Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Battle of Britain on Screen: 'The Few' in British Film and Television Drama.

S. P. Mackenzie. The Battle of Britain on Screen: 'The Few' in British Film and Television Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 181 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-2389-1; $34.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7486-2390-7.
Reviewed by James Chapman
Published on H-Albion (October, 2008)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton
Film Representations of the Battle of Britain
Readers familiar with MacKenzie’s previous books, particularly British War Films, 1939-1945: The Services and the Cinema (2000) and The Colditz Myth: British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany (2004), will know what to expect from his latest work. They will not be disappointed. MacKenzie, professor of history at the University of South Carolina, specializes in media and cultural representations of the Second World War. The Battle of Britain on Screen is the first book-length study of the film and television representation of the air war over southern England fought between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe in the late summer of 1940. This is an event that has become part of the popular mythology of the British experience of the Second World War, popularized in Winston Churchill’s famous (though oft-misquoted) remark: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

MacKenzie maps the history of the visual representation of the Battle of Britain through a series of case studies. He begins with The Lion Has Wings (1939), the first British propaganda feature film of the war and one that anticipates the battle itself by nearly a year. The Lion Has Wings, which Alexander Korda rushed into production upon the outbreak of war, was a hodgepodge of newsreel footage, documentary extracts, and some studio-filmed sequences, intended as propaganda for the RAF. It was meant to reassure the British public that, contrary to Stanley Baldwin’s prediction of 1932, the bomber will not always get through; in fact it will not get through at all. The Lion Has Wings has been derided by most commentators for its class-bound social politics, which hark back to the British cinema of the 1930s rather than forward to the new democratic social realism that was to emerge during the war. It also includes a reconstruction of the Kiel Canal Raid--the first offensive operation undertaken by the RAF during the war--that grossly exaggerates its success. However, MacKenzie argues that in its staging of the battle for air supremacy--Fighter Command is shown repelling a fictitious German attack--the film accurately predicted many of the details, especially the chain of command.

The Lion Has Wings tried to predict what the Battle of Britain would be like. As soon as the battle itself was over the question became: how will it be remembered? Hollywood got there first with A Yank in the RAF (1941)--one of a cycle of "Hollywood British" films which in this case had a dashing young Tyrone Power as the all-American fly-boy who shows the stiff-assed Brits how to do it. Power was followed by Ronald Reagan in International Squadron (1942) and Robert Stack in Eagle Squadron (1942). Needless to say none of these films were particularly notable for their authenticity. 

The first British feature film focusing on the battle was Dangerous Moonlight (1941) which starred Anton Walbrook (an Austrian émigré actor) as a Polish concert pianist who escapes from Warsaw to join the RAF. These were merely preludes, however, to the definitive wartime treatment of the battle, Leslie Howard’s The First of the Few (1942). Howard directed and played R. J. Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, the sleek and elegant intercept fighter that had already become synonymous with the Battle of Britain. The First of the Few has already been thoroughly researched by Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards in their book, Britain Can Take It: The British Cinema in the Second World War (1986), but MacKenzie is able to offer some new insights. He shows how Howard transformed the character of Mitchell, in reality a highly practical engineer, into a romantic visionary whose revolutionary design for the Spitfire was supposedly inspired by watching seagulls in flight. This was consistent with Howard’s screen persona but was far from being an accurate representation of the man. Not that it mattered: The First of the Few was a resounding critical and popular success.

In the 1950s, as Britain faced up to its decline as a world power and the loss of its empire, reliving the Second World War became something of a national pastime for British film producers. Postwar films such as Angels One Five (1952) and Reach for the Sky (1956) offered new perspectives on the battle. The role of radar, which for security reasons had not featured in wartime films, could now be revealed. Angels One Five was an attempt to represent the battle as a national experience. It told the familiar story of a hot-headed young pilot (played by John Gregson) who has to learn the hard way the importance of teamwork rather than individual heroism. The film also looked beyond the pilots to show the role of ground crew and control room staff. Reach for the Sky, in contrast, focused very much on the role of the individual. This hagiography of Douglas Bader, the pilot who lost both his legs in a flying accident in the 1930s but returned to command a fighter wing during the Battle of Britain, was one of the most successful British films of the decade. It starred Kenneth More, who plays Bader in his best “good chap” persona. It was concerned to present Bader as an inspirational role model. MacKenzie shows how the film whitewashed Bader’s character and exaggerated his reputation as a fighter ace.

As the cinema-going audience declined in the late 1950s and 1960s, the film industry turned to “big” pictures to tempt them back. Battle of Britain (1969) was one of a cycle of epic international war movies that also included The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Midway, and A Bridge Too Far. MacKenzie documents how producers Harry Saltzman and Benjamin S. Fisz resisted the demands of Hollywood studio executives to make it another version of A Yank in the RAF and insisted on authenticity. Director Guy Hamilton said that his aim was to “destroy the myth” of the battle by showing it “the way it was” (p. 81). MacKenzie shows how, for the first time in the cinematic historiography, Battle of Britain explored the divisions within Fighter Command, particularly the debate between Keith Park and Leigh Mallory (commanders, respectively, of 11 Group and 12 Group of Fighter Command) over the “big wings” advocated by Mallory.

Following the epic treatment of Battle of Britain, most later representations have been on the small screen. London Weekend Television’s ironically titled Piece of Cake (1988) was the first true revisionist account of the battle. It followed the fortunes of the fictitious “Hornet Squadron” from September 1939 to September 1940. Piece of Cake portrayed the “knights of the air” as very human and fallible, in some cases even psychologically flawed, characters. It documents a catalogue of errors, bad tactics and personal rivalries. MacKenzie draws upon an extensive range of contemporary reviews to show how Piece of Cake divided critics. While some admired its boldness, others were outraged by what they regarded as a debunking of the heroic myth of “the Few”. More satisfying was A Perfect Hero (1991), another six-part drama that starred Nigel Havers as a pilot who has to come to terms with severe injuries and undergoes reconstructive surgery after his face is horribly burned. Clearly this story owed a debt to Richard Hillary’s posthumously published The Last Enemy (1942), which had been adapted by the BBC in the 1950s--sadly no tapes of the production have survived. A Perfect Hero attracted significantly more viewers than A Piece of Cake, suggesting that the British public preferred its more melodramatic but less controversial take on the battle.

Each case study here is treated in the same manner. MacKenzie assembles a wealth of primary source material to document the production and reception of each film and tv series, including unpublished papers and diaries, studio records, scripts, the trade press, and a wide range of contemporary reviews. As in his book British War Films, he documents the close relationship between the filmmakers and the Air Ministry forged in the production of the wartime features but that also extended into the postwar period. This sort of official cooperation was important for the filmmakers in order to get the technical details right. One recurring issue that MacKenzie highlights is how difficult it was for filmmakers to get the right sort of aircraft for close-ups. Even in 1952, during the production of Angels One Five, there were only three serviceable Hurricanes available to represent an entire squadron. The producers of Battle of Britain recruited the Spanish air force, which flew Heinkel bombers that resembled the He-111s flown during the battle itself. The same sole Spitfire saw service in A Piece of Cake and A Perfect Hero--but that was a model from later in the war rather than the Mark II in service during the Battle of Britain. MacKenzie’s book will certainly make fascinating reading for those pedants who routinely complain that producers of war films and tv series invariably get the details wrong.

MacKenzie is alert to the methodological issues involved in using film and television as sources. The book is well informed by the relevant historiographical literature. What he demonstrates is how films “can tell us things about the time in which they were made and shown” (p. 3). Thus the propaganda imperative of films like The Lion Has Wings and The First of the Few determined how they represented the RAF. Battle of Britain, in contrast, reflects a revisionist perspective influenced not only by new historical knowledge about the battle itself but also by changing attitudes towards the British experience of war.

MacKenzie’s research is exceptionally thorough and his case studies of the films are always illuminating. There are one or two minor errors and typos: the 1942 Hollywood melodrama Mrs. Miniver becomes Mrs. Minerva (p. 43) and the 1969 Battle of Britain acquires a definite article not present in the on-screen title. I would have liked to see MacKenzie say more about the style of the films. He concentrates on documenting their production and reception but shies away from offering anything in the way of aesthetic analysis. Of course he is right to remind us that “What matters is not how the historian reacts to a particular piece but how people reacted at the time it appeared and afterwards” (p. 4). He feels that Battle of Britain is “rather good” (p. 4). So do I. Part of the reason, I would suggest, is the way in which the climactic dogfight is edited not in terms of conventional film grammar but rather to match William Walton’s music. The visuals of this film come closest to recreating what Angus Calder described as “the surreal topography of air war” in the paintings of war artists such as Paul Nash.[1] I would have liked to know MacKenzie’s take on this aspect of the film. That said, however, this is a most illuminating book that makes a valuable addition not only to the extensive historical literature on the Battle of Britain but also to the field of film and media history.

[1]. Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-45 (1969; London: Pimlico, 1992), 511.

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