The Dam Busters (1955)


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Rating: The Good – 77.9
Genre: War, Drama
Duration: 105 mins
Director: Michael Anderson
Stars: Richard Todd, Michael Redgrave, Ursula Jeans

The Second World War was won on the back of many small efforts and several great efforts and given the importance of winning that war over virtually every other large-scale historical conflict, the significance of those efforts is heightened all the more. And it makes for a damn good cinema too if you can excuse the pun. The Dam Busters is a tidy example of this fact, as it gives us a dramatic account of the genesis and implementation of one of WWII’s more significant operations: the RAF’s destruction of Germany’s three most important dams upon which two thirds of their entire war machine relied. Such a premise would on its own be sufficiently dramatic to build a movie around but given the ingenuity in both engineering and flying that the mission required, its downright spine tingling.

Michael Redgrave stars as the idiosyncratic scientist Barnes Wallis who believes he has come up with a means to circumventing the dams’ substantial defences by inventing a bouncing bomb. However, before he can hand it over to wing commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), who will have to train a squadron in a whole new kind of flying in order up drop it with the necessary precision, there are just the small matters of building the thing, working out the mathematics, and convincing the air ministry he’s not absolutely barking mad.

With a midpoint shift from Wallis’ ingenious efforts at the developmental stage to Gibson’s hair-raising attempts to specially train his elite squadron, to the wonderfully constructed and edited bombing mission of the final act, The Dam Busters stimulates on a range of levels. It’s therefore all the more remarkable how contained and modest this film feels. A quiet reverence for the story and the men who put their lives on the line lies at its core and through the many deft touches behind and in front of the camera (and with no small amount of help from Leighton Lucas’ rousing score), the movie seems to become inwardly epic as opposed to outwardly so. This is what happens when filmmakers have genuine respect for the material and just try to do the story justice and that deeply poignant sequence at the end is as much a testament to this as it is a worthy memorial to the heroes of that story. If only the dog had a different name (seriously)!

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