THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
article from Aeroplane, October 1999
Echoes of The Battle of Britain
Thirty years ago this September the film Battle of Britain had its premiere at the Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London. TONY HARMSWORTH considers the film's legacy, and interviews its director
Of the multitude of film technicians, actors. artists,
engineers, assistants and advisers that were gathered together in various parts
of Europe during the spring and summer of 1968 to recreate the greatest of all
air battles, one wonders how m(1ny could have realised that the product of their
labours would, thirty years on, still habitually be known simply as "the film"
to a large number of people in the aviation world.
Their production succeeded in bringing a piece of recent history to a new generation whose schooling was more likely to have familiarised them with the Plantageners and the Middle Ages than the crucial events in which their own parents played a part. But, more than any other single event, it also lit the fuze for today's explosion of interest in warbird preservation and operation. And so, 30 years after the main film location at Duxford played host to the film's Merlin-powered heroes. increasing numbers of their brethren gather for airshows to continue the work the film producers started.
Sadly. as the number of airworthy Hurricanes, Spitfires and Messerschmitts steadily increases, so the number of surviving pilots and groundcrew who had first-hand experience of the real Battle diminishes year by year. The same applies to the makers of the film - but the director, Guy Hamilton, is now enjoying retirement in Spain, and made a rare visit to London recently. Having also directed four James Bond films and assisted Carol Reed on The Third Man, it was likely that big demands would be made on his short time in the UK; but he very kindly agreed to meet me at a hotel in Knightsbridge.
Photographs of a very serious, unsmiling Guy Hamilton taken on set in 1968 show a man who had the responsibility to bring in the biggest film made in Britain that year, and to tell the story of one of the most momentous events in British history from various angles, with even-handedness and accuracy. In order to direct Battle he had turned down several big film offers (including one from Frank Sinatra). which he had received following the success of his previous film, Funeral in Berlin.
The Guy Hamilton I met over coffee at the hotel could not have been more different from the stern images recorded on the set, and he was was happy to talk about any aspect of the making of Battle, even though he has not seen the film for more than 20 years. I first asked about how he came to direct the film and how involved he had been in researching the Battle.
"Being an ex-Navy man I was a natural choice for the film", replied Hamilton, who had served on torpedo-boats during the war. "Producers Ben Fisz and Harry Saltzman thought I would be ideal because I could approach the subject fresh and had no vested interest. Before starting research I did not know an awful lot about the Battle, but after more than a year of reading all the hooks and first-hand accounts that had been published, and interviewing a great many veterans, including Air Chief Marshal Dowding, we had a good overall picture of what had happened and when."
It soon emerged, quite understandably, that many of the pilots had been so involved with their own squadron that they did not get the whole picture at the time. "I entrusted Ginger Lacey to be my main adviser", enthused Hamilton. "He really was a good chap, totally invaluable, and he admitted that he learned a lot about the Battle (in which he shot down a greater number of enemy aeroplanes than anyone else) during his time on the film."
Sir Hugh Dowding, C-in-C of Fighter Command during the Battle, was consulted regularly during pre-production. His minder said that "the 86-year-old Air Chief Marshal, who was wheelchair-bound, had been bored and not far from death until the researchers turned up, asking awkward questions and going at it in a slightly unconventional way, as many film people do. He really perked up, and said he was determined he was not going to die until he had attended the premiere."
During the research period certain details of the German Enigma code machines were still secret, and Guy Hamilton says "We couldn't help but wonder about certain facts concerning tactics, in particular the II Group/12 Group 'Big Wing' question. Dowding had taken a bit of stick regarding certain decisions, and it was obvious he wanted to put the record straight on a couple of points, but because these facts were to remain classified for a couple more years he kept quiet. I was very moved by his loyalty and honour."
Relations between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar were particularly strained during 1968, so the loan of the Spanish Air Force Heinkel fleet to the film company, free of charge, has always been a bit of a mystery. "The reason we got them," says Hamilton, "is that we had Rolls-Royce on board with technical support. The Heinkels were all powered by Rolls-Royce Merlins, and there was an implicit threat that if the Spanish did not show friendliness, the supply of engines and spares to them in the future may prove uneconomical!"
It had been intended to paint the markings on to the Heinkels in Spain, but this was found to wash off in cloud, so the 3M company provided self-adhesive crosses and swastikas. Guy Hamilton remembers: "A senior Spanish officer told me early on that, at a date towards the end of the Spanish schedule, General Franco had decided that even though Spain was not a member of NATO, the Heinkels would be needed for a ceremonial flypast after a NATO exercise in the Atlantic. The date was forgotten, until one day he said that the flypast was the following day, and the German markings would have to come off all 32 aircraft. and the Spanish roundels reapplied. The stick-on markings were expensive and in very short supply, so after some frenzied talks it was decided that they would stay on for the flypast."
Hamilton broke into a broad grin and continued, "f would love to have seen the faces on the saluting base when waves of Swastika-emblazoned bombers cruised by at low level."
I asked Guy about the notorious problems provided by the weather during the summer of 1968. "When we were filming the scenes where Hurricanes are taking off from Duxford's grass, in this case representing a French airfield, one day's heavy rain could take a further day or two to dry sufficiently to allow taxying. We couldn't use the hard runway because it would be inaccurate. It could be a miserable process, sitting around with all that money being used up."
Regarding the choreography of the large Heinkel scenes, Hamilton says, "We could spend half the day doing marvellous briefings with diagrams, models and plans, but when everyone got up there and on station, because of radio and language problems the plans often counted for nothing, and it became a lot more 'snatch and grab' and spontaneous than we had intended."
The Spitfire scenes in England also caused problems. "The differential performance of the various marks of Spitfire, not to mention the quirks of the individual aircraft themselves, often meant that by the time the last aircraft had joined up behind the B-25 cameraship, the lead aeroplane might be running low on fuel and radioed to return to base. One transient pass might be all you got."
The large radio-controlled models of Heinkels and Stukas which would be blasted out of the sky in the combat scenes also had teething problems. During early trials near Pinewood Studios, radio interference from a local firm of radio cabs resulted in parts of the fleet falling out of the sky before a camera had rolled, so they moved off to Malta, where the cabs were non-radio - and, equally importantly, it was less windy.
One of the major controversies during filming concerned the Nazi salute offered by General Milch in the scene when Goering boards his train after berating senior officers. Adolf Galland objected to the salute, and his reason fordoing so, according to Guy Hamilton, was "because he was involved in selling Starfighters to West Germany, and straight-armed salutes were unlikely to go down well with the people at Lockheed." Galland later dropped his objection after contact from "some old French Resistance friends of mine", says Hamilton (who himself had worked in France for a while during the Occupation).
Identifying the individual pilots in full flying kit, with their masks on, has always been a problem in flying films. Guy Hamilton says "In many previous war films, you may remember actors like John
Wayne having their masks dangling down, so you can tell who is who. We wanted it to be accurate, so we had the pilots wearing the masks, but that may have led to a bit of confusion. I don't really know how you deal with that one."
One scene that Hamilton had talked about filming, but didn't get to shoot was to show a decadent Hermann Goering reclining on a bed at the Ritz Hotel in the Pas-de-Calais, examining paintings that had been plundered from various French galleries and chateaux, while speaking on the telephone and watching the Heinkels heading out across the Channel through the open windows. "Goering was describing the loot to his wife and family on the phone", says Hamilton, "and boasting to them that the sound in the background was that of his beloved bomber fleet which would flatten Britain within a week." This would have been a powerful historically accurate scene, but it would have been too technically difficult and expensive to pull off.
Hamilton says he takes little pleasure in watching the films he has directed. "There are sequences you like", he reflects, "but most of it you hate because you know what you should have done next, and what could have been done better." But before he left for his next appointment I tried to convey to him what the film did for the preservation movement, and that the previous week's formations of Spitfires at Duxford's Flying Legends Air Show would probably never have happened had it not been for the film. "I am delighted to hear that," he said, "Because it will enable people, above all to remember the pilots and crews who fought the real Battle, to whom we owe everything."
Back to Magazine Articles index page
Click here if navigation bar is not visible on the left