The Dam Busters (1955)
Dam Good Movie
Do you know, there is a very thin dividing line between inspiration and obsession. - Barnes Wallis
Based upon a true story "The Dam Busters" tells the story of how aeronautical engineer Dr. Barnes N. Wallis developed the famous bouncing bomb and also the daring mission which the 617 Squadron undertook to use the bomb to blow up the Ruhr Dams. It maybe over 50 years old and made when war movies were the main stay of British cinema but "The Dam Busters" is still an amazing movie which brings to life those events. From the opening credits which features the rousing "The Dam Busters" theme, through to Wallis's attempts to create the revolutionary bomb and the dangerous mission which the men took it is a captivating story which highlights the bravery of the men and the inventiveness it took to succeed.
In an attempt to shorten WWII the British spot that by destroying Germany's industrial heart they will be unable to manufacture weapons so quickly. But it seems an impossible task with the industry using a series of massive damns to control the water to create hyrdo-power. But aeronautical engineer and inventor Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave - The Heroes of Telemark) comes up with a revolutionary new bomb and a way of dropping it which could do the trick but first he needs to convince the decision makers to support him.
"The Dam Busters" is very much a movie of two halves with the first half focussing on Barnes Wallis's attempts not only to come up with a revolutionary bomb but also the obstacles which he encountered from those who though he was mad. Whilst it thankfully doesn't go into the technical ins and outs of Wallis's invention it is fascinating as we watch him going from firing marbles across a bath tub through to shooting golf balls down a testing tank. But whilst it doesn't get overly technical it still manages to deliver exactly what Wallis wanted to achieve, creating a bomb which would bounce across the water and hit the dam wall where it would sink to a certain depth before exploding and in doing so using the water to increase the power of the explosion. I know I've said it but it is truly fascinating and the inventiveness of Wallis to take an idea he found in the history books and expand on it is just brilliant.
At the same time as focussing on Wallis actually inventing the bouncing bomb you also have his battle to get the backing of the decision makers to support him. I don't know how true "The Dam Busters" is to the true story but what comes across is that not only did many of those in charge doubt Wallis but the whole bouncing bomb came close to never materialising. What is nice is that whilst not by any means a comedy watching Wallis prove those doubters wrong and watching them suddenly give their support ends up being quite amusing and adds that layer of lightness to make the movie work so well.
The second half of "The Dam Busters" basically covers the 617 Squadron although the two halves interweave as whilst Wallis tests his bomb the Squadron practice low level flying at night. And just as watching Wallis come up with his bouncing bomb is fascinating so is how the Squadron came up with ways to make sure they were flying at exactly the right height above the water and knew exactly when to drop the bombs. But it is during the actual bombing raids that this second half comes into it's own and whilst not action packed like modern movies it is exciting. A big reason why it's exciting is that director Michael Anderson creates this electric atmosphere as we watch each of the planes fly down the canal towards the damn, kept on a knife point by the fact they have to fly at the right height, the perfect speed and drop the bomb at a precise distance whilst all the time they are being shot out from the ground. And by going for less is more the decision of Anderson to make these attacks almost silent, just the low hum of the engines filling the air makes it all the more exciting.
Whilst the focus of "The Dam Busters" is on the invention of the bouncing bomb and the daring raids it doesn't shy away from the effects of war and in particular the bombs as they cause mass flooding. But in what truly is a poignant moment Wallis and Wing Commander Guy Gibson discuss the raids and the fact that whilst many of the Squadron died Gibson remarks they would have still gone on the mission anyway. That brief scene really hits home that many of the men who fought during the war did so knowing that they would die and yet it didn't stop them.
Whilst there are many brilliant performances in "The Dam Busters" and Richard Todd gives one of the strongest performances as Guy Gibson, the movie really belongs to Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis. I've never seen footage of the real Barnes Wallis but what Redgrave delivers is what you expect from an inventor. During that first half where he is obsessive about his research and creating the bomb you forget that you are watching Redgrave but this man Wallis who believes he is on to the right way of achieving something that everyone thinks is impossible. But even during the second half Redgrave continues to impress delivering that restrained British emotion as he waits in the war room for news of the bombing raids.
What this all boils down to is that "The Dam Busters" truly is a magnificent movie which is both fascinating and entertaining even now over 50 years since it was made. It brings to life the events which lead to Wallis making the bouncing bomb and at the same time delivers the danger of the bombing missions with some stunning special effects. And whilst there are elements which now understandably feel dated, everything about it in particular the performance of Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis is captivating.
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