In 1955 it was the most popular movie at the British box office. In 1999 the BFI named it the 68th greatest British film of the 20th Century. Now, 62 years since its original release and 13 years since the events depicted, The Dam Busters is back in newly remastered 4K. Regarded by many as the greatest war film of all time, it’s easy to see why upon rewatching. Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on the 16/17th of May 1943 by Royal Air Force no.617 Squadron. Of the 133 aircrew who took part, 53 died and 3 were captured. There were estimated to be 1,600 German casualties as a result of the floods caused by the destruction of the dams. Winston Churchill called it a “gallant operation” that caused “unparalleled devastation”.
The purpose of the mission? To destroy the dams and reservoirs of the Ruhr valley, which fed the industrial powerhouse of the Nazi state. Although the area had been identified as possible targets in the late 1930s, and noted engineer Barnes Wallis had been developing a suitable bomb since 1940, Operation Chastise was essentially a frantic race against time after only being given official approval in February 1943.
The first section of the film focuses on aeronautical engineer Wallis’ (Michael Redgrave) struggling to devise a means of destroying the dams in the hop of crippling German industry. It becomes an all-consuming struggle, as he later notes ‘There’s such a thin line dividing between inspiration and obsession.’ His idea of a bouncing bomb is the closest anyone has come to sure-fire, and yet everyone seems reluctant to go ahead. Friends in high places results in approval from the Prime Minister himself. The second act focuses on the hurried preparations and the third act on the operation in action.
The film, what is essentially a docudrama, is perfectly constructed for maximum impact. We feel Walli’s frustrations and grow as infuriated as he does at the obstacles he faces. We then meet the air force team he’ll who will be carrying out his project – the various problems that occur and the incidental day-to-day interactions between the young men. Then there’s the action which truly holds its own decades later. Even though we know the end result there’s still an incredible amount of tension being generated within these sequences. We watch each bomb be dropped, intercut with reactions back at headquarters, as we experience sympathy anxiety & nerves. We too wait with dreaded anticipation that this great plan, that we bore witness to its creation, development and now possible/hopeful fruition plays out. That’s how good the film is – even though we know the story we fear that things may go wrong, even when we know they don’t.
What really makes this film so significant is how it ends. Not with a bang, nor a whimper, but a nod and acknowledgment to the lives lost in the process. Upon realising that his project has resulted in the deaths of young men he worked alongside so intensively for months, Wallis’ expresses regret – even wishing he’d never devised the plan at all. The response to this is simillar to the one the audience of 1955 would have experienced, a nod to the loss but an acknowledgment and appreciation of their sacrifice. It’s a quiet and reserved moment in a film filled with them, stiff-upper-lip terrority in a film that is patriotic without losing its poignancy.
Dir: Michael Anderson
Scr: Paul Brickhill (book, Guy Gibson (account),
Cast: Richard Todd, Michael Redgrave, Ursula Jeans, Basil Sydney, Patrick Barr.
Prd: Robert Clark, W. A. Whittaker
DOP: Erwin Hillier
Music: Leighton Lucas
Run time: 124 minutes
A brand new restoration of The Dam Busters is out on DVD from June 4th.