Ruhr Wars

I hadn’t watched DAMBUSTERS all the way through for decades, and so I remembered precisely enjoying the exciting action climax and the quaint-but-cool VFX, sure, remembered that… Remembered really enjoying Michael Redgrave but nothing specific.

Well, Redgrave is worth digging into. “They’ve aged him up,” declared Fiona. True. And Redgrave has made some slight modifications to his delivery and movement to suit an older character, but it’s so subtle it just melts into him and you forget there’s any acting going on. Something like DEAD OF NIGHT — extreme nervousness — allows MR to get showy, but this kind of invisible acting is something he’s also really good at.

Best Redgravian choice is when his moment of triumph comes — a dam is bust — and he doesn’t know how to do a fist-pump (had they been invented?) or he’s too repressed, so he pumps both fists DOWNWARDS as if he’s trying to detach his sleeves. Close to his sides, very repressed jubilation. Marvelous.

It wasn’t until I saw him outside a big shed with a couple cans of film under his arm that I realised this whole thing works as a metaphor for the film biz. Someone has an idea. They work up a proposal and shoot some tests, but they have to get it approved by a damn committee. Through personal connections they manage to catch the ear of a big shot with an office, and then they’re into pre-production. A crew must be selected, or as they call it here, “a crew.” After months of inertia, they suddenly have to get the whole thing together to meet a narrow window of opportunity. Then, having set it in motion, the minds behind it just have to sit back and see how it’s received by its audience (the Germans).

I truly believe the reason Peter Jackson hasn’t done his threatened remake yet is that he can’t decide what to call the dog. And the only reason he wants to make it is to have more realistic splashing. (Just like Cameron clearly wanted to re-re-re-remake the TITANIC story so as to include the detail of the ship snapping in two.)

Fiona, a stranger to the film, was astonished at the abstract effect of the bomb-splashes. An animated outline with shots of the sea inside it. It’s really kind of delightful. I think maybe it’d have been 5% more convincing if the sea was out of focus, and it should have been white water rapids all going UPSCREEN. But it’s adorable.

I pondered whether, by delving more deeply into the less appealing qualities of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Jackson might be able to get away with giving him a racist dog. Probably not. It’s going to be a distraction whatever you try, and simply renaming the pooch Digger or Tigger or Trigger or Barkie is the least distracting option. People will get over it. And is your three-hour movie going to be accurate in every other respect?

A racist dog.

DAMBUSTERS, as directed by Michael LOGAN’S RUN Anderson is very watchable. The making-a-movie structure is really sound: Barnes Wallace battling committees is surprisingly exciting (following a character who’s right about something and faces opposition, hmm, there might be something in that) and then of course it leads into the operation itself, which is helluva exciting. The only possible hiccup is that you have to hand over from one lead character to another, which is often tricky in films. Redgrave is so much more interesting than Richard Todd that if it weren’t for the ramping-up of jeopardy, and the convenient baton-passing scene, it might not come off.

“The unfortunately-named Burpy,” said Fiona.

“I think it’s ‘Berkeley,'” I told her.

“I’ve been hearing ‘Burpy’ all through this film.”

“Well, he wouldn’t be the only one with an unfortunate name.”

It also struck me that, since Gilbert Taylor shot the effects work, that might be why Kubrick got him to shoot DR. STRANGELOVE — but the best stuff in this is done with real Lancaster bombers — and even Kubrick couldn’t supply real B52s — and with a vast miniature landscape — which wouldn’t have helped Kubrick much — but I would love to stride across it like a bespectacled Gojira — those plane shots in DR. S. always seem slightly disappointing, especially given what would be achieved in SK’s very next film. Oh, and George Lucas must surely have grabbed Taylor as his STAR WARS D.O.P. because of how the Death Star assault is so massively influenced by this.

As director, Michael Anderson’s best thing — apart from close-up of dog-scratches on door, a real hearthrob but probably in the script — is the sudden shock cuts from noise of battle to dead silence in the operations room, and the beautifully composed, near-abstract images there:

THE DAM BUSTERS — which everyone seems to call DAMBUSTERS — stars Dunois, Bastard of Orleans; Col. Eisenstein; Frau von Kalteneck; Claudius – The King; Nathaniel Beenstock; Capt. Edward John Smith; Cavendish ‘The Surveyor’; Quint; Captain Alec Rattray; Lord Alfred Douglas; Tiberius; Tang How – Tong Leader’s Aide; Six-Eyes Wiener; Klove; and Number Six.

16 Responses to “Ruhr Wars”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Besides “Dead of Night” I like Redgrave best in Losey’s “Time Without Pity” and Welles’ “Mr. Arkadin” where he camps it to the max.

  2. Oh, he’s like a Goon Show character in that one!

    He’s wonderful at playing weakness, so his relatively minor role in The Hill is absolutely fantastic stuff.

  3. Andreas Flohr Says:

    … and he is playing a very convincing alcoholic in TWP – Ray Milland close second.

  4. I think he knew a fair bit about the subject, alas.

  5. My favorite moment in TDB is early on, after the plan has finally been approved. We cut from Redgrave agreeing to work on the project after resigning from his job to Basil Sydney, who stands in a circle of perfectly immobile officers, very deliberately and silently watching a map retract to the ceiling before turning and saying, “That’s how it is.” Movie magic.

  6. I met an actor who worked with Michael Anderson when he was in his 80s, and said “He had more energy than anyone on that set.”

  7. dbenson Says:

    Long ago, read a news article about a kerfuffle here in the states. A old plaque somewhere celebrated a canine mascot of a railroad crew, whose name was the first syllable of “the N-word”. A visitor did some research, determined that the dog was black, and complained. I’m not sure how (or if) the matter was resolved. Does make one wonder if that was commonly used as a dog name in the past.

    The excellent mystery series “Foyle’s War” used the dam buster research as a backdrop for one of its murders. A few decent shots of the bombs being tested; nothing more.

  8. Apparently a very common dog name in the UK. And from the offhand way PG Wodehouse uses the n-word to describe minstrel acts (thankfully not often) it seems like here it was considered a mild term when not applied directly to a person of colour.

    Marlene Dietrich had a lucky golliwog, which she called “my n-“, and again it seems like a European misconception that the word was innocuous when not applied to a person.

    I only know of one old Brit film using it, The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, where it IS used with, I guess, acerbity, but evidently nobody here thought to censor it.

  9. Mark Fuller Says:

    The N word was a brand of bootpolish between the wars, which may explain it’s ubiquity a bit.. .
    I too was hoping Jackson would retell the tale, for there is a lot more to be told. The casting of Todd is all sorts of wrong. It’s a good performance but….the real Gibson, who created this elite squadron, bonded them together, trained them to within an inch of perfection, and led them into an attack which they knew was near-suicidal, was 24 at the time of the raid. Remember the Memphis Belle crew being retired after 25 operations ?? He was in the 160s. He was destroyed by the pressure. FlakHappy they called it. The RAF knew it. They sent him to the US as much to get him out of the War as to make publicity for the War effort. He worked on a film script on the raid with an Air Attache out there called Roald Dahl. But he pulled strings to get back in the air again, they put him somewhere out of the way but he died in a crash soon after. 170 missions. 25 years old. There is a story there of how war destroys men, whether Jackson does that or not. I really wanted a young James McEvoy to do it, but his time for that role has long passed.

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    In THE FIRST CASUALTY, his excellent book on war correspondence, Philip Knightley points out that the actual raid was a disaster but the facts were concealed for propaganda putposes and this lasted well into the post-war period.

    Mayne Peter Jackson could find a solution in the multi-ethic casting now used on British TV. The dog could be renamed “Bro” with Will Smith in the role of Gibson leading a team of female, Afro-
    Caribbean, and Asian aviators. We know there were Afro-Caribbeans in the services at the time and the film were thus be as “factual” as Anderson’s version of an event that Knightley shows was not one episode in the “Finest Hour” propaganda of the time.

  11. Mark Fuller Says:

    That would be the other thing that Jackson would almost certainly have corrected…..ignoring your colourblind casting……it is true that the airmen were drawn from The Empire, the numbers of Australian, New Zealand, Canadian airmen on the raid meant that the Britons were less than half of the squadron. Gibson himself was born in India, and you can add a US volunteer pilot too, who would command the squadron after Gibson, and his immediate successor Leonard Cheshire, he of the Homes.
    I’m not going to debate the revisionist view of the value of the raids; yes, a terrible loss of life, but the diversion of labour to repair the damage meant that when DDay happened twelve months later, allied troops were storming only half-completed defences. How many lives did that save ??

  12. There are a few antipodean accents in the film… something that may have excited the young Jackson when he saw it on TV.

    I remember looking at the damage caused by the burst dams and worrying about the civilians, something the film doesn’t encourage but then it’s balanced on a knife-edge between the triumphal, (that score) and the more nuanced “I’ve got some letters to write.”

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    Due to the pandemic, I can not access any library to read further later historical criticism on the actual raid itself nor the later editions of Knightley’s book. I only have the first (and it is in another location this morning but I will look it up and pass on what is there. However, David is correct about erasing civilian casualties from the agenda (unless you take the line of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the necessity of Dresden’s destruction which was not a military site.

    From memory of what Knightley says (to be confirmed later) I believe he mentions that not only civilians but Allied POW’s interned nearby were also a victim of the Raid. Also I think that the same thing occurred during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Were these “half-completed” defenses in Normandy or the Ruhr area. Knightley does have material to argue that the Raid was not all that effective especially in “saving lives” and we may ask “Wich” lives were really lost?

  14. My nephew pre lockdown came top in his class in something and therefore got the honour of chosing that week’s film and he impressed his teacher by chosing The Dam Busters. As his parents are engineers that probably encouraged them to show it in the first place. Gives one hope a 10 year old will watch a black and white film.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Re, Knightley, you will find the relevant information about the Dam C
    Busters myth in the first edition of THE FIRST CASUALTY, p..311-312. According to then newly released documents in 1972 that became available, author journalist Bruce Page described the raid as a “conjuring trick, virtually devoid of military significance”. Like the China experts in the State Department who correctly predicted the rise of Mao, the real heroes were a group of experts in the Ministry of Economic Warfare who were ignored when they correctly predicted that the raid would have no real effect on the German war economy.

    The largest group killed were several hundred POWs comprisng allied servicemen and Russians who were confined nearby. In 1961, an offcial historian wrote that the results of the raid were “disappointing” but the myth triumphed over the actual facts.

  16. In terms of the film, the dramatic question posed is “Can the bouncing bomb be used to destroy these dams?” and so the afformative answer closes the narrative and we’re not really interested in hearing more about the results of that. Which is a problem with the way narrative works, rather than with its historical interpretation… though I guess starting from a different interp would lead to a different narrative. Though any one that doesn’t end sharpish after the bombing run is likely to be less effective…

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