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Film / Battle of Britain

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"What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin."
Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Battle of Britain is a 1969 British film directed by Guy Hamilton, retelling the story of the Battle of Britain in 1940.

It was a major attempt at historical accuracy, sourcing a massive number of real planes (100) and costing a great deal of money to make. It still has a few inaccuracies, notably using some Composite Characters and over-emphasising the Spitfire's role due to a lack of available Hurricanes. A number of names are also fictionalised.

The film's All-Star Cast includes Michael Caine as Squadron Leader Canfield, Trevor Howard as Air Vice Marshal Park, Curd Jürgens as Baron von Richter, Ian McShane as Flight Sergeant Andy Moore, Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, Christopher Plummer as Squadron Leader Colin Harvey, Michael Redgrave as Air Vice-Marshal Douglas Evill, Ralph Richardson as Sir David Kelly, Robert Shaw as Squadron Leader Skipper, and Susannah York as Section Officer Maggie Harvey.


Battle of Britain provides examples of:

  • Abandon Ship: Numerous men are shown bailing out of their crippled fighters and bombers through the film. Just as many are shown desperately trying to do so and failing, including one very long drawn out wide shot of a British fighter diving out of the sky trailing smoke, the pilot struggling to open his canopy, before we see the distant explosion as it hits the ground.
  • Ace Pilot: To be expected in a film about aerial warfare; both sides have some of these. Colin Harvey and "Skipper" fit the stereotype best (in terms of looks and manner), but any named character with pilot's wings who isn't dead by the end of the film is at least an honorary example. Special mention for a German bomber pilot who struggles to keep his shot-up He-111 in the air with one hand while holding pressure on his gunner's sucking chest wound with the other.
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  • Added Alliterative Appeal: "Leave the flaming fighters! It's the bloody bombers we want!"
  • Adult Fear: Andy's wife and two young boys are all killed when the church they are sheltering in takes a direct hit while he is away helping another family out. He returns to find the church a bombed out, burning ruin and the look on his face is just a dagger in the heart.
  • America Saves the Day: Averted, as the entire film takes place before America's entry into the war. That said, the (neutral) Americans spend the entire film just Out of Focus, with the Brits trying to wrangle various support from them while the Germans try to convince them that Britain is on the ropes.
  • Artistic License – History: This film plays up both the idea that the RAF saved Britain from invasion, and that it was a close-run thing, with the British nearly running out of planes and pilots. In reality, the British were able to maintain a steady roster of pilots and (especially) planes throughout the battle. And further, most analysts agree that the Germans never really had a chance to invade England even if they'd destroyed the RAF, because their navy was nowhere near strong enough for the task.note  Really, the RAF's main aim wasn't to "win" so much as "not lose" - ensuring the survival of their own service and infrastructure meant they were in a good position to expand and counter-attack once German attention shifted east.
  • Battle Couple: Deconstructed. In fact, quite possibly an Unbuilt Trope in this film: Colin is entirely opposed to Maggie serving in uniform at all, as he'd rather she stay at home where it's safe. Maggie meanwhile feels driven by duty and tries to get her husband to understand why she insists. The war is a source of constant stress and fuel for conflict in their marriage.
  • The Big Board: At headquarters the British have a large table map of southern England and northern France. Blocks representing squadrons of planes are pushed around to reflect reports from the field.
  • Big Damn Heroes: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." — Winston Churchill
  • Bilingual Bonus: Polish pilots in the movie speak their own language and their lines are not subtitled. If you happen to know that language, you may not only understand them, but notice that most of their speeches were in fact pre-recorded and each one of them is played more than once — not necessarily in appropriate moment. For example, the very first Polish line in the movie — "Niemcy! Niemcy, na dole!" ("Germans! Germans, down there!") — is initially played when a Polish training squadron accidentally stumbles upon enemy bombers (where it makes sense) and later again, in the middle of aerial combat during the climax (where it makes zero sense — and it does not help that it is immediately followed by "Nie widzę ich! Gdzie?" — "I can't see them! Where?", that is — from another pilot). The end result is... quite random.
  • Bittersweet Ending: England and their remaining allies are able to beat back the Luftwaffe, but at a terrible cost to their pilots and The Home Front families. By remaining defiant while Nazi Germany invades Soviet Russia and the United States enters the conflict, England can serve as the staging area for the Western Front to win the war five years later.
  • Blatant Lies: A radio announcement stating that "several RAF Aerodromes were also attacked, and some casualties were sustained, but they were light"... playing over a shot of the smouldering ruins of one of said aerodromes.
  • The Cavalry: Inverted and Averted early in the film. Air Chief Marshal Dowding's introduction is a monologue explaining why the RAF cannot afford to help the French any further.
  • Cool Plane: Both British and German. Real Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmidts as well; this film spared no expense.
  • Communications Officer: Dispersal fills this role for Skipper's "Rabbit" squadron, sitting by the phone waiting for Mission Control to order them to Scramble or Stand Down.
  • The Climax: The massive aerial fight at the end. The Big Wings strategy sees British aircraft swarming on German bombers and dashing them from the sky.
  • Crowd Panic: When the lights go out in Berlin and the air raid sirens begin to sound, the civilians immediately start fleeing to find shelter.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Goes both ways.
    • Early in the film a group of unescorted Heinkels are set upon by Spitfires. Without protection from fighter escorts they suffer heavy losses without the Spitfires losing any of their own.
    • Later the British are on the receiving end when Canfield's squadron is ambushed by Messerschmitt 109s diving from above (a common real-life tactic) while they're focused on the bombers; only one is shown to survive.
  • Darkest Hour: At the film's start, the early fight against Germany has gone terribly for Britain: France has fallen, much of Europe lies under Hitler's feet, Stalin had allied with Hitler to carve up half of Eastern Europe, and for all intents the UK stands alone.
  • Dated History: The film was made a few years before it was revealed that British intelligence had broken the Enigma code; hence there was no mention of the crucial role that Ultra decrypts played in turning back the German air offensive.
  • Downer Beginning: Opens with Squadron Leader Harvey's squadron hurriedly evacuating an airfield in France as the Germans advance. More downers follow as the BEF evacuates at Dunkirk and the French surrender.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: We see a German NCO drilling his squad for the amphibious assault.
    NCO: Move, or I'll force you to swim across the channel!
  • Eagle Squadron: Most notably, the Polish, Czech and Canadian pilots fighting for the Royal Air Force. The credits include a list of different nations whose pilots fought for Britain during the titular battle. As a point of trivia, the actual Trope Namers, the three Eagle Squadrons of American volunteers that served in the RAF, do not appear in this film because those squadrons did not become operational until after the Battle of Britainnote .
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Robert Shaw's character is known to the audience only as "Skipper" (his men's nickname for him) and "Rabbit Leader" (his callsign).
  • Fat Bastard: Göring becomes this as the film progresses — he grows Fat (which actually happened in Real Life), and becomes more and more of a Bastard towards his own subordinates as the battle's tables turn.
  • Fighter-Launching Sequence: Obviously. Air Vice Marshal Park frequently complains that the fighters don't take off quickly enough to stop the German bombers before they reach their targets.
    Skipper: [as their airfield is under German air attack] Well don't just stand there! Get one up!
  • Foreshadowing: Maggie Harvey meets an RAF officer who had suffered severe facial burns and is visibly put off by it. Her husband ends up caught in a burning Spitfire in the next battle sequence. He escapes, but is badly burned.
  • Friend or Foe: Played for Laughs. Hogs bails out and lands in a field, where the farmers take him prisoner and march him off at pitchfork-point, while he protests (in Polish) that he's fighting on their side.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: When one of the women under her command is Blubbering Inelegantly after a bombing raid, Maggie Harvey snaps, "Bates! Pull yourself together!"
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Fighter Command sees a squadron of Polish trainees in the air and tries to recall them. After their British officer gives the order, the Poles ignore him, saying only "Repeat, please" as the officer gets more and more frustrated, until they contact the Germans and the point becomes moot.
  • Home Guard: Of the Torches and Pitchforks variety, showing how desperate Britain's situation is during this campaign. Also, after their radar stations are hit, the RAF is left to rely on the Observer Corps to spot the bombers visually and report in.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Group Captain Baker is in the middle of lecturing Maggie Harvey about how the practice of male and female personnel sharing the same trenches during air raid drills has got to stop. He is interrupted by the onset of a German raid on their base, and he and Maggie both dive into the nearest trench.
  • Hysterical Woman:
    • A female auxiliary is reduced to Inelegant Blubbering after her base is the target of Luftwaffe Air Raid, earning her a Quit Your Whining from Maggie Harvey.
    • Maggie Harvey herself has a bit of this after a raid herself. She shakily pulls out a cigarette and is shouted at by a male officer because the raid blew a gas main open, and that cigarette would ignite the leak. In response, she briefly loses her Stiff Upper Lip.
      Maggie: Don't you yell at me, Mr. Warrick!
  • Invisible President: In one scene an officer reports to Hitler, but all we see is the officer through the door into Hitler's office. Later we see Hitler giving a speech, but throughout he is shot either from behind or from a far distance. (Churchill is The Ghost.)
  • Ironic Echo: "You may call me 'Meier.'"
  • Just Plane Wrong: There are a number of inaccuracies in that department, although they made quite an effort to avoid this as far as possible.
    • One particularly notable instance is in sequences with groups of Hurricanes on approach Bf 109s stand in for more Hurricanes in the background, leading to the entertaining fact that they're basically heading into battle with enemies on their tail.
    • There is another little fun bit of this, although very slight — The Spanish HA-1112s and CASA 2.111s (license-built versions of the Bf-109 and He-111 respectively) used for the film were powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines and easily distinguishable from their German counterparts by the bulky air-intake under the engine. So the vast majority of planes in the movie — on both sides — used the same engine.
    • Crash scenes and unavailable aircraft (such as the Ju-87 Stuka of which no flying examples exist) were done using large-scale radio-controlled models.
  • Language Barrier: 303 Squadron is manned by Polish expatriates. They are very enthusiastic, but are unable to communicate effectively with their English comrades. After being mistaken for a German and taken prisoner, Hogs can be seen studying a Polish-English Dictionary late in the film.
  • Leitmotif: The Luftwaffe and the RAF both get an awesome theme. The former is notoriously hammy — see Music to Invade Poland To.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Averted. Bombers do not distinguish between gender, and a number of WRAF ground personnel are killed in raids on British bases. Not to mention the civilians, including women and children, when London is bombed.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • Two German pilots are visiting Berlin to give a report, and we see the German civilians going on with their lives, enjoying a pleasant night in Berlin as a peaceful rendition of the Luftwaffe-Marsch... Then all of the lights cut out across the city, and air raid sirens begin wailing...
    • There's also a cruel one where Sergeant-Pilot Andy is joking with a young boy when he sees that the church hall has taken a direct hit, killing all inside, including his wife and sons.
  • Music to Invade Poland To: Invoked intentionally with the Luftwaffe-Marsch, composed by Ron Goodwin. Done so well that many people today believe it to be an actual German World War II march, and the real RAF use it for drill displays on occasion.
  • New Meat: Several replacement pilots. Most get killed off fairly quickly (one on his first sortie). Only one lives long enough to become a Shell-Shocked Veteran, he and one of two newbies who arrived just before the last big battle sequence are the only ones who survive the whole film.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent:
    • Averted. The one time Hitler's voice is heard in the film, he speaks with a heavy Southern accent — the real Hitler came from Austria. That's right: they actually made an effort to portray someone who speaks a different language from the film's creators and expected audience with the correct accent.
    • Seemingly played straight by Colin Harvey, who doesn't sound British at all... but if you look at his uniform carefully, it is revealed that he's actually Canadian (a change requested by his actor Christopher Plummer). This is never brought up in dialogue.
  • Not So Different: British and German forces alike are shown to partake in good-natured joking around and sharing of advice between missions.
  • Off-the-Shelf FX: A lot of scenes were very clever editing involving cutting between studio sets, live-action footage of preserved 1940-era warplanes, and FX involving virtually off-the-shelf models of the Airfix type. Even in 1969, there simply were not enough preserved WW2-era aircraft to have live footage of massed German and British aircraft in the sort of numbers that would have fought over southern England in 1940. Scenes of lots and lots of German bombers in formation were done as model shots, using off-the shelf Airfix kits note  of German aircraft. The kit-bashing element involved adapting the completed models to take small electric motors and batteries so that the airscrews moved authentically. Pyrotechnics were built into some models, which were adapted to break up in ways that would have been realistic for real aircraft and not for plastic kits, whose parts and assembly do not usually correspond to the way in which real aircraft are built and how they deconstruct if catastrophic breaking stresses are applied. note 
  • Old-School Dogfight: The Movie.
  • "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending: In this particular instance, the pan-up-to-the-sky ending shows a sky empty of German planes, indicating that the Germans have given up.
  • Present-Day Past: One map shows London with its post-1967 boundaries, much bigger than it was during the war. Probably an oversight by the props department.
  • Red Alert: If Dispersal calmly puts the phone back on the hook, Averted. If he slams the phone and runs to the window...
  • Shown Their Work: The production company rounded up every flyable Spitfire and Hurricane they could, and simulated the Luftwaffe by using Spanish copies of the Me-109 and He-111 built under license. In an early scene, a Hurricane does a victory roll, and the engine sputters while the plane is inverted. The early war Spitfires and Hurricanes used a gravity-fed carburetor, and would actually stall out if flown inverted for too long. Indeed, this is exactly the reason cited by Harvey when he chews out the pilot for the maneuver later.
  • Sitting Duck: Throughout the early part of the movie, many British planes fail to get off the ground before being shot up by the Luftwaffe. Indeed, an early scene has an airfield in France in the midst of being abandoned. The planes that aren't able to fly out on their own are doused in gasoline so the Brits can destroy them and keep them out of German hands. The Germans just happen to show up on cue to shoot up the now highly-flammable planes.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: The British (obviously), but the German pilots display this as well.
  • Stocking Filler: A little Susanna York fanservice, after Colin and Maggie have met in a hotel room and she is strolling around in her garter and stockings. After she bends over to pick up some clothes, Colin says "You look a damn sight better out of that uniform."
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Both sides' aeroplanes tend to explode spectacularly when hit. This is because a) real warplanes are full of gasoline and b) given the special effects techniques available at the time the only practical way to show a real warplane being destroyed in flight was to matte an explosion over it in post production. The model shots avoid this, naturally.
  • Stuka Scream: The Trope Namer, first heard when Stukas bomb a British radar installation. (In Real Life, while the Stuka was great for terrorizing civilians and ground troops, it was very slow in the air and thus a sitting duck for enemy fighter planes. The Stuka was consequently withdrawn from the Battle of Britain well before the battle was over.)
  • Tempting Fate: "You know what our friend Goering said: 'If ever a bomb falls on Berlin, you may call me Meier.'"
  • Title Drop: The BBC radio announcer quoting Winston Churchill, saying "What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over; the Battle of Britain is about to begin." Cue the Awesome Music.
  • Translation Convention: One of the first World War II films to avert this.
    • The British, French, Germans and even the Poles speak their own language. The latter is actually a Plot Point, as problems created by the language barrier between Polish volunteers and their RAF commanders were fully Truth in Television. Non-English dialogue is not subtitled whenever the context makes it unnecessary.
    • It also comes up when a Polish pilot is shot down, bails out and lands in a field — where the farmers mistake him for a German pilot because of his accent.
    • In the scene where they parachute into the church, one of the women asks (in French) if they are Angels, which is not subtitled at all, but is very emotional if you understood what she said.
  • Unreliable Expositor: The BBC broadcasts heard throughout the film, occasionally giving a somewhat... softer reporting of the events that we have just seen. On the German side, an officer boastfully claims to have destroyed over half the British fighters in their first attack.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: At the end of the film, Dispersal's phone rings (which throughout the film has had a 50/50 chance of meaning a Scramble). Turns out that this time it just means the tea is ready. One Ensign Newbie is polite enough to step outside before leaning over to nervously puke.
  • War Is Hell: German and British pilots alike meet very unpleasant ends. One of the main characters is last seen trying to bail out of a plane while his cockpit is engulfed in flames. We are told later that he bailed out and survived, but suffered severe burns over most of his body. The aftermath of one air raid includes a row of dead Women's Auxiliary Air Force personnel covered by a tarp. Another scene shows that a church hall full of civilians (including the family of one of the main characters) shown in a previous scene has suffered a direct hit. By the end of the film, German and British pilots alike are shown to be badly strung out, the British units full of nervous newbies (most of the experienced pilots having been shot down by now) and the German units shown to be badly thinned by attrition (not receiving replacements as quickly as the Britons are).
  • We Used to Be Friends: The British and German ambassadors in Switzerland. Judging by how the British ambassador's wife greets the German ambassador, it's clear that they used to be on much better terms before the war.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: During the RAF squadron's evacuation from France, one pilot takes a French naval officer along in his fighter to also get him to safety. The French officer is not seen again for the rest of the film.
  • Zipping Up the Bodybag: Combined with A Million Is a Statistic and an aversion of Men Are the Expendable Gender. After an air raid on a RAF base, we see that they didn't even use bodybags, instead a whole group of female auxiliary personnel who were killed are lined up together and covered with a tarp until they can be dealt with appropriately.


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