The Battle of Britain is one of those “finest hour” pieces of British history that almost instantly passed into legend, and has proven irresistible to filmmakers over the decades.
When Winston Churchill intoned that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” referring to the RAF fighter pilots who blunted a German air offensive and saved the island nation from invasion in the late summer and early fall of 1940, the prime minister was making a movie pitch, the ultimate “high concept” description of a story in a single sentence.
The ponderous all-star epic “The Battle of Britain” was the major effort to get real airplanes from the WWII into the air and film them staging air battles, with the likes of Michael Caine, Robert Shaw and Christopher Plummer piloting them, and Laurence Olivier in command on the ground.
Extensive aerial footage from that film showed up in “Dark Blue World,” (2001) a pretty good account of the battle as seen from the point of view of Czech pilots who, their country under occupation, climbed into the cockpit for Britain and kept her in the war.
And there’s even a little footage recycled from “Battle of Britain” in “Mission of Honor,” a lower-budget historical thriller that uses digital aircraft in most of the combat scenes, with the digital dogfights somewhat of a step up from the ones George Lucas served up in “Red Tails.”
This time, it’s the celebrated Poles of 303 Squadron, English-language mangling free spirits with a seething hatred for the Germans who invaded their country and killed friends and family.
It’s a standard-issue WWII aerial combat melodrama, a somewhat fictionalized account of the lives and exploits of such Polish aces as Jan Zumbach (played by Iwan Rheon), Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorocinski) and the Czech 303 ace Josef Frantisek (Krystof Hádek).
Milo Gibson plays the Canadian John Kent, the commander of the “arrogant, irresponsible and ill-disciplined” corps, the fellow the pilots eventually nickname “Kentowski” with affection.
And then there’s the bluff Air Marshall and mastermind of the battle, Hugh Dowding (Nicholas Farrell of “Chariots of Fire”), the one more than willing to stick with “stash the Poles somewhere they’ll do the least harm,” until one of their number — the intrepid Urbanowicz, earns a try-out out of desperation (heavy RAF losses) and shoots that argument down.
“What if they’re all as good as Urbanowicz?” Then “the Poles will end up winning us this bloody war, if we’re not careful.”
“Mission of Honor” has men flashing back to the horrors they and their families faced when the Nazis rolled in and carrying those memories into furious battle. Some are braver than others, some more reckless, one takes a tumble for an “I always say ‘yes'” RAF lass (Stephanie Martini) who reasons “They could be dead tomorrow” or “WE could be dead tomorrow.”
National rivalries play out at the pub, unruly breaks in discipline, tragedy and seeing the horror of the air war up close — its corpses and burn victims — all standard issue for this sort of picture, make it into the Robert Ryan/Alastair Galbraith screenplay.
The cutest moments come in the first scenes as we see the Polish-Swiss Zumbach bluff his way past Germans by passing himself off as a Swiss watch salesman (wristwatch bribes) and steal a French trainer to make his way to Britain in. Rheon, in the lead role, makes the strongest impression among the cast, showing swagger and hot-tempered vulnerability in the part.
Not all of this is the literal truth, but a lot of it is. And while likewise, much is left out, this David Blair film makes for an entertaining gloss on real history and a pretty good digital updating of the WWII aerial combat thriller.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Iwan Rheon, Milo Gibson, Stephanie Martini, Marcin Dorocinski, Manuel Klein, Krystof Hádek and Nicholas Farrell
Credits: Directed by David Blair, script by Robert Ryan, Alastair Galbraith. A release.
Running time: 1:47