The Dam Busters (1955)


(director: Michael Anderson; screenwriters: R.C. Sherriff/from the book “Enemy Coast Ahead” by Wing Comdr. Gibson/from the book “The Dam Busters” by Paul Brickhill; cinematographer: Erwin Hillier; editor: Richard Best; music: Leighton Lucas; cast: Michael Redgrave (Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.),Ursula Jeans (Mrs. Wallis), Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), Charles Carson (doctor), Stanley Van Beers (Sir David Pye, C.B., F.R.S.), Colin Tapley (Doctor W.H. Glanville, C.B., C.B.E.), Frederick Leister (committee member), Eric Messiter (committee member), Laidman Browne (committee member), Raymond Huntley (official, National Physical Laboratory), Hugh Manning (official, Ministry of Aircraft Production), Patrick Barr (Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, C.B.E.); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Clark; Warner Bros. Pictures; 1955-UK)
“One of the truly great war films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An exciting and uplifting true WWII story about Brit heroes that gives a faithful and detailed account of their deeds in the spring of 1943 that helped shorten the war, as it reduced the Nazi capacity to carry on their war machine. The no-nonsense black-and-white film was the biggest boxoffice hit of 1955 in England, and the critics loved it.

Michael Anderson (“Shake Hands with the Devil”/”Operation Crossbow”/”1984”) directs it with a realistic verve in a documentary style and in a pleasing stiff upper lip understated British way. It’s written by R.C. Sherriff and based on the books “Enemy Coast Ahead” by Wing Comdr. Gibson and the book “The Dam Busters” by the Australian writer Paul Brickhill.

On May 16, 1943, the newly formed 617 Squadron under the command of the stoic RAF’s Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) launched “Operation Chastise,” a covert operation that attacked the three key Ruhr dams in Germany’s industrial valley under the light of a full moon by using innovative “skipping bombs” created by eccentric aeronautical engineer Dr. Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave). The loss of the dams (breaching the walls of the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley that were essential to their industrial plans and hitting but not breaching the third target, the Sorpe, which was of a different construction) put a crimp on the enemy’s ability to especially manufacture steel, but the toll on the British side was heavy as 73 flyers of the 133 who departed from the Scampton, England airbase that eventful night never returned. If the heavy price in human life was worth it is debatable, since within a year of the incident the German industry was running again at full capacity. Wallis was a dreamer who entered the war effort believing his work would shorten the war, but felt great guilt that so many men lost their lives in that effort.

The film does a great job detailing the intensive training the men underwent, showing graphic accounts of their daring mission and offering emotionally draining action shots of their bravery under fire. It also shows the humanity of the scientist inventor and the enormous problems of red tape Wallis had in getting the British war establishment to accept his novel idea and the difficulties he had in creating this unique bomb that called for special arrangements such as low-flights and only one bomb in a plane. The use of actual footage of Wallis’s bomb tests made it all the more interesting and its lesson on physics went over really well.

One thing that was certain was that this successful heroic mission strengthened the country’s resolve during a very dark time in its history, and this essential war drama does a superlative job, with no unnecessary romances tacked on like in a Hollywood film, of capturing the mood of that period. One of the truly great war films. It very well might be the finest flying picture ever made.

There’s one thorny PC spot that you can make of it whatever you like: Guy Gibson’s devoted black Labrador dog who was beloved by the entire 617 squadron happened to be named Nigger with no malice intended, but nevertheless is a socially unacceptable name that left some embarrassing moments for the viewer.