I came to England in the fall of 1954. Rationing was just ending, the house next door was a bomb site and the war seemed as if it had just ended. London was still a mess – most cars and clothes were pre war and everyone was very poor. Everyone had a war story. My Nanny told me of the Blitz and watching dogfights in the English summer sky. My Grandfather talked of how he had smuggled his dog over to England in the drum of the band. It was in the mid 1950’s that a number of great films came out. There was enough time I think to get perspective but the war was still close enough for the emotional truth to be first hand for much of the audience.
The 1956 film with Richard Todd still stands as one of the best war movies ever made. It is very realistic emotionally – people really were like that. There is also some great footage of Lancasters and the supporting routine of flying. (Here is the RCAF Lanc at Hamilton taking off today) Todd is exceptional as is Redgrave who plays Barnes Wallis. I am pleased to say that Richard Todd is still alive and very youthful. He was a para in WWII and was in action at Pegasus Bridge on the night of June 5.
This is my favourite scene – where I always cry – the men are biding their time and then Todd/Gibson tells them that it is time to go. As the board the trucks, Eric Coates music swells into the full theme. Nothing is said – it’s all the routine of going out to the plane. You the viewer know that many will never return.
The film ends with complete heartbreak as we see routine again of getting home and then … the empty rooms, the empty chairs in the dining hall – it’s very subtle and so different from what you might expect.
The entire film is available thanks to Henry V Keiper who has a number of great war films up – including my other WWII fave Twelve O’Clock High with the incomparable Gregory Peck as the driving new base commander. Gibson was very much like the Peck character – he was very tough and not popular. Gibson was killed later in the war – he could not stay away from action. While on his book tour in the US after the raid he was asked how many trips he had taken (As a US Pilot you could leave after 25 – he replied 174) Keiper also has the Battle Of Britain that starts here.
Houston is a real find – he has over 400 videos on his channel. You can order the DVD at Amazon here. Here is a link to the history of the raid. Here is a link to a well reviewed book on the making of the film. Here is a link to the book and the author who captured the war for my boyhood – Paul Brickhill.
Now it looks certain that Peter Jackson is about to make a remake. I wonder how he will approach it – The screen writer is Stephen Frye who I have a lot of confidence in to get the period right. R C Sheriff, who wrote Journey’s End, wrote the original screenplay.
I wonder if they will focus more on the character of Joe McCarthy, the very popular American who flew on the raid who had a very distinguished career. His son is in the documentary with Joe’s bomb aimer who clearly thought the world of his skipper. Joe had a very significant part in the raid – it was his plane that would not start and he and his crew took the spare and did much of the raid alone and very exposed.