You know the big set piece at the end of Star Wars where the rebel X-wings are trying to drop their charges in the hole on the Death Star? Exciting, right? That's a scene only one of the movie brats could have invented. Lucas, being one of the movie brats, is basically saying to a savvy audience: I've seen more movies than you have and I've absorbed all of them, because that sequence is totally a reinvention of the bouncing bomb sequences from The Dam Busters (1955, directed by Michael Anderson). I know that I'm not saying anything new here. Star Wars, after all, is cobbled together from bits and pieces from the entire history of movies. I just think it's interesting that for a short window of time, there was a generation of movie directors to whom the entire history of cinema was a vast playground. The Dam Busters is one of those very British "how we won the war" movies that has more than a little in common with Angels One Five or The Cruel Sea or (more particularly) David Lean's Breaking the Sound Barrier. It's part procedural, part men on a mission movie. It's also the 1955 British version of a special effects spectacular. There's a reason Lucas was cribbing from it. Who needs animatics and storyboards when you have whole filmed sequences from which to draw inspiration.
The story is in two parts. The first part finds engineer Barnes Wallis trying to invent a way to demolish the dams in the valley of the Ruhr river, thus crippling Germany's war industry. Wallis has conceived of a bouncing bomb that will come to rest at the base of the dam and use the compression of the water to help it do its damage. Unfortunately, no one takes Wallis's idea seriously. He spends as much time seeking allies in the bureaucracy of the military as he does developing the bomb. The second part of the movie follows Wing Commander Guy Gibson as he trains his squadron for the mission, all the while keeping the mission's nature a secret. Gibson's squadron has technical challenges of its own, given that the bouncing bombs must be dropped at exact altitudes and distances from the dams to work. To this end, he has to develop a means of gauging the exact spots for the mission, including a brand new gunsight (the solution to which is wonderfully low-tech). The last part of the film follows the mission as it flies into the heart of the enemy's territory.
This is basically propaganda for the victors, though that doesn't mean it's a bad movie. Quite the contrary. I like movies that detail process. Watching the way people work, particularly in unfamiliar professions, holds an inherent fascination for me. These are not the kinds of themes one finds in great art, and The Dam Busters isn't great art by any means, but it IS a pretty good entertainment. It balances the technical difficulty of the mission with the extreme danger of what it entails, which has a potential for suspense that this film exploits mercilessly. Still, there are a couple of things that trouble me.
The Nazi war machine makes a great straw villain for this kind of movie--particularly if you can keep them off-screen, as this movie does--because you don't have to put a human face to the enemy. A classic propaganda technique. Mind you, I don't question the necessity of defeating Nazi Germany, or even the aim of the mission in this movie, but this is a brand of film peculiar to its time that only counts the human cost to "our boys," and not the countless civilians drowned by the broken dams. It's too bad about Nagasaki and Dresden, but them's the breaks. War is hell. I feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying The Dam Busters as an adventure film, but I can compartmentalize this, I suppose. I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm able to compartmentalize the human toll of the war, but I allow myself to be bothered by the name of Guy Gibson's dog. When the dog comes bouncing onto screen the first time and Gibson shouts "Nigger!", my liberal guilt kicked in full bore. I mean, they HAD to know how this would play in America (American prints changed the name to "Trigger", so somebody knew..). I don't know if this is historically accurate, but movies aren't obliged to retain every little detail. I mean they had to change the details of the bombs themselves because they were still classified at the time, so why not change the name of the damned dog? I'm also bothered by the way the film fridges the dog to add a level of anxiety to Gibson on the eve of the mission. It seems wholly gratuitous.
Still, the sequence at the end when the planes head out to bomb the dams did an effective job of driving these concerns from my mind. This is a technical tour de force, built in equal measure from footage of the RAF (who participated in the film), stock footage, and special effects. This is the kind of war film that George Pal might have made, had his muse led him in this direction. This is not an actor's movie, I should add, but both Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd could play their roles in their sleep. Redgrave adds a bit of eccentricity to Barnes Wallis. He may be a stereotypical absent-minded professor, but it works well enough. Redgrave also seems progressively ground down as the movie goes on, which seems appropriate. Todd's performance is somewhat less nuanced--he's every ethical commanding officer you've ever seen in a movie.
So, a relic of its time? Perhaps. But good filmmaking is good filmmaking, and The Dam Busters will always have that going for it, warts and all.