Classic Film Review: “The Dam Busters (1955)” tale that Peter Jackson wants to remake

I dare say Peter Jackson’s given up on his plans to remake a favorite war film from his childhood, 1955’s “The Dam Busters.” He started talking it up upon release of the last of his Hobbit films, and figured since he’d brought Middle Earth to life, surely he could recreate one of the most celebrated technical and aviation feats of World War II with state of the art effects.

Or so he told me and other journalists at the time.

But the last update on that “road blocked” project hints that he might never get to do it. He’s made his WWI documentary and is cutting together a Beatles one. Perhaps he’s had to move on. World War II movies are kind of passe, unless you’re Christopher Nolan.

As Joel Coen told me of his failed efforts to turn James Dickey’s terrific WWII novel “To the White Sea” into a movie, “If they won’t let you make it when you’ve got Brad Pitt as star, it won’t get made.”

The original “Dam Busters,” directed by Michael Anderson (“Around the World in 80 Days”) was nobody’s idea of a “star vehicle.” The acting is fine, the human dramatics almost an afterthought. The heroics would be understated, the emphasis on “team.” So Anderson treated the story like a heist picture, a WWII thriller about the technical challenges provided by an exceptionally difficult “heist,” as it were.

Very British, very “Italian Job” without the laughs.

A British engineer and aircraft designer, Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave), took the pre-war research that told the Royal Air Force that the key to crippling German industry was to strike the Ruhr Valley, added his own math that figured “it takes 100 tons of water to make a ton of steel,” and set his mind to puncturing the hydroelectric dams there.

No water, no electricity, flood a few mines and swamp some factories and “Jerry” won’t be able to build the planes and tanks it takes to defend itself. As the dams had anti-aircraft defenses and torpedo netting to stymy any attempts to get at them, and were massively thick, built out of concrete or wide earth dikes, that was always going to be a “sticky wicket.”

Wallis decided he’d need massive bombs, the biggest yet built. What’s more, they’d need to skip across the water to clear the anti-torpedo cables, roll down the face of the dam and explode.

One of the cool things that the longer cut of “The Dam Busters” just released by Film Movement emphasizes is how little “explaining” Wallis does in the film’s first act. Not everyone would “get” the science and math of figuring out a bomb, with added water pressure behind it, could breach an over-engineered (very thick concrete) German dam. Why belabor it?

So “Dam Busters,” filmed at a time when the story was fresh on the British public’s mind (ten years after WWII), became just a story of “bouncing bombs” and how to make them bounce.

That short gap in time meant that this film, like all the others in Britain’s peak decade and a half of WWII nostalgia, had access to the one special effect they didn’t dare fake — Avro Lancaster bombers, still flyable, with the best pilots who flew them available to bring them down for the low altitude runs that made the bouncing bombs skip, an effect which absolutely “makes” the movie.

A big reason Peter Jackson wanted to remake the film is that it can be realized with more of a human and heroic bent. Another might have been an ongoing affection for the famed “Dam Busters March” music by Leighton Lucas. But the most compelling had to be the effects. They were, even by the standards of the 1950s, primitive to the point of rubbish.

Hand painting unconvincing tracer bullets, frame by frame, onto the combat scenes and the saddest excuse for post-production “explosions” mar “The Dam Busters” and so date it that it’s almost hard to watch the tense, climactic third act.

Remaking it would mean fixing that, although any filmmaker would have to fake the film’s most important effect, which Jackson must have realized was the fleet of 1940s vintage Avro Lancasters, still in flying and fighting trim.

Real aircraft in movies like this matter. Christopher Nolan would never have faked a Spitfire to put Tom Hardy in over “Dunkirk.”

The easiest “fix” in a remake would be leaving out Group Commander Gibson’s (Richard Todd) dog, a black lab historically and unfortunately named for a racial slur. The poor fellow is in scene after scene, reminding us there’ll always be an England, and that the English invented most of the world’s racial slurs.

Redgrave, of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” as well as “The Captive Heart” and an early version of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” gives our workaholic scientist all the pluck and whimsy the character can handle. Sure, he was making a weapon of war that would kills thousands and lead to the deaths of dozens of airmen attempting “the impossible.” But Wallis here is the inventor of “work the problem.” That parks the exploit in the realm of other moments of British WWII military ingenuity — the sinking of the battleship Tirpitz, the commando raids on Norway’s heavy water facilities and other targets.

Redgrave also gets to perform the most patrician comeback in all of WWII cinema. The Vickers Aircraft employee is hard-pressed to carry out flight tests of smaller prototype bombs, there being “a war on” and all that. A bureaucrat wants to know how in the heck he’s supposed to convince the higher-ups to peel off a frontline Wellington bomber for Wallis’s use on such tests.

“Well, if you told them I designed it, do you think that might help?”

Anderson went on to direct films well into my reviewing career (“Millennium” came out in the late ’80s), with many an actioner or thriller following his “Around the World in 80 Days” peak. The big budget sci-fi cult film “Logan’s Run” was the best known of his later credits.

Look for a “I’m new to film acting” turn by Robert Shaw, a flight crew member with a couple of scenes and a couple of lines, paving the way to “A Man for All Seasons” and “Jaws.”

But the best reason to catch up with this classic is to try and see what Peter Jackson sees in it, a peculiarly British sort of war film built on problem solving, a movie that includes lots of actual in-flight test run footage, and wonder if there’s enough computing power available to fake everything from bombs to bombers if this ever does get remade.

MPA Rating: Approved (racial slur advisory on re-release)

Cast: Michael Redgrave, Richard Todd, Ursula Jeans, Basil Sydney and Robert Shaw.

Credits: Directed by Michael Anderson, script by R.C. Sheriff. A British Pathe/Warner Bros. release on Film Movement.

Running time: 2:05

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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