffe, they may well have altered the course of history!” That may sound like little more than marketing hyperbole, but in truth, it strikes pretty close to the mark. After running rampant over continental Europe, the Nazis wanted to soften Britain and take them out of the fight. They attempted this via their aircraft, and that topic provides the focus of 1969’s Battle.
Battle starts with the struggles of pilots who fight the Nazis in continental Europe. However, they quickly find that their cause there is essentially lost, so as requested by Air Chief Marshal Dowding (Laurence Olivier), the Brits decide to reserve their air forces at home in preparation for an almost definite assault by the Germans.
Soon Churchill declares the end of the fight in France and the start of the Battle of Britain. Baron von Richter(Curt Jurgens) officially proposes to Sir David Kelly (Ralph Richardson) that the Germans will stay away from England if the Brits grant them free reign in Europe, but given the cowardly nature of such a choice – and the worthlessness of Nazi promises – the Brits refuse. Von Richter declares that they’ll have their way anyway, and this sets the stage for a fight.
The rest of the movie follows those actions. Short on pilots, we see training exercises meant to get any warm bodies the RAF can find into the air. Eventually we reach “Eagle Day”, the occasion designated by the Nazis to smash the RAF on the ground. They bomb the airfields, and at one point, some German pilots accidentally attack London. This leads to Brit reprisals in Berlin, and that inflames Hitler. He increases the intensity of the war and plans to raze the British capital to the ground.
As the movie points out, this was a big mistake. In fact, along with the timing of the German assault on the Soviet Union, the attack on London stands as one of Hitler’s biggest gaffes. The assault on London overextended the German air force and made them easier picking for the Brits. It also solidified the resolve of the already steely Brits.
There’s a great story to be found in the actions of 1940, but The Battle of Britain isn’t it. A lot of this stems from a bad case of “big movie-itis”. Battle tosses out an enormous roster of famous actors. In addition to those already mentioned, it includes folks like Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Laurence Olivier, Susannah York and Michael Caine. One after another, it almost totally wastes them.
That’s because director Guy Hamilton can’t quite figure out how to elaborate on the personal stories. Hamilton remains best known as the leader of Bond flicks like Goldfinger, and within its world of fantasy, he proved successful. Unfortunately, Battle requires depth in its characters and the treatment of them as real people. The film flits so abruptly from one to another that we never get a sense of any personalities. They come and go without much rhyme or reason, and they never develop into real people.
The relationship between Plummer and York gets the most focus, and that makes it the least satisfying. Their interaction always remains trite and superficial. A movie like this needs to have some sort of human element, but Battle fails to bring off those areas in any even remotely satisfying way.
The segments that show the German perspective don’t fare any better. These really don’t make a lot of sense. They don’t elaborate on the Nazi side well, but they appear frequently enough that they bog down the story. Perhaps if Hamilton more heavily ignored the German viewpoint – which adds nothing to the film anyway – he’d have had more time to develop his British characters. As it stands, neither section becomes satisfying.
Does Battle at least deliver some compelling action? Occasionally, but much of the time, even those sections fall flat. That stems largely from the awkward pacing of the movie. With all those badly developed character moments, the action sequences tend to lack urgency or commitment. Hamilton seems more interested in showing us extended shots of planes as they fall from the sky than in creating briskly paced action. He rarely demonstrates the scope or passion of the fight. We’re told how important all this is to the Brits, but we rarely feel it.
One exception occurs toward the end of the movie. The film’s climax effectively removes all audio elements except for the score. This could become melodramatic, but instead, the absence of dialogue and effects focuses the action. It makes the sequence fairly poignant and tight.
Unfortunately, that segment remains a rare shining moment in an otherwise fairly dull movie. The history of World War II fascinates me, and I hoped to find an exciting examination of The Battle of Britain here. However, the result seems like little more than a plodding, big budget event movie with no passion behind it.