Their Finest Two Hours and Seven Minutes

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It’s Yuletide so I watched WWII film, because that’s what we do in Britain. THE GREAT ESCAPE is the traditional one, for some reason, but I believe THE EAGLE HAS LANDED and WHERE EAGLES DARE are considered acceptable too. I don’t know why. But I decided to experience a level of Britishness normally alien to me.

BATTLE OF BRITAIN is a 1969 Harry Saltzman super-picture directed by Guy Hamilton. It’s a WWII film, a work of warnography, nostalgia and pomp.

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A big part of this is the music. Ron Goodwin provides most of this, and even by the standards of British war pictures, especially the ones made AFTER the war, it’s tremendously upbeat stuff. I found it fascinating the emotional choices Goodwin makes. When we first see an anteroom of Hitler’s office, the music is majestic. It’s like we’re really meant to be impressed about Hitler. Like we’re supposed to love him. Also, the camera never goes inside the office. Hitler is to be kept offscreen, or at least not clearly shown, like Jesus in BEN HUR. Rather strange choices.

And when we meet a couple of German aces, the music is again delightfully romantic. And the main pilot (Reinhard Horras) looks very glamorous in his leather jacket, even better if possible than Michael Caine and Ian McShane and the rest on the other side.

Goodwin had done such an obscenely fun job on 633 SQUADRON that he was obviously expected to do more of the same. The film was gigantic, went over budget, and suffers from actually having too much amazing aerial footage and not enough solid human drama. So I suspect the score was maybe also intended to shore the movie up.

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But in addition to that, the movie has a blast of Sir William Walton, proper classical composer who also dabbled in movies (THINGS TO COME HENRY V), conducted by Malcolm Arnold (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI). His stuff has a lot more dignity to it, and the film suddenly drops its sound effects in order to let the music dominate completely. It’s always impressive when a movie does that with a large-scale scene — one thinks of RAN as a fine example. It’s particularly bold here since all along the movie is intercutting actual aeroplane stuff with model shots, and getting away with it 99% of the time. Without sound effects to convince us we’re watching full-scale action, there’s always a risk that the suspension of disbelief will fail and disbelief will go spiralling towards earth, trailing smoke from its fuselage. It doesn’t.

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A pair of aces.

It’s a big, impressive FEAT, a bit like GRAND PRIX, this movie. Morally quite shaky, and dramatically thin. All those Great Actors with so little to do. At the end, when it lists the casualties on both sides, I wondered if it might carry on and, in the same spirit list the number of lines granted Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick, Edward Fox…

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4 Responses to “Their Finest Two Hours and Seven Minutes”

  1. Christopher Lee went for a part in this but was turned down as he didn’t look the RAF type. His five year tenure in the RAF during the war seemingly wasn’t convincing enough…

  2. Ha! And too tall to play an Indian. I’m sure it was really the typecasting, the anxiety about Dracula flying a Spitfire. He might have had more luck auditioning as a Nazi, as in 1941.

  3. William Walton didn’t score Things to Come. Arthur Bliss did.

  4. Thanks! Have corrected.

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