The air is thick with screen stars and 27 restored Spitfires flown by genuine WWII veterans defending Britain from the rampant Luftwaffe in the dark days of summer 1940.
Laurence Olivier directs operations as Commander-in-chief Hugh Dowding, whose shrewd strategy with his limited fighter command induced the Luftwaffe to make fatal errors that led to its destruction.
The aerial sorties involve a vast number of big-name stars that prove a distraction from the actual story; including Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Kenneth More, Christopher Plummer et al who relentlessly take to the air despite being exhausted.
With such momentous events, Guy Hamilton‘s colourful big-budget spectacular should have been an epic war movie.
The visually stunning aerial photography vividly recreates the London blitz and the fighter dogfights are impressive but Hamilton fails to get the story off the ground.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in the history of filmic endeavour has such a large cast kept their upper lips stiffened for so much money to so little effect.
To try to reduce a whole phase of World War II to two-and-a-half hours without recourse to documentary material was beyond the resources of any film company.
The German military advisor for Battle of Britain was Adolf Galland.
A Major-General in the Luftwaffe before he was 30, Galland recorded 104 kills of Allied aircraft during WWII and was considered one of the world’s greatest fighter pilots.
There was a deal of tension on the set, owing to Galland’s view that the Luftwaffe hadn’t really lost the Battle of Britain – they had retired – and that Hitler had never intended to invade the UK. This did not go down well with director Guy Hamilton, who had served in the Royal Navy and survived an attack by the Luftwaffe and U-Boats, and he did not hesitate to make his feelings towards Galland known.
The production also employed many Allied participants from the actual battle as technical advisors, including Douglas Bader, James Ginger Lacey and Hugh Dowding (who was portrayed in the film by Laurence Olivier).
Lacey was unimpressed with the young actors in the cast and complained, “I’m having the devil’s time getting the actors to be authentic. I can’t get them to cut their hair. In those days we were all close-cropped, and these chaps look like bloody Beatles. They all say they don’t cut their hair (because) they’ll ruin their image”.
The Battle of Britain lost $10 million worldwide and while many critics praised its cinematic achievement, others were dismissive. The timing was against it – the Vietnam War had stirred up anti-war feeling and audiences were more cynical about overtly patriotic displays.
But when it was shown on British television for the first time – in September 1974 – more than 24 million viewers tuned in, and affection for the film has grown with time.
Squadron Leader Canfield
Air Vice Marshal Keith Park
Baron von Richter
Sergeant Pilot Andy
Group Captain Baker
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding
Group Captain Hope
Squadron Leader Harvey
Air Vice Marshal Evill
Sir David Kelly
Squadron Leader Skipper
Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory
Section Officer Maggie Harvey
Warrant Officer Warrick
Wing Commander Willoughby
Squadron Leader Edwards
Pilot Officer Archie