Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Dam Busters (1955)

When The Dam Busters opens with Michael Redgrave (as Barnes Wallis) in his sunny garden with his children, one with no prior knowledge about the historic events relating to the Dambusters from World War II, would never expect that this man was obsessed with the idea of building a bouncing bomb that would eventually destroy three major dams of Germany, thus damaging its water supply system. But that was exactly what Mr. Wallis was planning, and that was exactly what happened in history. How that happened, the major failures and the minor victories, the disapprovals and calculations that led to it, is what this film is about.

When I was watching the film for the first time, the initial shots of Redgrave's attempts and failures with the bouncing bomb made me label the film as another war propaganda film common during the war years (Listen to Britain, London Can Take It, Fires were Started, and of course Went the day Well?). But then I reminded myself that this one was made a decade after the war got over. Hence technically, the film-makers were free from their moral obligation of feeding the public's conscience with positive thoughts about the efforts of the War Office. Yet, the film (at least towards the beginning) does have that distinctive tone of the patriotic underdog trying his best to destroy the enemy with an ingenious theory. However, you suddenly realise that halfway through the film, you're desperately hoping that Mr. Wallis succeeds in his attempt to make that perfect bomb; and your heart stops beating when wing Commander Guy Gibson drops the first bomb at Möhne dam; and you cheer when it is blown into splinters. This capacity to suck the viewer into action without the viewer's actual realisation, is the mark of a great film.

After many trials and errors with the making of the bouncing bomb which would skip over water to escape torpedo nets, Mr. Wallis finally gets it right. After much trepidation, his ingenious plan is approved by the Prime Minister. The next task at hand is to put together the right bomber squad. Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), who has just returned from a gloriously victorious mission, is told that he would be in charge of yet another special mission, and without divulging any details to him, he is entrusted with the duty of picking a special squadron of Lancaster bombers together with the bomber command, and to fly the mission. His interview with Mr. Wallis reveals to him the exact nature of the mission, and his enthusiasm is infectious. With a group of pilots with low-altitude flight experience, they tackle the final glitch of the bomb breaking apart upon hitting the water, and they set sail for their mission.

These scenes need to be viewed on screen, as no amount of words (coupled with The Dam Busters March, the theme music from the film), can convey the thrill of Lancasters flying as low as 60 feet over water in enemy territory, surrounded by enemy, as releasing a special kind of bomb that bounces over water, hits a dam, and blows it to splinters. By the end of the mission, many pilots and their Lancasters were lost, but they were victorious anyway.

Lancasters from an interesting angle.

The busted Möhne dam.

From 9.28pm on the 16th of May 1943, 133 aircrew in 19 Lancasters took off in three waves to bomb the dams. This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid. What better day could I find to blog about the cinematic version of this piece of history; and what an incident to start this new blog with too.
The Imperial War Museum, London, has created these articles, links and interesting montage of pictures to commemorate the day. There you would also find certain discrepancies between the film and historical fact.


  1. First books, now films... I love your writing dear'tramp' lady. Looking forward to more posts, to add to my must-watch list. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, dear Hutoom Pyancha. I'm afraid I'm piling way too much on my plate than I have the power to handle. I created this blog over two months ago, and only this week have I posted for the first time. Keeping three blogs running doesn't seem to be very easy, especially when you're a lazy blogger, and have too many other things to keep you comfortable and occupied.