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The Wonder of the Cinema

#7 The Dam Busters

The Dam Busters (1955) isn’t a war movie in the usual sense as we Americans might understand it today.  The hero of the first half of the film is not a musclebound Rambo-type or a hardbitten cynical antihero either but rather an engineering genius.  Sir Barnes Wallis designed the Vickers Wellington bomber which proved pivotal in the British air attack on Germany.

The tail of a shot up Vickers Wellington bomber.  The geodesic design of Sir Barnes Wallis is visible.

The tail of a shot up Vickers Wellington bomber. The geodesic design of Sir Barnes Wallis is visible.

The Wellington had a geodesic frame which permitted the aircraft to absorb tremendous amounts of damage and still return home safely.  Wallis is what the US government hoped it had in Howard Hughes.  However, where Huges descended into madness and rank obsession Wallis’ obsession was with results and science made practical.  This drove Wallis to design the so-called “bouncing bomb.”

The targets were three dams in the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heartland in western Germany, which supplied water and hydro-electrically generated power to the factories of the German war machine.  However, conventional bombs would prove ineffective as the dams reinforced concrete structure made it nearly impregnable.  Attack from the reservoir side was thwarted by the water and a pair of torpedo nets.  However, Barnes Wallis had an idea to bounce the bombs over the nets, crash them into the lip of the dam, let them sink, and finally explode against the concrete at depth.  In this way the weight of the water would be a help and not a hindrance.  The difficulty was in the details.  How big a bomb was needed?  How do we bounce the bomb to reach the exact point needed?

It isn’t until nearly 30 minutes into the film that the bomber crews are brought in for the special training and the rest of the story.  Even then it is not the achievement of a single hero, but rather a team effort (and sacrifice) by a squadron of men that carries the day.

Yet one man stands out from the historical record.  Their commander, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, had flown over 170 missions by the time he was 24.  This is at a time when the survival rate for crews was devastatingly low.  Most crews did not make it to the end of their tour of 30 missions.  He flew bombers, fighters, and even night fighters earning multiple honors along the way.  WC Gibson would earn a Victoria Cross for his part in the mission and not survive the war.

Below is the full version of the film available in the public domain on YouTube.

Interestingly this film (among others) served as inspiration for George Lucas when dreaming up the trench run sequence for the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope.  Here’s a edited together bit of the two films from Rotten Tomatoes.  I say homage as so little was actually used.  Besides any reason to get people to watch The Dam Busters is fine with me.  It’s a good film.


Some parts of the film, however, do not bear up on scrutiny.  One is Wing Commander Gibson’s dog’s unfortunate name(which I will not repeat here).  There is talk of Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, remaking the film. Hopefully in the interests of good taste he’ll change the dog’s name.

Interesting trivia: Robert Shaw, best known to US audiences for his part as the grizzled sea dog “Quint” in Jaws, plays a chief engineer aboard one of the bombers.  He has few lines, but sits right hand seat(left on the screen) and co-pilot to star Richard Todd who plays Wing Commander Gibson.

Richard Todd served as an officer in the elite British Parachute Regiment and assisted in taking and holding the “Pegasus Bridge” vital to the Sword Beach on D-Day.  Later he would play the part of Major John Howard while he, Richard Todd, was played by another actor.  How often does an actor get to recreate a famous military engagement he participated in?  The only other one that comes to mind is Audie Murphy who played himself in To Hell and Back.

The Longest Day is also a fine film–especially for the attack on the Pegasus Bridge–so perhaps I’ll watch that again soon.

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About Rob Sterner

English teacher, Film buff, Filmmaker, Writer, Musician, Photographer, Runner, Taoist, Thinker, List maker...

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