Documentary Review: Survivors recall flying Britain’s “Lancaster” bomber during WWII

They’re very old men, now — all in their ’90s — and very few in number. The world war killed almost one in two airmen from their ranks, and the 75 or so intervening years have taken almost all those who survived.

But the few living pilots, navigators, gunners, radio-men and “bomb aimers” (how the Brits labeled bombardiers) gathered for one more remembrance of their duty, the perils they faced and the “dirty” work of bombing the enemy’s cities from their “Lancaster” bombers in a new documentary from the folks who made “Spitfire.”

“Lancaster” is a wide-ranging appreciation of one of the finest aircraft of World War II, a graceful Rolls-Royce powered marvel that carried the heaviest payloads of the European theater as Britain’s instrument for “taking the war to Germany” for air raids — often at night — that leveled many a Germany city.

Although most of those interviewed express regret for that nature of that sort of combat, they and the filmmakers take pains to remind us of the context — a global fight to the death over the concept of “freedom.”

“If that’s the game we’re in, that’s the game we’re in,” one crewman reasons. “There’s no second prize in war,” another reminds us. “You either win or you lose.”

The surviving aircrew can be reflective of their horrors of war, of how they couldn’t “think about” their deadly duty and what it might mean to the hundreds of thousands of civilians impacted by it. They’d note “the empty chairs” of their own losses, and the way the German aggressors introduced city bombing and eventually came to “reap the whirlwind” they unleashed, as Bomber Command’s dogged and pragmatic leader Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris put it.

Filmmakers David Fairhead and Ant Palmer interview scores of airmen, British women who did much of the world of building the planes and working radar plotting and communication with the RAF, and a German woman who survived the firebombing of Dresden.

They lean on archival military combat and testing footage, newsreels and snippets from several films made about this service, most famously 1955’s “The Dam Busters,” which recreated one of the most celebrated feats the Avro Lancaster and some of those who crewed them achieved, an exploit explained in further depth here.

And they make sure to include gorgeous aerial footage of one of the two flyable Lancasters still in existence, taking us inside to show us what this aged veteran or that one remembers about being squeezed into this noisy, cramped “”flying bomb-bay” that could feel “like a living thing” in flight.

As nostalgic as Britons have been and remain over their “keep calm and carry on/finest hour” years, Palmer and Fairhead recognize that generations have come and gone since the war, and make their film a thorough overview of the entire experience — strategy, design and deployment of the aircraft, but also the “strange world” of someone removed from the slaughter they were causing, who “fought my war from five miles up.”

A Jamaican crewman, Canadians and others talk about their experiences, the camaraderie that developed within the six-man crews, the tactics deployed to evade night fighters (the Brits bombed mostly at night, the U.S.Army Air Force mostly bombed during daylight) and anti-aircraft fire.

Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, D-Day, Peenemunde and Dresden are targets explained at length.

A crewman recalls the pressure of “trying to pick a pilot who was going to get me through the war,” the staggering losses that came from raids on Berlin and the “dambusting” raid on the industrial Ruhr region. Almost to a one, they talk about the fact that they never talk about this service with family or friends who weren’t in it with them.

And many of them complain that this is because of the “politics” Prime Minister Winston Churchill played with their service, distancing himself from decisions he made about wiping out cities because “precision bombing” was pretty much a myth that didn’t outlive the war and the exigencies of shortening the conflict, “helping the Russians” pre-D-Day and the like.

“Lancaster” briskly covers a lot of ground, making it a most watchable overview of a subject that whole documentary series and a library’s worth of books have been devoted to. And it’s a valuable document as well, getting many of these survivors on film one last time as they remember the context, the stakes and the deadly work they volunteered to do the last time the world faced a global threat from fascist totalitarianism.

Rating: unrated

Credits: Directed by David Fairhead and Ant Palmer. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:50

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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