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The Battle of Britain on Screen: “The Few” in British Film and Television Drama

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The Battle of Britain on Screen: “The Few” in British Film and Television Drama, 2nd ed. by S. P. MacKenzie. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, 192 pp.


In this second edition, S. P. MacKenzie updates his earlier study of the British Film and Television Drama treatment of the Battle of Britain on Screen. In modern British history, World War II’s Battle of Britain holds a key spot in the collective memory. Facing Adolf Hitler’s war machine alone after the fall of France, England knew that its fate rested in the flying skills of a “few” British Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilots. The RAF prevented a German invasion by defending England from the Luftwaffe’s aerial assault. Since the battle played such a pivotal role in the homeland’s survival, it is only logical that a portrayal of that struggle would make its way to both film and television.

The Battle of Britain on Screen does more than merely describe the plot of six movies and television dramas. Rather, it offers a full history of the productions, addressing how each film’s concept was developed, how the cast was selected, and how both flying and static aircraft were sourced. Following a brief account of the making of the projects are a synopsis of the plot and technical details about the films. Because movies and television shows are not created in a vacuum, the author also examines the social environment during their production and how it affected the treatment of the Battle of Britain. Finally, the book covers both the critics’ and public’s reception of these dramas.

Actually produced prior the battle, The Lion Has Wings (1939) is the first movie that MacKenzie discusses. Filmed in record time as Britain was on the cusp of the war, The Lion Has Wings is best described as a teaming with propaganda to bolster British morale, portraying the RAF and British air defenses as nearly invincible. As one might expect, access to British aircraft for air-to-air filming was limited and nonexistent for German planes.

In 1942, fewer than four years after the release of The Lion Has Wings, the wartime film The First of the Few appeared on the silver screen with its telling of the story of R. J. Mitchell and the development of the legendary Supermarine Spitfire. Although the movie was well received, the producers “took liberties with the facts” (p. 30) to put forward their desired story line.

Angels One Five was the first British post–World War II film (1952) about the Battle of Britain. As with all such movies, securing period aircraft proved difficult; consequently, the film’s focus shifted from the machines to the people involved in the battle. Furthermore, the title changed from The Battle of Britain to Angels One Five, which portrays life at a British fighter station by following Pilot Officer T. B. “Septic” Baird from his arrival on station until his death in combat.

Four years later (1956), Reach for the Sky premiered, telling the story of British ace Sir Douglas Bader, who lost his legs in a flying accident prior to the war but fought his way back into the RAF and became of Britain’s top aces before he was shot down and captured. Bader actually consulted on the making of the film.

More than 25 years (in 1969) after the Battle of Britain came to an end, a movie of the same name presents both the British and German sides of the battle. Doing so required the production team to walk a tightrope to accommodate both the British and German veterans who served as technical advisers. In this genre of movies, Battle of Britain is known for having assembled the largest collection of British and German (actually Spanish-made under license) aircraft. The filmmakers shot a considerable amount of air-to-air footage (primarily in Spain)—so much that the outtakes and excess footage have been used in other more recent Battle of Britain movies (both British and international).

Reflecting a shift away from portraying the “few” (British fighter pilots) as gallant heroes, the television series Piece of Cake (1988) portrays the mythical RAF “Hornet” fighter squadron in what was described as a “revisionist interpretation” (p. 84) of the “few.” Piece of Cake follows the squadron during the early days of the war with the British expeditionary force in France and ends with the Battle of Britain. Some of the aerial footage is beautiful, but MacKenzie points out that the series is riddled with inaccuracies, including the use of Spitfires in pre–Battle of Britain France (Hawker Hurricanes were too difficult to secure for filming).

In what the author calls “a reaction against Piece of Cake” (p. 86), the 1991 television drama A Perfect Hero features British Spitfire pilot Hugh Fleming, whose face becomes disfigured when his airplane catches fire after being shot by a German fighter. The story covers Fleming’s trials and tribulations in war-torn England during his recovery and attempt to adjust to his disfigurement. Ultimately, he discovers that he feels comfortable only when he flies a Spitfire.

Finally, First Light (2010) is based on teenage Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum’s autobiography, which he wrote as a form of personal therapy to help him with “survivor’s guilt” (p. 114). First Light “foregrounded the cumulative psychological stress of aerial combat in a way rarely touched on in earlier screen dramas” (p. 115).

Although the subject of this text is British film and television, MacKenzie does take the occasional detour to briefly discuss non-British productions such as the Czech film A Dark Blue World and the American films Pearl Harbor and Yank in the RAF. Throughout the book, the author highlights the British distain for American movies about the Battle of Britain that depict Americans as heroes who came over to England and saved the day.

Even though The Battle of Britain on Screen might appear to be a “niche” book concerned only with a small group of movies and television shows, this account supplies a well-delivered understanding of how the social memory of events affects their portrayal on screen. Aficionados of war movies will certainly enjoy this book, as will students of the Battle of Britain. A quick Internet search confirmed that all of the movies and television shows are still available for purchase. Warbird fans will also enjoy the text because it relates how the various production efforts were able (or not able) to secure the aircraft necessary to bring the movies and television shows to life. Hopefully, S. P. MacKenzie will expand his study of the Battle of Britain by writing a book on the American movie industry’s treatment of the European air war.

Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF, Retired
Barksdale AFB, Louisiana

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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