The Battle of Britain on the Big Screen (Hardback)
‘The Finest Hour’ Through British Cinema
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During the Second World War, the British movie industry produced a number of films concerning the war, all of which were, by necessity, heavily myth-laden and propagandised. Foremost among these productions was The First of the Few, which was the biggest grossing film of 1942.
In the immediate post-war period, to start with there were no British aviation war films. The first to be released was Angels One Five in 1952. It was well-received, confirming that the Battle of Britain was a commercial commodity.
Over the next few years, many famous war heroes published their memoirs, or had books written about them, including the legless Group Captain Douglas Bader, whose story, Reach for the Sky, told by Paul Brickhill, became a best-seller in 1956. It was followed a year later by the film of the same name, which, starring Kenneth More, dominated that year’s box office.
The early Battle of Britain films had tended to focus upon the story of individuals, not the bigger picture. That changed with the release of the star-studded epic Battle of Britain in 1969. Using real aircraft, the film, produced in colour and on a far larger scale than had been seen on film before, was notable for its spectacular flying sequences.
Between the release of Reach for the Sky and Battle of Britain, however, much had changed for modern Britain. For a variety of reasons many felt that the story of the nation’s pivotal moment in the Second World War was something best buried and forgotten. Indeed, the overall box office reaction to Battle of Britain reinforced this view – all of which might explain why it was the last big screen treatment of this topic for many years.
It was during the Battle of Britain’s seventieth anniversary year that the subject returned to the nation's screens when Matthew Whiteman’s docudrama First Light was first broadcast. Essentially a serialisation of Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum’s best-selling memoir of the same title, Whiteman cleverly combined clips of Wellum as an old man talking about the past with his new drama footage. The series is, in the opinion of the author, the best portrayal of an individual’s Battle of Britain experience to have been made.
In this fascinating exploration of the Battle of Britain on the big screen, renowned historian and author Dilip Sarkar examines the popular memory and myths of each of these productions and delves into the arguments between historians and the filmmakers. Just how true to the events of the summer of 1940 are they, and how much have they added to the historical record of ‘The Finest Hour’?
Rating: 5 out of 5 starsNetGalley, Linda Young
I confess, this is my husband's favorite military movie, along with STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, so I got this for him to read.
"THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN is probably one of the best military aviation films ever made. Even the non-military romance scenes between Susannah York and Christopher Plummer have a wartime immediacy involved. The film is unique in that it shows the Germans not as goose-stepping caricatures, but as real military men. The aviation battles are some of the best ever filmed. The book covers all aspects of the film, breaking down the movie almost scene by scene, as well as its predecessor films ANGELS ONE FIVE, FIRST FLIGHT, and the classic SPITFIRE with Leslie Howard. The book includes photographs from behind the scenes of making the film, some rare, and there were also short narratives about the actors and the major characters in real life.
"If you are a fan of the film, of the story of the real Battle of Britain, and/or World War II aviation films in general, you will love this book."
People with even a passing interest in (mostly old) movies about the Battle of Britain will find great fascination in this book, written by a distinguished historian who has both met and interviewed many of the 1940s RAF pilots involved and has a clear understanding of both films and film making.Pilot magazine - July 2023 edition
The films – The Lion has Wings, The First of the Few, Angels One Five, Reach for the Sky, Battle of Britain and (perhaps slightly incongruously as it was a BBC docudrama shown only a limited number of times on a big screen ) First Light – are each given a chapter. Sarkar analyses these productions in an unique manner I believe he deserves credit for inventing, giving each of the events and scenes he describes a time reference – ‘1.16.30’ for example denoting one hour sixteen minutes and thirty seconds from the start – and contrasting what’s seen on the screen with what happened in real life.
It may all sound a bit dry and… well, analytical but it really isn’t – I would say the effect is more like sitting through these films with an extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful companion giving the kind of commentary that not only enhances your enjoyment but deepens your understanding about both the movies and the Battle. Highly recommended! – PW
As a premier writer on this subject in many forms, Dilip Sarkar has written another excellent book, showing there is still a lot to learn on the subject. A book I would happily recommend to others.The History Fella
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'What a great read! I thought I knew all I needed to know about the Battle of Britain but your excellent writing and exacting research proves that, in the hands of a disciplined writer such as yourself, there is always more to learn.Matthew Whiteman, Director of the BBC 2 TV docudrama 'First Light', based upon the memoir and book of the same name by Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC.
'Just for example your research and commentary on the background to the making of 'The First of the Few' had me riveted. Your book is superb from cover to cover!'
Aerospace book choices for Christmas, the best of 2022's aviation books.Royal Aeronautical Society
Never have so many owed so much to so few. Those immortal words still ring true more than 80 years later. Shortly after the Phoney War and the Blitzkrieg that changed the face of Europe in short weeks, Britain, and her Commonwealth, stood alone. Before venturing across the Channel to invade, Goering had promised Hitler, he could defeat the island from the air before any soldier needed to step foot on British soil. If not for the courage of the RAF and the intelligence of husbanding their limited resources, the history of the world would have been vastly different. I did not realize that so few films had been made specifically about the short and bloody part of the war. There have been lots of films where it was a part of the story. This book looks at the select few, some filmed during the actual conflict and some as late as 2010.NetGalley, Susan Johnston
It is a fascinating look at where myth and literary license altered the truth both in the events and in the characters who are portrayed on screen. It also looks at how actual footage or footage from previous films was used in other productions. The passage of time and the availability of the real airplanes forced some decisions. The influence of various real life people who participated in the events also coloured the movies. One really interesting part of the book is almost a scene by scene description of the script and evidence that either substantiates or conflicts with what is on the screen. It is told in such a way that I would like to go out and watch the films again. Whether it is factual of poetic license, we should not forget what these heroes did to save the world.
This is a really interesting book because it challenges our concept of what history is and how it is captured and shared. I enjoyed the author’s analysis of how facts translated into fictional accounts and how this led to societal focus on and understanding of key events in history.NetGalley, Louise Gray
Released in 1969, the film Battle of Britain went on to become one of the most iconic war movies ever produced. The film drew many respected British actors to accept roles as key figures of the battle, including Sir Laurence Olivier as Hugh Dowding and Trevor Howard as Keith Park. It also starred Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Robert Shaw as squadron leaders. As well as its large all-star international cast, the film was notable for its spectacular flying sequences which were on a far grander scale than anything that had been seen on film before. At the time of its release, Battle of Britain…By Robert J Rudhall, Dilip Sarkar MBE
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