Some notes on
by L. J. Hurst
A film directed
screenplay by R.C. Sherriff
1.1) Michael Anderson later directed Logan's Run
1.2) Sherriff wrote the play Journey's End, and SF novel The Hopkins' Manuscript, and had already written the screenplay for The Invisible Man.
1.3) The screenplay for the film is based on The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill (but only the early part of the book) and Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson (Gibson's own account - allegedly not ghost-written. RAF authors said not to have written it include H E Bates and Roald Dahl, though its style is closest to Neville Shute, who had known Barnes Wallis since they worked together on the R100 in the early 30s).
1.4) The film is two hours long and falls into three equal length pieces:
1.4.1) Barnes Wallis's efforts to build the bomb
1.4.2) the formation of 617 Squadron and the trial bomb runs
1.4.3) the Ruhr raids.
1.5) Over half the film centres on Barnes Wallis, and the three parts of the film are emphasised by Wallis and a drink:
1.5.1) during the first third of the film he makes a pot of tea for his visiting GP
1.5.2) in the second part he rejects a cup of coffee but has it forced on him by Guy Gibson whom he is visiting
1.5.3) in the final third he rejects a cup of cocoa
As the film moves from Wallis' actions to his consequences so he moves from his drinks. (This drinking is not in Brickhill or Gibson's books - it is Sherriff's addition). This minor detail, hardly noticed reinforces the sense of loss of achievement. As the film moves to its conclusion so Barnes Wallis moves from his real sustenance.
2) The film excludes reference to the groundcrew and working class
Some of Brickhill's references to the men are not complimentary, with the implication that these were Guy Gibson's views as well.
Instead the film replaces all these real people with one figure, unnamed (though Gibson names him in his account, and on film addresses him as "Crosby"), who appears separately in the list of the cast at the end of the film, and is the only person with a noticeable British accent (apart from a cameo enraged farmer). This batman is actually given some speeches that were actually said by others eg he notifies Gibson that Nigger, Gibson's Labrador, was dead, an announcement actually made by Squadron Leader Whitworth.
His background is never explained - eg he was married and had told his wife that he was at training school (He died later in the war)
3.1) he had known Mutt Summers, Barnes Wallis's fellow engineer;
3.2) he had thought of political involvement in the Conservative Party but found politics too dirty;
3.3) he was sent off after the raid to the USA for PR work (for which Enemy Coast Ahead was written)
3.4) his secrecy rule was Draconian - and this lead to clamp downs on enlisted men, but it is represented in the film only by a schoolboy fight in the mess following ragging between squadrons. The class conflict he engendered is ignored.
His role is emphasised
Acts that could seem to lower his dignity are omitted (eg in his search for bomb parts at the trials he is shown only taking off his shoes and socks demonstrating how he feels for fragments with his toes, but he had to strip to his underwear actually).
Unlike Guy Gibson his home life is played up, as are his care and thought for others. At the end of the film he calls Gibson 'Gibby'. His modesty is also shown (eg in the way he gets for the trial an aircraft he designed - 'If you told them I designed it - do you think that would help?')
However, in the film he is shown as claiming that one rightly placed bomb would breach the dam, in reality he thought that it would take a series.
5) The RAF is raised to a better position:
eg at the early developments Barnes Wallis says 'Glanville and I have calculated that it would take only 30,000 pounds of this new explosive RDX' (or something like that) but the RAF had abandoned the use of RDX in 1937, relying on the much weaker explosive Amytol.
Also problems with the Ministry of War/ RAF bureaucracy were much greater than is suggested -even though Wallis is shown in many waiting rooms - at one point he was actually investigated by MI5, curious at the methods of his keenness.
6) The film is a great success, though the story is simple
There is almost no plot and some of the most dramatic incidents (Wallis being investigated by MI5, for instance, or a bomb falling out of an aircraft at Scampton onto the ground) are omitted.
Against the simplicity of events the film relies on limited characterisation - but this is strangely limited (for example, despite Barnes Wallis' early appearance with his family he is repeatedly shown as isolated - on the Chesil Bank, for instance, and the final sequence of the film shows Gibson walking alone; Nigger, of course, has died).
Complexity is added by the structure of motifs described below:
7) Nigger the Dog
Guy Gibson's dog, a black Labrador, was a close companion, taken by Gibson on training flights, though not into action.
Nigger takes on the role of conscience - he is shown being given beer by RAF men, at the raid briefing he is excluded and driven away (in a friendly fashion), leading to his being run down by the driver of an unidentified vehicle which does not stop. Gibson asks -
7.1) for the code word 'Nigger' to be used for the breaching of the dam,
7.2) for Nigger to be buried at midnight, the time of the raid.
Nigger becomes a symbol of conscience and of the ultimate failure of the raid. Other men are killed, Gibson loses his dog. (If it would have saved the dog, we feel, the raid ought not to have been proceeded with).
The loss of Nigger is a foreboding of the ultimate failure of a raid which was popularly treated as a success.
8) The Use of Models
8.1) Only one model is obviously used - a train flooded when the dams are breached - most likely due to a poor special effect, this is actually made acceptable by a conscious act near the beginning -
8.2) at Wallis' first test showing that a small amount of explosive against the dam would breach it, he is suddenly shown from the bottom of the model dam (test dam) like a Brobdingnagian figure (ie like the later model a swop from the normal realism of the film).
(Historical note: the team of special effects men at the film studio were bought together for this film and stayed. The last film on which they worked was 2001: A Space Odyssey).
9) Historical Failure
It has since been shown that the raid had much less effect that was hoped on German war production; those killed on the ground were Russian prisoners of war, and Britain suffered a grave loss of qualified aircrew.
Wallis was working on a lot else at the time
Failure is exemplified by:
9.1) The number of bomb runs is not emphasised (see 4)
9.2) the loss of Nigger
9.3) the final emphasis on empty rooms
9.4) pictures of the dam breaking are not dramatic
Barnes Wallis has his children helping him when the film begins marking places, recording lengths, finding balls. It is Wallis who makes the tea for the doctor. Despite their middle class home the Wallises have no servants. Wallis has to find the bomb pieces in the sea at Chesil Beach, and in the tanks at Teddington the visitors are told that he is alone (though he has assistants). All this contrasts with the servants in the RAF scenes (the waitress who brings his coffee in the canteen, the WAAF with the cocoa, Gibson's own batman).
11) The Enemy
The Dam Busters is unusual in that the enemy are seen only at the end of the film and then only as the distant anti-aircraft batteries. Wallis himself who has inspired the whole event never sees the enemy. The film thus lacks the traditional division of Us Versus Them. It is, perhaps, because oppositions are necessary to drama that Sherriff chose some of his motifs - Wallis alone versus Gibson in the body of the RAF; Wallis with no social support versus Gibson in a strongly ordered and supportive organisation; civilians without servants versus the military with servants. If these can be thought of as parallel lines running from the beginning to the end of the film, then Sheriff has to find methods of re-inforcing and cross-bracing the structure of his plot. Sherriff found such motifs in the drinks and the life and death of Gibson's dog.
12) Contrary Movement
Ultimately, though, there are two long plot elements which run through the film and cross, providing the complete cross-brace. If the likelihood, development and planning of the raid can be considered as one line representing Barnes Wallis' ideas getting off the ground, then the film presents a line running in an opposite direction, which could be described perhaps as a fall from grace:
12.1) Wallis' non-fluid intake
12.2) the death of Nigger and loss of his company
12.3) the final empty rooms, and Barnes Wallis' doubts: '56 men'
Diagram of film's construction:
The sites linked are indepdendent and should not be regarded as condoning any opinion given on this page.
2. Apart from Paul Brickhill's The Dam Busters and Guy
Gibson's Enemy Coast Ahead, John Sweetman's The Dam Busters
Raid has been an important reference. Also to be recomended for
material on the film is the Screenonline
webpage on the film, which includes publicity material, film clips,
posters and more.
3. During some updating of this page and searching for new
references a new menace showed its head. That is, the increasing threat
to water and using water: in the Middle East and elsewhere control of
water, dams, canals etc is of increasing importance, and hence also an
increasing risk. A simple search for 'RDX' and 'Dam Busters' will bring
up these discussions.
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© L J Hurst 2012