The best of the literally dozens of Battle of Britain-themed feature and television dramatizations produced over the years mostly begin and end, not surprisingly, with the British—with, perhaps, an exception here or there. The best of the Battle of Britain air dramatizations then include the following: Pictured above: There was no shortage of Spanish-built Messerschmitts for the 1969 production of “Battle of Britain.” (Photo courtesy of James Farmer.)
Battle of Britain
(1969, U.K.; color, 132 minutes). This big-budget “event film” offers a stellar all-star cast of such notables as Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Robert Shaw, Curt Jurgens and Lawrence Olivier. Employing more than a hundred airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Spanish-built Messerschmitts and Heinkel bombers in the days before CGI, this classic air feature boasts some of the greatest aerial sequences ever captured on film—bar none! The one major disappointment: the unnecessary fictionalization of the participating pilots on both sides.
Dark Blue World
(2001, Czechoslovakia; color, 119 minutes). This modestly budgeted Czech-produced film stars Ondrej Vetchý and Tara Fitzgerald. The rather dark picture opens in a Cold War, Communist-run Czech labor camp where WW II veterans who flew with the RAF during the Battle of Britain are housed because of their earlier exposure to the democratic West. We flash back to the War years, which are handsomely fleshed out with three on-location Spitfires and markedly upgraded footage from the earlier 1969 Battle of Britain feature. With CGI now in play, squadron codes in these classic fighter sequences can be changed at will, with such nice touches as the under-wing ejection of spent shell casings added in for enhanced realism! Despite its rather grim framing, it’s a film worth watching.
Angels One Five
(1954, U.K.; b&w, 98 minutes). Fortunately, this all but forgotten classic has just recently come out on DVD! The film stars Jack Hawkins and Michael Denison. In typical low-key English fashion, we follow a new member of a Hurricane squadron joining the unit at the height of the Battle of Britain, learning the ropes, truly coming into his own, and beginning to fall in love before meeting a not uncommon end in combat. And “Angels One Five” is the one Battle of Britain feature, which actually showcases a near complete squadron of Hurricanes, borrowed from the Portuguese Air Force, for the production. Yes, the special effects are pretty bad, even by Hollywood standards of the day, but where else are you going to see so many Hurricanes on the ground and in the air in a single frame of film—not to mention the only genuine Me 110 in any film dramatization?
Piece of Cake
(1988, U.K.; color, six-part BBC television miniseries now on DVD). Based on the 1983 Derek Robinson novel of the same name, the five-hour series follows the 14 pilots of the fictional Hornet Squadron from May of 1940, as their numbers continue to dwindle, through one of the toughest days of the Battle of Britain, on 7 September. The production employed five airworthy Spitfires, three Spanish-built Messerschmitts and a CASA 2111, the Spanish rendition of the Heinkel He-111 bomber. Most unsettling: seeing Spitfires flying, at times, totally devoid of unit markings.
Reach for the Sky
(1956, U.K.; b&w, 136 minutes). No list of Battle of Britain films could be complete without mentioning the film biography of arguably the battle’s most famous English ace—the legless squadron leader, Douglas Bader. Bader had lost both legs in a flying accident in a Bulldog fighter in 1931. He fought his way back into active service, scoring heavily in aerial engagements with the Germans until he was shot down and made a German POW in 1941. It has been said that because Bader was missing his legs below the knees, his blood did not have as far to go to pool, and he could therefore withstand heavier G maneuvers than his opponents, more easily gaining the upper hand in combat. The film ends with his rejoining the RAF for a mass flyover of London after V-E Day in 1945. The film stars Kenneth More, himself the only son of a Royal Naval Air Service pilot, portraying the irrepressible Bader. Muriel Pavlow portrays his wife Thelma. The film is a bit short on operational Spitfires, and some later cut-down full-bubble variants are in evidence here, as is some rather poor miniature work. —Jim Farmer