The year is 1942 and British scientist Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) is testing out new theories and equipment in his back garden in the countryside. His children are helping him, and the local doctor has been called to attend to his daughter who is suffering from the effects of a throat infection, but once Wallis's wife (Ursula Jeans) is alone with the doctor, she tells him what she actually called him out for is to check on her husband. He has been working day and night with hardly a break as his contribution to the war effort is so important, and she worries for his health, but Wallis has hit upon an idea so innovative that it will be taking up all his time...
As Eric Coates' patriotic march introduces it, Brits of a certain age feel a swell of pride when watching The Dam Busters, a tale of real life British pluck in the face of the Nazi war machine. No matter that the actual effect of the raid on the Ruhr dam was far less damaging to the Nazis than they might have hoped, the fact that it was attempted at all, and to an extent succeeded, was enough to make for great cinematic drama. Starring in this was one of the most popular film stars in the country, Richard Todd, who played the bomber squadron leader Guy Gibson; Todd had proved his worth to the public by appearing in a number of war movies, and so was the ideal choice.
That Gibson had died eighteen months after the events depicted in the film only made the story more poignant, and must have been in the minds of the British audiences at the time, as the Second World War was all too fresh in the memories of the nation, then struggling under austerity that meant a boost to the people's morale was precisely what was needed, hence so many war movies were made. The Dam Busters was considered by many to be one of the best of them, and for some it was the greatest of the era, but watching it now modern audiences may have found they needed a measure of patience for a film which took its time in setting up the story it told.
For much of the first half hour we follow Wallis and his battles with the bureaucrats as his idea to hamper the Nazis by destroying three dams with his "bouncing bomb" is met with polite scepticism. But don't be fooled, as the human cost of the conflict is not being ignored, it is being carefully built up in the minds of the audience in the background, so that the science that went into creating all that death and destruction is not existing in a vacuum. Non-Brits may well baulk at the fact that not one German character appears for the whole two hours, so that all those civilians killed in the raid seem to have been neglected by the filmmakers, but this is not to say that the results here were heartless, it's more to do with the audience they had considered as they made it.
Other things date the piece as well, most notoriously the name of Gibson's dog which becomes a code word during the mission; essentially the dreaded n-word is used here more often than your average Wu Tang Clan album, though not as a pejorative, as the pilot really did name his beloved dog that. All the way through you might be of the opinion that this is a dry relating of the facts, with only two bursts of emotion: one of raucous good humour as the squadron larks about in the barracks, and the other because of what happens to the pooch on the eve of the raid, yet even then these have the sense of stiff upper lips being held in check. It's only at the close of the film, after a tense rendering of the bombing that was effectively lifted almost whole for the climax of Star Wars, that the emotion catches up with the events, and many have been known to wipe away a tear in the final moments as the loss of life hits them. For all the reservations it might elicit now, The Dam Busters was masterful storytelling.