THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
article from Flypast Magazine, September 1989
The Battle of Britainby Francois Prins
Twenty years ago the epic film Battle of Britain was premiered. Francois Prins starts a two part feature on the making of an exceptional movie.
BENJAMIN FISZ is a highly respected member of the film
business, and over the years has produced some fine films, one that stands out
is the epic Battle of Britain. Although it was not a massive money-maker, it
remains closest to Fisz's heart. Hardly surprising since it took so many years
of sheer hard work to bring to the screen!
Ben Fisz escaped the Nazi hoards and came to this country before the war, he joined the RAF in 1940 and was posted to 303 (Polish) Squadron -"I missed the Battle of Britain" - he flew Spitfire Vs, IXs and XIVs, later he was transferred to 315 Squadron and flew Mustangs. the last aircraft he flew in RAF service were the early Meteors. He left and joined the infant post-war film industry.
Inspired by the 'Battle', Ben asked Freddie Thomas at Rank Films, "what do you think about a film on the Battle of Britain?" There was silence at the other end for a while and then he said, "why not"? So we started work on getting the film organised.
The Rank Organisation was then headed by the tyranical Sir John Davis, who often made things difficult for many people, his company owned the screen rights of two books on the Battle and they put pressure on Fisz to use them. One was the excellent Dempster and Wood's The Narrow Margin - Rank were to provide some of the money and Fisz was to raise the rest. He worked quickly and raised sufficient capital to get the project moving.
One of the first items on the agenda was aircraft. The film would be in wide-screen and colour, therefore newsreel footage could not be used. He was insistent that aircraft looked the part, the Spitfires would have to have raised backs and not the later 'tear-drop' canopy variants. To co-ordinate the aircraft Fisz contacted Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, who had left the RAF and set up as an aviation consultant for the film industry. (See page 22 .)
Costs for the film began to creep up and then their choice for the screenplay. Sir Terrance Rattigan, pulled out. Things looked bad for Fisz, then the Rank Organisation began to apply pressure to take over the project totally. Ben Fisz was unhappy, it was his 'baby' and he felt very personally about it, in some ways it was his way of showing his gratitude to Britain for giving him freedom from the Nazi regime, and a new start in life.
Word of Fisz's 'Battle' troubles soon got around in the small world of the film industry.
Harry Saltzman and his partner in Eon films, Albert Broccoli, had made an outstanding success of the James Bond films and thus had money to invest. Saltzman called Fisz and said he would like to come in as co-producer. As far as he was concerned it was "Benny's picture, I just put some money in" - although he did much more than that - Saltzman was enthusiastic about the project, he had also seen wartime service as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Saltzman and Fisz began to structure the film together.
First choice as director was Lewis Gilbert, who had made such fine films as Albert RN, Reach for the Sky, Sink the Bismarck and a score of several other action movies. He was keen to direct Battle of Britain but time was against him and he had to move on to other projects, including a James Bond film for Eon.
Saltzman suggested Guy Hamilton, who had also worked on the Bond films and several other major productions. At first Hamilton was uncertain about the idea, but as he read about the conflict of 1940 he became totally absorbed by the project and threw himself into it. Hamilton wanted to show the battle as it was, no sides would be taken, the Germans would not be made figures of comedy, it would be almost documentary. His ideas agreed with Fisz and Saltzman.
"Narrow Margin was our Bible" explained Guy Hamilton, "when Ben and I were working on it we referred to it constantly. Something that was a problem was the many experts we had on hand! They would insist they knew the Germans tactics, that was in retrospect! They had all read the same books I had! Ginger (Lacey) was the only honest one and he became my right hand man for the RAF."
With co-writer James Kennaway -the gifted author of several books including the acclaimed Tunes of Glory -Hamilton and his co-writers, initially James Kennaway and later Wilfred Greatorex, set about reading everything about the Battle of Britain. They looked at original records, archive film and spoke to leading figures on both sides of the battle.
Things were now firmly on the move, Spitfire Productions was formed to make the film and Fisz hoped for a release in September 1967 for Battle of Britain Day. Things did not go smoothly and the dates were moved on, then on September 23, 1966 the Rank Organisation wrote to Ben Fisz and pulled out of the deal. The two producers looked elsewhere for a film company, the giant American groups were not interested in an all British war epic -no box office there. Eventually, United Artists entered the scene as the distribution company.
Meanwhile, Guy Hamilton was progressing with the writing, the Germans were unhappy, they, naturally, felt they would be shown in a bad light. Adolf Galland was convinced that the Germans would be seen running away as cowards. It took all Ben Fisz's persuasion to change Galland's mind.
Galland was to be one of the German technical advisers and after reading the Hamilton-Kennaway-Greatorex scripts he came over to the idea of the film. Galland could see that it was being as factual as possible and there was no 'top-dog' gloating stuff. From the start the producers had insisted that "In this picture there is no horrible Hun and no handsome hero".
Key characters like Dowding, Park, LeighMallory, Goering and Milch needed to be portrayed. Characters like Skipper played by the late Robert Shaw were based on Sailor Malan and the cigar smoking Falke (Manfred Reddemann) is based on the cigar-smoking Adolf Galland, and in the film Falke says to Goering, "Give me a squadron of Spitfires" just as Galland did in 1940! Apart from that the pilots, on both sides. are an amalgam of characters from that conflict.
"We offered the part of Dowding to Sir Alec Guiness" said Fisz, "and he was keen to play the part, he visited Dowding a couple of times to discuss the role". As the film schedule altered so Guiness had to drop out to take on other contracted work and the role had to be re-cast.
"Someone told me that Lawrence (now the late Lord) Olivier looked like Dowding" said Fisz, "and we asked him to take the role. He was very enthusiastic and spent much time with Dowding to get the role right. You know Lord Dowding had a cataract operation simply so that he would be able to see the completed film." Hamish Mahaddie says about Dowding, "It (the film) gave him another year to live, he really got involved and you could see it meant so much to him."
Money was running out and Saltzman had to 'hustle' backers to obtain more funds. Robert Diemart's Hurricane, which had been shipped over from Canada, had to return there once more before being brought back for filming. There were delays and the original release date to co-inc ide with the RAF's 50th anniversary was forgotten. By early 1968 things were getting together, but still not one camera had turned and not one foot of film was in the can.
In late January 1968 construction crews were flown to Spain to start work on Huelva beach, Tablada and El Coporo airfields near Seville and then at San Sebastian. The airfields adjoined each other and would feature the 'Heinkels' and, for the film, they had to be dressed to resemble French Luftwaffe bases. German camouflage and markings were applied to the aircraft and buildings, signs in German put up and various buildings altered by the film unit.
Huelva beach doubled for Dunkirk. A team led by art director Maurice Carter scattered vehicles and assorted props showing the loss by the British Expeditionary Force during the weeks that preceded the air struggle to be depicted.
San Sebastian was to double as Berlin of 1940 for the bombing sequence. Spitfire Productions were delighted with this town as suitably dressed it looked the part. Locals were used as extras and during rehearsals they kept smiling into the cameras, so David Bracknell, the second unit director had to warn them that if they persisted they would be sent home with no pay! Suitably chastened, they acted perfectly as terrified Berliners!
At Pinewood Studios in Britain three 120'x80' 'factory tents' had been erected in which to construct replica aircraft for the film. Built by Ken Softly and his team they were made in wood, fibre-glass and fabric, some were fitted with motor-cycle engines for propeller spinning. They were used mostly for set-dressing and destruction. Seen close-up they are not totally convincing, but are more than acceptable on film. Some half-sided replicas were also produced for use in explosions and set dressing at a distance.
A superb full-size replica Heinkel was also made for a crash scene, it was well detailed and looked excellent on screen - it weighed six tons!
Ben Fisz had lived Battle of Britain for many years and at long last it looked like the first scenes were ready for filming. His cast list had grown to include Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Kenneth More, Edward Fox, Curt Jurgens and many more well-known actors.
Initially Rex Harrison was cast as Keith Park, but he dropped out and was replaced by the late Trevor Howard who gave a fine performance as the New Zealander. Park himself was unhappy when he heard about the film, he thought the old 'Park versus Leigh-Mallory business would be raked up. He wrote to Dowding who re-assured him that the film's producers were being as factual as possible and that he (Dowding) was being consulted about events.
Sir Douglas Bader visited Park, in New Zealand, and was also able to set any doubts to rest. The film does show the differences between the two men and one is left to draw one's own conclusions.
Main unit photography was directed by F A (Freddie) Young, multi-Oscar winner and one of the greatest of the world's cinematographers. His list of credits, apart from the classic pre-war Alfred Hitchcock films, include Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and several other 'epics'. Freddie Young is totally professional and highly talented, it is always a joy to see his work.
Aerial photography was directed by David Bracknell and Guy Hamilton - the quality of their work is readily assessed by the forty-odd minutes of combat footage in Battle of Britain.
Two years pre-production work was nearing the end, it was almost time for Guy Hamilton to call 'action' for the first time in front of the wide-screen Panavision cameras fully loaded with 70mm colour film stock.
Tablada airfield near Seville; March 13, 1968, the entire main film unit assembled to shoot the sequence which would precede the main titles. Lined up, having shed their transport roles, are two lines of 'Heinkel He 111s', complete with guns and in full 1940 Luftwaffe camouflage. A few weeks earlier (January 20) a Spanish pilot, Don Federico Eglesias Lanzas, was killed test flying a Bf 109, so one minute's silence was observed before the days work began.
First there were rehearsals for the scene with Dietrich Frauboes as General Milch, showing him climbing out of a Ju 52 (CASA 352L) into a Mercedes staff car and inspecting the superb line-up of He 111 aircraft and crews, supported be his retinue. Rehearsals for the shot, which is quite long and complicated, carried on through the morning. The light was poor and it was not until 3pm that the Panavision cameras started rolling to Hamilton's cry "Action!" The first of over five thousand separate shots was in the can.
Adolf Galland appeared at Tablada on March 23 and flew a Bf 109 two-seater with Commandante Pedro Santa Cruz, who was Spain's greatest test pilot and headed the Spanish flight team. Galland had not flown a Bf 109 since the war, but he put on a superb display and showed those gathered exactly why he was held in such high esteem, not only by the Luftwaffe but also by pilots in the RAF.
Hamish Mahaddie: "To bring the Messerschmitts back to wartime configuration we had to delete the wing-tips, about eighteen inches each side and also add struts to the tailplanes. Santa Cruz did the test flying of the modified aircraft and I remember after the first flight he landed and said to me, "El Hamish, it is good, I do not know why we fitted them in the first place!" He was a superb pilot and a very nice man, he was killed in an accident not long after we completed Battle.
Santa Cruz had flown in the Spanish Civil War, as had Galland, they were old friends and between them there was little they did not know about the Bf 109 and combat flying in general. Both men were able to contribute valuable information to the film to obtain authenticity.
Reichmarshall Hermann Goering was an impressive figure, clad in 'designer' uniforms of rather dubious taste and a chest bedecked with medals. The Luftwaffe was his own weapon of war, they had won every battle from the early fights in Spain to the domination of Western Europe.
Hitler regarded him, in 1940, as the hero of Nazi Germany, he had delivered the goods and could do no wrong. With this knowledge and brimming with success he was rather pleased with himself. He was a tragi-comic figure and in the years that have passed since the war he has been made a clown. In real-life the man was far from that, 'he was a cunning rather treacherous person who used his position to great advantage. This had to be portrayed on screen, Hamilton was firm on that point, he was to be seen as the man we have just described.
Galland knew him and had no love for him but he also wanted Goering portrayed accurately. The search for an actor to play the part was quite difficult, eventually Hein Riess was chosen, he was a German light opera star and this would be quite out of his normal roles.
Riess was made for the part. Off-set he was a jolly nice friendly German actor, laughing and joking with the unit, even in the amazing uniforms. When 'action' was called he became Herman Goering. His performance is a delight and one wishes he could be seen more often. Riess had seen Goering during the war and only accepted the role after he read the part and saw that the character had been properly treated.
There are some superb moments of high comedy, when he gleefully sees the vast armada heading for Britain, and of tense drama when Goering furiously takes his pilots to task after the failure of Alder Tag. One scene with Hein Riess caused great problems and brought the unit almost to a halt.
On March 29, 1968 the main unit were completing scenes with
Goering's train at Irurzun station, doubling for one In France (the mountains in
the background give the game away) . Here Goering is taking his leave after a
tour of inspection - he was not happy.
Watching the scene being shot was Colonel Brustellin -ex Luftwaffe and General Galland, both technical advisers. Galland had brought the famous General Osterkamp, once his boss, to watch the scene being shot. Osterkamp had been present at the real location in 1940.
Guy Hamilton called 'action ' the scene progressed, Goering loses his temper and shouts at Osterkamp and Kesselring as the train pulls out while the other officers give a standard military salute, Kesselring is seen to give the Nazi salute. Adolf Galland rushed onto the set shouting. The cameras were still turning and Hamilton, quite rightly, was furious. Ben Fisz remembers it well!
"On the German side we had several highranking officers from the Luftwaffeas advisers. Galland and Steinhoff were two, and Galland was very difficult at times, there are two incidents I remember clearly. In the scene just described Galland went beserk and shouted, 'We never gave the Nazi salut, never! Always the military salute' and he threatened to walk off the film unless we removed this section or refilmed it with a standard salute. He would have called a press conference and given his reasons for leaving the film . I have a letter from him about this. However, I decided to do some research.
"I discovered that Field-Marshal Milch was still alive, he was of course the father of the Luftwaffe. We went to see him in Germany, a small man, very bright and very nice. He told me, 'I was mesmerised by Adolf Hitler, we all were, you see we thought we were going to win, but like the races I backed the wrong horse!'
"He went on to explain that they gave the Nazi salute as a matter of course and as a mark of respect to Hitler. Galland had never been a Nazi, he was a professional soldier. Kesselring and Goering were Party members. In fact Kesselring was an army man who transferred to the Luftwaffe. There was certainly no love between Galland and Milch, he disliked Galland". Armed with this information he persuaded Galland to come and see the scene and then decide. By now Galland was not communicating with the unit, except through his lawyer.
Galland, accompanied by his lawyer, joined Fisz, Tom Gleve and several others at Pinewood to view the completed scene. In the darkness of the theatre they watched it twice, Galland's lawyer stated that they did not object to the scene, but Galland did add that he thought the Nazi salute was not necessary! Ben Fisz and Harry Saltzman has saved the day once again and Galland said he would like to start as if nothing had happened. (Continued in the October issue, when filming starts in Britain.)
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