Michael Caine. Laurence Olivier. Christopher Plummer. Robert Shaw. Ian McShane. Those five actors are five very talented men and their presence alone should warrant a screening of the classic World War II film "The Battle of Britain." Directed by renowned English film director Guy Hamilton and produced by James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, "The Battle of Britain" comes from solid stock. The filmmakers created the "35th largest air force in the world" to create a realistic and breathtaking experience and "The Battle of Britain" was an expensive production in its day. With its strong ensemble of actors, talented team of filmmakers and genuine World War II aircraft, "The Battle of Britain" had all of the ingredients to create a magnificent film. But how well did these ingredients work?
The ingredients mixed well enough, but "The Battle of Britain" is a tasty desert and is hardly a full course meal with all of the trimmings. To put it simply, "The Battle of Britain" is a film that looks absolutely stunning, but behind the visceral combat sequences and impressive visuals, this 1969 picture lacks the soul and spirit required to lift to film to the great heights as other contemporary World War II classics such as "Patton," "The Longest Day" and "A Bridge Too Far." I single out those other films; because "The Battle of Britain" is released simultaneously with those three fine films and the better-than-serviceable Navy picture "The Sand Pebbles." In fact, looking at scores from IMDb.com, "The Battle of Britain" is the lowest scored of the five films with a ranking of 6.9. The next lowest is "The Sand Pebbles" at a higher 7.3.
The general plot behind "The Battle of Britain" finds the powerful island suffering great casualties to the hands of the German Luftwaffe. The so-called Battle of France found many Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots killed and defeated when the Germans bombed and attacked airfields during the Nazi Blitzkrieg that resulted in the defeat of the French air force and the foreign forces that were aiding in the defense of France. With the heavy losses suffered by the British, RAF Air Chief Marshal Dowding (Sir Laurence Olivier) declares that the RAF will no longer cross the English Channel and that all remaining aircraft are to be dedicated to the defense of the island of Britain. The Germans had made an offer to save the Brits from invasion, but British ambassador Sir David Kelly (Ralph Richardson) declines to make peace with the Germans.
Once the Battle of Britain is declared by Winston Churchill, the movie moves to June 1940 and the remaining pilots of the RAF are shown preparing for the forthcoming German invasion. While the first fifteen minutes of "The Battle of Britain" seemingly creates a strong narrative for the impressive air battles over Britain, the film quickly begins to lose its purpose and direction. "The Battle of Britain" quickly becomes an exercise in excess and director Guy Hamilton gains a purpose to show off the impressive air force assembled for the film and the absolutely stunning choreography created for the aerial dog fighting sequences, but any true sense of direction and worthwhile narrative are left behind. "The Battle of Britain" becomes a collection of loosely related scenes trying to cover as much material concerning "The Battle of Britain" and never focuses strongly on any one character or plot line.
The five gentlemen I named at the beginning of this review are all very strong actors and were all capable of leading a war film of this scope and magnitude. Unfortunately, none of them are given much screen time and are only a small part of the overall experience. Laurence Olivier is shown making a few command decisions and his role serves as wonderful exposition to detail the full scope of the battle, but he is hardly of importance to the film. Christopher Plummer and Robert Shaw each take on the roles of Squadron Leaders, but you'd be hard pressed to remember their purpose in the film after the 132 minute film comes to a close. Michael Caine has a decent amount of screen time compared to the other actors, but as Squadron Leader Canfield, he too is only a small part of the complete puzzle. Ian McShane has a few good lines early on, but he too is lost in the ensemble experience before long.
"The Battle of Britain" fails in becoming a classic war picture because it tries too hard to show too much. The actual aerial Battle of Britain had many important events that took place and allowed Britain to successfully use their 650 aircraft to defend against nearly 2500 aircraft. Radar, a strong communications network and a mistake to attack London all allowed the British and foreign national pilots to rally and bring about defeat to the German Luftwaffe pilots. The film tries very strongly to give as much time as it can to every little aspect of the full battle, but "The Battle of Britain" starts to feel like a collection of short documentaries about the actual battle and less of a dramatic film. With no central character to serve as the primary war hero and a jumbled series of plotlines, "The Battle of Britain" suffers from being too ambitious and not focused enough.
Where "The Battle of Britain" succeeds greatly is in the epic dog fighting sequences. The filmmakers went to great lengths to assemble as many identical and similar aircraft to those that actually fought over the skies of London and their efforts were not in vain. Using an American B-25 as a camera aircraft, some of the air-to-air footage stands today as some of the finest moments ever filmed in regards to aerial combat. For the aircraft that were similar to those that actually served, attention to detail paid off and the aircraft were modified to look as similar as possible to the combat veterans they stood in for during the film. While "The Battle of Britain" was not a dramatically impressive film, it does contain dozens of very impressive sequences that shows the famed British Spitfire square off against various Messerschmitt and Heinkel aircraft.
This is a film for die-hard war movie buffs. It is especially of interest for those who enjoy military aviation and have a penchant for the old war birds of the 1940s. The film tried hard to recreate the actual events of the Battle of Britain and must be applauded for its German speaking actors, impressive aircraft and gorgeous sets and visuals. This is a beautifully shot film that shows the gorgeous British countryside and some of the might and destruction of World War II. Sure, some of the scenes were filmed in the sunny skies of Spain, but "The Battle of Britain" at least looks its cost. Unfortunately, for all of the aviation eye candy and stunning combat sequences, the lack of a strong narrative and redeeming characters leaves "The Battle of Britain" feeling hollow and soulless.
I enjoy the film, but military aviation has always been one of my hobbies. My father spent thirty years in the Air Force and I grew up with an admiration for the various periods of military aviation and "The Battle of Britain" is easily one of the best, if not finest, displays of combat aircraft from the European theater. This is a movie that I can watch repeatedly, because I absolutely love the aircraft and appreciate the hard work done by the filmmakers to supply these gorgeous scenes of the workhorses of World War II. "The Battle of Britain" is not a film I watch because I want to see a good film, but something I watch solely for the airplanes. It's fun trying to spot Ian McShane or Michael Caine among the ensemble cast, but I watch this movie to see the sexy propeller driven ladies that soar the skies. If you think it be a little odd for me to call a World War II fighter plane sexy, then this film is probably not for you. But if you agree, this is a treat in regards to the British Supermarine Spitfire.
The main reason I can recommend this film to anybody is to witness the incredible aerial combat sequences that feature the Spitfires and Me Bf-109 aircraft, along with the Junkers "Stuka" bombers and German He-111 fighters. To fully appreciate these combat sequences, the visual of the Blu-ray release of "The Battle of Britain" needs to stand up nicely. For the most part, the film does. Fox has chosen to provide this nearly forty-year-old film with an MPEG-2 encoded transfer and has forced the 132 minute picture onto a single layered 25GB BD platter. The squeezed storage space and somewhat arcane codec can be cause for many to gnash their teeth, but fortunately, it was more than adequate to provide an incredible looking transfer.
"The Battle of Britain" is not a perfect looking transfer, but I was far more amazed at the various scenes than I was disappointed. The level of detail is typically very high and the coloring is quite good. Whenever the gorgeous aircraft were shown on the ground or in close-up, the detail was strong enough to see the individual rivets and contours of the airframe. In cockpit views showed excellent detail of the pilots and you could almost feel the textures of their wool and leather uniforms. The detail is that strong. The brightly lit skies provide for very good color depth and the gradients of camouflage appeared natural and strong. The blues of the British uniforms and the greens of the countryside were perfectly contrasted with orange flames of destruction. Aside from a few wide-angle and long distance shots, "The Battle of Britain" is a shining example of how to display a four decade old film on the Blu-ray format.
The transfer, unfortunately, is not perfect. I have three relatively minor complaints that are apparent throughout the film, but do not spoil the overall experience. The first thing I noticed with this presentation of "The Battle of Britain" is that the source materials were clean, but there is a thin veil of film grain present throughout much of the film. It does not hurt the strong level of detail, but it exists. Secondly, I found skin tones to be a little more ‘pinkish' than I typically prefer. This was something that was easily adjusted to within a couple of minutes, but color of flesh is a little off. Finally, my biggest complaint was that a number of scenes exhibit strong edge enhancement. These scenes usually involve actors, but a couple of the flight scenes had strong halos around the aircraft. The flaws of this transfer keep the film from scoring a perfect 10, but this is still a very strong transfer.
"The Battle of Britain" comes equipped with three full English language soundtracks and each is notable for one reason or another. When the film was released, United Artists had been less than happy with the original Sir William Walton score and had composer Ron Goodwin augment the ‘short' Walton score with additional music. The original theatrical release contained only one number of the Walton score. The first soundtrack contained on the Blu-ray release is the default DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio mix that expands the film's original monaural mix to a full six channels, but contains the theatrical Ron Goodwin scored soundtrack. Typically, a one channel upconversion to the full six channels results in less-than-impressive results. However, "The Battle of Britain" effectively uses the rear surrounds, .1 LFE subwoofer and nicely pans between each of the five main channels to create an effective surround experience that may feel a little forced, but is impressive.
When compared to the accompanying Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix that recreates the original theatrical experience of "The Battle of Britain" it is easy to see just how good the new surround remix of the film is. I cannot say enough of how impressed I was with the six channel HD Master audio mix. It allowed the film to sound as if it was actually recorded with stereo tracks and whoever is responsible for the work done on the surround work of this title needs to be commended. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix should sound quite familiar to those that own one of the two previous releases of the film on DVD. It is identical, but you'll never want to return to that mix after hearing the new audio mix. The third and final soundtrack is a six channel English 5.1 multi-channel surround mix that contains the original Sir William Walton audio. This isn't quite as strong as the DTS mix, but the difference in scoring is apparent and the score isn't as boisterous as the Goodwin score. For all three tracks, dialogue is very clear and you'll never have a problem understanding the British accent.
While I briefly covered the optional English soundtracks in the ‘Audio' section of this review, it should be noted that the Blu-ray release contains the optional Sir William Walton scored version of the film and the original mono mix that can be used to compare against the new and impressive 5.1 channel DTS HD mix. I noted that I had forgotten to mention the French 5.1 Dolby Surround mix that is also provided or the Spanish, English, Cantonese and Korean subtitles. However, by placing them here in the ‘Extras' part of the review I was perhaps able to provide false hope that Fox had actually provided some of the rather nice supplements from the previous 2-disc special edition here. Unfortunately, they are absent and I would have much rather seen a 2-layer 50 GB release with some of those nice features included.
"The Battle of Britain" may be the weakest of five war titles released simultaneously by Fox on Blu-ray. However, the film is an absolute treat for military aviation enthusiasts and a solid example of how a film that is nearly forty years old can be spiffed up for entry into the high definition marketplace. The film may lack a strong narrative and the ensemble cast may be more of a hindrance than a benefit, but I cannot say enough of how great this title looks and how amazed I was at the 5.1 channel audio remix provided with the film. The film lacks any dramatic plot lines or feeling of sympathy for any of the numerous characters. It attempts to tackle too much story in a short two hours and it cannot be called a classic film because of these shortcomings. It is a wonderful dish of aviation eye candy and I would expect other air combat enthusiasts to be equally excited by how good this film looks and sounds. It is a gift to those of us that love these old military aircraft and thankfully, Fox did well in making this film look and sound so good on Blu-ray.