The Dam Busters, shown on BBC Television one Sunday afternoon recently, must be the perfect war film for people like myself who don’t really approve of war, or of the military mystique of competitive valour and unquestioning obedience to authority, or of the exploitation of these things for purposes of entertainment, but nevertheless go weak at the knees at the image of a flak-scarred Lancaster bomber coming in to land on a dandelion-strewn airfield at dawn somewhere in East Anglia in 1943.
I was four when World War Two began, so I followed its fortunes with the simple patriotic pride and black-and-white morality which belongs to childhood. Since my father was in the Air Force (as a musician who prudently avoided going up in an aeroplane even once), I took a special interest in that arm of the Services, became a fairly adept plane-spotter, and operated an extensive military airfield on the top of the Morrison shelter which filled most of the front room of our London semi. I covered many sheets of paper depicting aerial battles in which Spitfires and Hurricanes unfailingly shot Messerschmidts and Heinkels out of the sky while Lancasters and Wellingtons dropped their bombs with unerring accuracy on German tanks and ships.
Later, of course, came the loss of innocence and the acquisition of knowledge: about the horrific firestorms of Dresden and other German cities, about the deliberate attacks on civilian populations, about the failure of mass bombing seriously to affect German morale and war production, and about the frightful toll in terms of Allied aircrew casualties. Patriotic pride was replaced by retrospective anger at those senior strategists, like Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who from safe offices and Ops Rooms sent so many young men to futile and agonising deaths.
The Dam Busters was made in 1954, when the myth of Bomber Command’s strategic success was still relatively unscathed by revisionist historians.Harris is portrayed in it without criticism – indeed, as a kind of wise and benign Providence who gives the brilliant boffin, Barnes Wallis, the chance to realise his revolutionary idea for a bouncing bomb with which to shatter the Ruhr dams. The entire film is saturated in an archaic and class-ridden ideology of leadership, loyalty and courage derived from the public-school ethos, imperialistic adventure stories and memories of the First World War. Yet, for all that, it remains a decent film which it is possible to view today without too much irony. It is naive, but it is not hypocritical and it is not insensitive. Its effectiveness owes much, no doubt, to R. C. Sherriff’s screenplay, for his classic drama of trench warfare in the First World War, Journey’s End, had much the same strengths and limitations. The feature of The Dam Busters that grates most on the viewer in 1982 is that the hero’s pet dog is called ‘Nigger’ and that the name is adopted as the code word for a successful hit on the dams; and this is historical, not an invention of Sherriff’s.
Why has The Dam Busters worn better than most examples of its genre and period? One reason is that it is singularly lacking in hatred, and that vicarious pleasure in violence which most war films, even those ostensibly ‘antiwar’ in intention, tend to arouse in their audiences. There are no German corpses to gloat over here – indeed, there are scarcely any Germans. The target is a clean one – a huge, inanimate, uninhabited monolith; and the consequences of its destruction – the flooding of the Ruhr valleys – are depicted in a montage sequence almost entirely devoid of human figures. Only once do we glimpse four civilians fleeing from a flooded factory. (There is, of course, some cosmeticisation of history involved here: according to Paul Brickhill, whose book The Dam Busters was a major source for the film, the raid caused the deaths of 1294 people by drowning, the majority of them slave labourers and Russian prisoners of war.) Correspondingly, there is no attempt to harrow the audience with direct depictions of the last moments of those airmen whose planes are shot down.
All films about aerial warfare, and especially those concerned with bombing raids, tend towards the condition of chivalric romance. The basic structure of their narratives is what A.J. Greimas has called ‘disjunctive’ – a story of departure and return, of which the Quest is the archetype. The Falklands War, incidentally, had the same narrative structure, from the British point of view, which partly explains why it gripped the imaginations of many people who did not approve of it. In this kind of story the hero and his companions venture out, away from secure home ground, into foreign and hostile territory, endure great sufferings and perform great acts of valour, then return home, exalted or chastened by the experience. In films about bombing raids this narrative structure is subjected to extreme temporal condensation: a bombing mission over Germany is an eight-hour crusade. The emotional power of the story derives from the tension between the felt obligation to risk one’s life and the desire to return home safely. In the bomber films this tension is dramatised in the characteristic sequence that cross-cuts between the heroes in the throes of the flak and the action over Germany, and the boffins, superior officers, ground staff, wives and girlfriends in England, who can do nothing but wait and bite their nails in rooms where the loudest noise is the ringing of a telephone or the chatter of Morse.
Interestingly, there are no wives or girlfriends in The Dam Busters, just as there is never the slightest suspicion of obscenity or profanity in the dialogue. Here again, no doubt, we may detect the hand of R.C. Sherriff, for Brickhill makes clear that Squadron Leader Guy Gibson was married, and that the men under his command had normal heterosexual interests. One of the neatest touches in the screenplay comes when Gibson and his chief bombing officer are shown seeking some light relief from their training at a music hall. As the star of the show goes into her song-and-dance routine, Gibson (played by Richard Todd) sits up in his seat as though electrified: a piece of body language the seasoned cinema-goer is likely to interpret as a sign that ‘love interest’ is about to be introduced. In fact, it soon becomes evident that Gibson’s interest has been excited not by the girl but by the two spotlights trained on her, suggesting to him a solution to the problem of measuring altitude when flying too low for conventional instruments to function.
The thoroughgoing desexualisation of the airmen reinforces the romantic and chivalric overtones of the story. In the Grail legend there is a stressed connection between male chastity and the successful completion of the Quest. Gibson’s squadron is an élite group, a Round Table of airborne knights, whose grail is the destruction of the great dams. The figure of Barnes Wallis fits into this archetypal scheme as a kind of benevolent Merlin, wielding the magical power of ‘science’. ‘Wizard’ was, of course, the ultimate epithet of praise in RAF slang. According to Brickhill, Gibson actually reported to his superiors, ‘It was a wizard party,’ on his return from the raid. He doesn’t say this in the film, in which, interestingly enough, the behaviour of all the returning airmen is considerably less exuberant than it was in reality.
I have suggested that The Dam Busters works partly by transposing a story of modern technological warfare into the key of chivalric romance, filtering out in the process most of the ugly and disturbing features of the real history it deals with. The surface of the film is, however, scrupulously realistic, even documentary, in style; and this allows it eventually to depart from the historical ‘facts’ in the opposite direction, to state an unpalatable truth about war. The ending of the film is distinctly downbeat, and never fails to impress. The exhausted and emotionally-drained aircrew stagger from their planes. There is no cheering or backslapping, just the exchange of cigarettes and tight-lipped smiles between the survivors. Two men drag themselves back to their quarters, and collapse speechlessly onto their beds, fully dressed. The camera lingers on empty rooms whose occupants will not return. On the soundtrack a BBC announcer reports the success of the mission and concludes: ‘Eight of the Lancasters are missing.’ Barnes Wallis is shown shattered by this news: ‘Fifty-six men. If I had known it was going to be like this I’d never have started it.’ Gibson tries to comfort him: ‘Even if all those fellows had known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be coming back, they would still have gone for it.’ But even if he really believed that, we certainly don’t. The final note is one of loss, waste and regret. The last shot is of Gibson, still wearing his flying jacket, walking away from the camera, along a bleak path between barrack blocks, on his way to write letters of condolence.
Arguably, the real stars of the film are the Lancasters, which the director Michael Anderson and his cameraman photographed in black and white with great skill and artistry, posing their unmistakable profiles against the flat landscapes and huge skies of East Anglia to poignant effect, or showing their great wings thrillingly skimming the moonlit waters of river, lake and sea. To call the Lancaster a ‘photogenic’ aircraft would be misleading – the epithet is more appropriate to the Spitfire. But the Lancaster had the beauty of functional engineering, and it was perfectly balanced in its proportions, with just the necessary touch of individuality in its protruding observation dome, jutting forward pugnaciously like the underhung jaw of a bulldog, that inspires affection as well as instant recognition.
That’s how I feel about the Lancaster, anyway. To the men who flew them I have no doubt they were noisy, uncomfortable deathtraps. Put my sentiments down to nostalgia for childhood.