Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The Dam Busters" - Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd (1954)

Michael Redgrave stars in this true life 1954 British drama of World War Two as Dr. Barnes N. Wallis, who is obsessed with trying to find a way to shorten the war with Germany by destroying her ability to produce steel. The center of that industry was located in the Ruhr Valley, surrounded by dams. Conventional bombing was too unreliable to “bust” these dams, and so Dr. Wallis must overcome several obstacles in order to achieve this goal.

Shot in black and white, while interwoven with actual footage of the tests themselves; and later the actual bombings; combine to make this film feel like a documentary; which, in many ways, it is. The film carefully takes the viewer through each step of the process that led to the success in overcoming several critical factors; the weight of the bomb; the height of the drop; and the speed of the plane. All had to be coordinated if the mission were to bear fruit.

The admirals and politicians all think he’s insane; or at the very least, eccentric; save for one man, Group Captain Gibbons, played by Richard Todd. Along with his crew, and several others, he trains for low altitude bombing; 60 feet above sea level; without knowing what it is he is going to be doing. During this phase of the operation, he realizes that he has no accurate way to gauge his altitude over the water, and so an invention is necessary.

For this they use two lights and some good old trigonometry to solve the problem. The lights are mounted beneath the plane and set at such angles so that when their beams intersect the plane is 60 feet above the surface of the water. 

But, with one problem solved there is still another, as they need to be able to tell when they are at a set distance from the dams before releasing their payloads. Without radar this is, at best, an educated guess. So, using two ping pong balls set in a slingshot type contraption acts as a sort of stadimeter; which is used to judge lateral differences between ships at sea; By placing the towers of the dam in line with the ping pong balls they can determine just when to level off and make their drop.

But this was not the end of their problem, as they now had to figure out a way to make the bomb skip along the water like a stone before hitting the dam. Dropping a bomb from above would allow the water to cushion the blow to the dam, thus making the whole mission futile. It was while reading about Lord Nelson that Dr. Wallis gets his answer to this problem. It seems that Lord Nelson used to fire his cannon at such an angle to cause the canon ball to skip on the water while speeding towards its target. This assured that the ball would strike the other ship, delivering the maximum blow, without the cushioning effects of the water. This was the most difficult part of the plan to apply to the bomb drop.

Working diligently over the last remaining weeks before the scheduled bombing, Dr. Wallis is able; through trial and error; to find just the right type of casing necessary to keep the bomb intact as it skips across the water. With only days to go, and the top brass all too willing to scrub the mission, he is under the gun to solve this last problem.

The film was the biggest hit at the British box office in 1955, and won acclaim for R.C. Sheriff’s adaptation of Paul Brickhill’s book “Enemy Coast Ahead”, which detailed the entire operation. A must see for history buffs of all ages.

No comments:

Post a Comment