Big, big film about those early, decisive air battles over the skies of WWII Britain. You know: where ‘never had so many owed so much to so few.’ Made with dozens of the Best British Thespians (click Poster) and James Bond-tested pros (producer Harry Saltzman; lenser Freddie Young; helmer Guy Hamilton), but a major bomb at the box-office. It looks impressive now; handsome & exciting, with great stunt flying of period planes & analogue effects that largely hold up. (Though keeping track of goggled flying combatants is always tough.) But celebratory war pics had slipped from sure-thing to tough-sell as the anti-military Vietnam Zeitgeist took hold. War films were now all cynicism & ironic folly: CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE/’68; OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR/’69; with KELLY’S HEROES and M*A*S*H*/’70 just around the corner. (On the other hand, PATTON/’70 managed to buck the trend.) Perhaps a generic quality to the triumphs & tragedies did this one in. Yet it’s still essential viewing. Not for the war it portrays, but for the war that went on in post-production that saw Sir William Walton’s film score scuttled (by producer Saltzman?) and replaced by Ron Goodwin's. Enter Laurence Olivier in full hissy-fit. Walton, England’s best known composer after Benjamin Britten, had famously scored Larry’s Shakespeare films. What to do? Check out the credits on most DVDs and only Walton gets screen credit, yet the music is all Goodwin until the last reel. And that’s when something fascinating happens. Forget the final little march over the credits, watch (or rather listen) to the big air battle about two hours in. Suddenly, not only do we get Walton’s infinitely more sophisticated score for most of a reel, but the usual air battle sound effects are all but completely pulled back. And a rather conventional, perfectly decent big-budget war film suddenly becomes something different, something epic, a sort of war ballet for fighter planes: British Spitfires against German Messerschmitts. Would it have worked for the entire film? (Apparently there’s a DVD with two edits of the film; one for each composer.) It surely couldn’t have hurt things commercially. And what we do have of it lends an abstract power to the image, making this a very different, far more interesting pic.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Who knew co-star Christopher Plummer was Ben Affleck’s dad. Not really, but lose that noble nose and you’ve got quite the facial match.