THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

"Battle of Britain - The Movie", by Robert J. Rudhall, book excerpt #12
All text by the late Robert J. Rudhall, circa 2000

 

 

On Release

When Battle of Britain was released onto the cinema circuits, 29 years after the real Battle, it was the end of a long, long road for Ben S Fisz and Harry Saltzman. Through much adversity they had eventually triumphed and created a lasting record of RAF Fighter Command's 'Finest Hour'.

The main premiere took place at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London, at 8.30pm on Monday September 15, 1969. It was a glittering occasion and was attended by the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Charles Trinder and the Lady Mayoress, Lady Trinder, who were the guests of honour. Other VIPs included: 350 members of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, not just from the UK, but from as far apart as Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir John Grandy, was also present, as was the man who had led 'The Few' to victory in 1940, Lord Hugh Dowding.

Many of the film's stars were also present, as well as some of the original combatants who had acted as technical advisors on the production. To add to the supreme sense of occasion, the Central Band of the RAF, augmented by the Fanfare Trumpeters, played before and after the film.

Simultaneous UK premieres were also held that night in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Nottingham and Sheffield.

On October 20 a Royal Gala Performance of the film was mounted at the Dominion, and honoured guests for that charity evening, proceeds of which were donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund and the RAF Association, included Her Majesty the Queen, HRH the Prince of Wales, Princess Anne, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, HRH Prince Michael of Kent, HRH Princess Alexandra and the Hon Angus Ogilvy, HRH the Duchess of Gloucester and Chief of the Defence Staff, Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Elworthy.

All over the world, the film took centre stage, with star-studded premieres in Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Spain, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, and Portugal. France debuted Battle of Britain at the Palais de Chailot, which seated 26,000 people. It was a high profile charity occasion, sponsored by President Georges Pompidou, which benefited the Free French, the Comite de Liberation and the RAF Association.

Searchlights picked out aircraft which flew over in a special night-time flypast, and after the showing there was a spectacular firework display at the nearby Eiffel Tower.

Prior to the premieres the film company's publicity machine had been working overtime. All through production there had been regular news updates in the national press and television on the film's progress. Leonard Mosley's book on the making of the film had been serialised in one of the major Sunday newspapers in the weeks leading up to the premiere. Independent Television (lTV) screened an hour-long documentary, Battle for the Battle of Britain, produced by Christopher Doll, at 10.45pm on September 13. This 'behind the scenes' look at the production's trials and tribulations had previously been shown on the American NBC network on September 7.

On September 5, Douglas Bader, and Ginger Lacey, along with some of the film's cast, were present at the 'switching on' ceremony of the Blackpool Illuminations. In Maya special exhibition on the film, including large scale Heinkel and Spitfire replicas, plus a recreation of a Fighter Command 1940 operations room, was opened at Madame Tussauds, London's famous waxworks museum.

While all the pre-publicity was flooding the UK and the rest of the globe, the producers could not do anything to combat the critics and the sometimes less than enthusiastic reviews which followed the film's release. 'Not So Hot, This Epic' proclaimed one national newspaper, which went on to say: Certainly it has good, even magnificent moments, no one could sit through the great aerial ballets without being awed and stirred. Compared with machines, human beings have a raw deal. There is no one the audience can identify with, feel for. The one attempt to introduce a substantial human story - a husband and wife torn by separate war obligations - is trite and unconvincing. The film-makers claim that they wanted documentary authenticity. They may not have adjusted history, but they have thrown no revealing light on it either. Sorry to go on, but when a film is fanfared so loudly as this one, can we be blamed for expecting wonders. Others were not quite so scathing with their critiques: 'In 133 minutes, the terror and courage which is called their finest hour'. Director Guy Hamilton and his team of expert technicians and fliers have strikingly caught the atmosphere of those weeks of destiny. All this, without mock heroics, is brought out in this compelling picture. It is studded with stars and feature players but the real stars are the planes - many of them old crates that fought in the campaign. Considering the wide scope of the subject the producers have done a fine job which will both entertain and, I think, inspire.

In subsequent years, film-listing books have not been so kind. One well known tome describes it as a plodding attempt to cover an historical event from too many angles and with too many guest stars, all indistinguishable from each other when masked in the cockpit during the repetitive and interminable dogfight sequences. Another regarded it as a well-meaning but unexciting all star extravaganza made to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1940 aerial attack on England. A few good cameos, some gripping dogfights and stirring music, but the best thing is the photography. A bit out of its time; the public didn't really want to know, and it lost money, while a third says: This stirring if slightly overlong saga of England's WWlI defence of its homeland features a staggering star-studded cast, with excellent portrayals down the line, despite the restrictions of their roles. Olivier is in fine form as Sir Hugh Dowding, whose crafty tactics with his limited fighter command induced the Luftwaffe to make fatal errors. Except for Jurgens, however, the German actors are mere caricatures of the Nazi high command, with Rolf Stiefel especially ludicrous as a berserk Hitler. The dogfights between the British and German fighters are spectacular and fascinating.

On the whole, Battle of Britain has not enjoyed a good critique over the years. 'While it may have been made at the wrong time for the cinema audiences to appreciate it, it was made at the right time in terms of the aircraft that appeared in it! Even in this day and age, when the worldwide warbird movement is seemingly in full swing, Battle of Britain could not be re-made, although having said that, with computer-generated images, almost anything is possible in the cinema! Even though the film company had gathered together the 35th largest air force in the world, many say that better use could have been made of the aerial hardware. That apart, Battle of Britain remains a supreme celluloid example of two air forces fighting it out in the skies above England.

Promotions and Marketing Merchandise

The publicity campaign for Battle of Britain was one of the biggest that had been mounted for any motion picture for a long time, and at the time of the film's release a wealth of promotional merchandising was available in many forms. Dinky, the well-known toy and model manufacturer, released a pair of metal Spitfire II and Junkers Ju 87B models. The Spitfire featured a motorised propeller and the Stuka came complete with a cap-firing bomb. Frog models issued a trio of' paired 'aircraft kits, Spitfire & Ju 88, Blenheim & Messerschmitt Bf I09F and Hurricane & Ju 87G Stuka.

Weidenfeld and Nicolson published Leonard Mosley's The Battle of Britain the making of a film in hardback for the princely sum of 50 shillings (or 2.50 in today's currency). The Narrow Margin, the book by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster, on which the film's screenplay was based, was re-issued in large format softback, with full colour cover photographs from the film. Pan Books published a series of eight paperbacks, which included a softback version of Mosley's film book, plus, Ginger Lacey -Fighter Pilot, Squadron Airborne, Fighter Pilot, The Last Enemy, Full Circle, Eagle Day and Aircraft of the Battle of Britain, all of which sported new covers featuring the fi 1m's logo.

J Arthur Dixon, the Isle-of-Wight-based postcard manufacturer, was granted a licence to market a series of 32 colour postcards featuring scenes from the film. These could also be mounted in a special album, which contained information about the film and the action depicted on the postcards. The complete set came supplied in a commemorative display box.

BPC Publishing/PurneIl produced a series of picture books, colouring books, push-out model books and jigsaws based on the film, while Jackdaw Publications issued a 'Battle of Britain Folder', which contained reproduction documents, maps and a whole host of 1940-related material. United Artists Records released the original soundtrack recording from the film (see Music Maketh the Movie) on a 33 1/3rpm long playing record (UAS 29019), plus a 45rpm single which featured the Battle of Britain Theme on the 'A' side and Luftwaffe March on the '"B' side (UP 35040), both played by Ron Goodwin.

A & B C Chewing Gum Ltd produced a set of bubblegum cards, issued in packs of seven for 6d. The full set of 66 cards showed scenes from the film in colour, plus facsimile front pages from the Daily Mirror newspapers of 1940. Plaistow Press marketed a set of eight 17 x 23in posters showing various aerial scenes from the film, as well as some of the actors. Printed on glossy art card they retailed at 7s 6d each, or 50s for the full set. Wells Soft Drinks produced a series of bottled fizzy drinks with a special 'Bottle' of Britain film label. These were not available for purchase over shop counters, instead being used as a promotional tool for the various cinemas and theatres showing the film throughout the UK.

The film was released on video (VHS PAL) for the first time in 1983, when Warner Home Video (WHV) issued it in large box format (PEV 99292). Since then Battle of Britain has been re-issued on a regular basis. WHV PES 99292 in 1988 (subtitles are missing off some copies of this issue), MGM/UA Home Video S035588 (double feature with 633 Squadron) in 1993, MGM/UA S051522 in 1996, and MGMfUAS057151 in 1998. This latter release included a collectors colour film synopsis card inside with details of the cast and storyline. This issue also featured a widescreen version of the cinema theatrical trailer, although curiously this was not present on all copies of the tape. In the USA and Canada the film is currently available on MGM/UA Home Video M301522, although this version is in the NTSC format and is not playable on VHS PAL machines apart from those equipped with dual play mode. At the time of this book going to press the only widescreen version ofthe film ever released on the domestic market has been on laserdisc, MGM MLI01522.

Shown on British television (BBC 1) for the first time on September 15,1974 (five years to the day of its premiere). All the major television channels serving the UK (satellite included) have since broadcast Battle of Britain, but at the time of writing it has only been shown in widescreen-style format once.

While it did not win any 'Oscars' and in this day and age is often looked upon as just an ordinary film, it holds a special place in the hearts of aircraft enthusiasts the world over. It was an incredible achievement to gather so many 'real' vintage aircraft together just for a film. As 'aircraft films' go it was indeed a milestone, which took a great deal of courage, skill and determination to make. Had it not been for the likes of Ben S Fisz, Harry Saltzman Guy Hamilton and Hamish Mahaddie, you would probably not be reading this book today.

As one 'kind' film critic of the day put it "There will never be another aviation film quite like it".

 

 

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