The Dam Busters: The classic WW2 film that inspired the Death Star attack in Star Wars

Late British film director Michael Anderson (1920-2018) is not a household name among film-going audiences, but some of the films he directed certainly are. His 1956 release, Around the World in 80 Days won the Oscar for Best Picture. Earlier the same year, he had directed the first on-screen adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. His 1960 film, All the Fine Young Cannibals was the first on-screen pairing of real-life Hollywood star couple Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood (the film’s title was also the inspiration for the British rock band Fine Young Cannibals). In 1976, he directed the influential sci-fi box office hit Logan’s Run, which led to a TV spin-off and even a short-lived Marvel comic series.  

But before all that, in 1955, Anderson directed The Dam Busters, the extraordinary true story of Operation Chastise, the daring 1943 RAF attack on three German dams feeding the Ruhr valley military factories, using the innovative “bouncing bomb”. I became aware of this film a few months ago, when a friend informed me that the concept of releasing a bomb at a specific point while flying at a specific speed, as depicted in The Dam Busters, formed the basis of the Death Star attack in Star Wars: A New Hope. Additionally, the cinematographer for Star Wars, Gilbert Taylor, was responsible for the special effects photography in The Dam Busters.

This filmmaking footnote was the primary motivation for me to watch this movie, but after finishing it yesterday, I felt that it should be celebrated in its own right as one of the great war movies (it does feature in BFI’s list of the 100 greatest British films of the 20th century). What really appealed to me was its verisimilitude and lack of bombast, something that’s very rare in war/action films. There isn’t a single raised voice throughout the two-hour runtime, nor any jingoistic behaviour on display (and thank goodness, it was made before the days of slow-motion shots of pilots walking towards their machines). This typically British understated tone probably explains why it didn’t do well at the US box office, whereas it was the top performing film in the UK in 1955.

There are two protagonists in this story, scientist Barnes Wallis, who invented the bouncing bomb and Wing Cmdr. Guy Gibson, whose specially formed 617 “Dambusters” Squadron destroyed the dams. Barnes Wallis was played by veteran British stage actor Sir Michael Redgrave, the progenitor of the famed Redgrave acting dynasty, which includes his daughters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and his granddaughters Joely Richardson and the late Natasha Richardson (who was married to Liam Neeson). Wing Cmdr. Gibson was played by Irish actor Richard Todd who projects tremendous gravitas and authority while playing a thoughtful, soft-spoken character.

Richard Todd as Wing Cmdr. Guy Gibson and Sir Michael Redgrave as inventor Barnes Wallis in The Dam Busters (1955), directed by Michael Anderson

I truly enjoyed the film’s focus on the research and testing of the bouncing bomb, as well as the assembly and training of Squadron 617. Barnes Wallis had to overcome various technical and engineering challenges through patient trial-and-error experimentation, starting with the creation of simple scale models in his backyard, and thereafter using larger models and dummy bombs before the “Upkeep” bouncing bomb was finally greenlit for production. Meanwhile, Wing Cmdr. Gibson’s team had to practice low-level night-flying and find a way to release the bomb at an altitude of just 60 feet and at a specific distance from the dam wall while flying at a specific speed, all while under ground fire. In fact, these aspects of the story form the bulk of the film’s runtime, with the actual bombing run taking up only about 15 minutes towards the end.

What broke my heart was the depiction of the bomber crews’ return to the airbase after the mission. There are no high-fives, no backslapping; the airmen exit their planes, take note of the flak damage on their machines and walk back to the building. Some of them go straight to their rooms and flop into bed exhausted, while others file into the canteen for coffee and an early breakfast…only the crews who go on a mission get bacon and egg on a given day; it’s bread, butter and jam for everyone else. Poignantly, we see the empty chairs and place settings for the crew members of the 8 Lancaster bombers that didn’t make it back. Barnes Wallis is distraught at the loss of life and tells Gibson that he would never have developed this idea, had he realized what the human cost would be. But Gibson assures him that the men would have gone on the mission even if they had known that they wouldn’t make it back. The film ends with Gibson walking towards his office, with the task of writing letters to the families of those 50 men. A sad footnote is that the real Guy Gibson died in action a year and a half later, at the age of 26. He was the most highly decorated British serviceman at the time, having been awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), and having completed 170 missions.

Some years ago, legendary NZ filmmaker and war aficionado Peter Jackson, purchased the rights to remake the film. There hasn’t been much news on this project since his last update two years ago, so it’s unknown if this will still go ahead, given current restrictions on filming with large numbers of cast and crew. If it does, I certainly hope that Jackson will preserve the measured pace and understated tone of the original, while applying all the latest filmmaking and visual effects techniques that he has become so famous for. Meanwhile, I wholeheartedly recommend watching the original, available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.

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