The Ultimate Dambusters Collection
by Jef Burnham
Available in a 3 DVD set from BFS Entertainment on February 9, 2010.
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The three documentaries that comprise The Ultimate Dambusters Collection are certainly varied in quality and content, but in their variety they do manage to provide the viewer with a clear image of perhaps the most famous air raid in history— the British Royal Air Force bombings of three German dams on May 17, 1943. Though the set is not without its drawbacks and peculiarities, it’s really a terrific collection for history buffs.
Dambusters: The True Story (1992) is an extremely conventional documentary with robotic narration. It details the mission undertaken by the No. 617 Squadron of the RAF, nicknamed the Dambusters, which was to be a key victory for the Allies, as the destruction of two of the three dams effectively mired the Nazi war effort. Dambusters tells not only the story of the men who flew the modified Lancaster bombers into German territory, but of the development of the innovative weapon employed by the RAF for the mission: the bouncing bomb. The documentarians rely heavily on the drudgingly robotic narration as well as interviews with the original mission’s pilots and current military pilots, and archival footage, including rare footage of bouncing bomb tests.
For a greater insight into how the RAF operated, Night Bombers (1981) takes us inside the preparation and execution of an RAF attack, using rare color footage filmed between 1944 and 1945. As you may have gathered, this documentary has nothing to do with the 1943 Dambusters, instead depicting an RAF attack on Berlin. Ignoring the obvious discrepancy between this films’ content and the title of this collection, Night Bombers indeed gives one a feel for the conditions and the atmosphere in which the men and women of the RAF operated during the time of the Dambusters.
But the centerpiece of this collection is really Last of the Dambusters, narrated by Stephen Fry (Jeeves and Wooster, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, QI), who gives the piece an essential downplayed, sympathetic tone. This documentary briefly recaps the details of the mission itself, but the majority of its time is devoted to Johnny Johnson, one of the original Dambusters and the man who deployed the only bouncing bomb to strike the third dam of the mission. Early in the documentary, Johnny travels to France, where he follows a team of historians who uncover the remnants of the Lancaster he served on in a field in France. Notably, Last of the Dambusters provides views of the bombings from both the British and German perspectives as Johnny meets with civilians whose towns were ravaged by the subsequent flooding of the dams’ destruction. For the most part, the film is straightforward and detached, but there are some truly emotional moments late in the film as Johnny visits the dam he bombed and tours the sites where many of his comrades’ Lancasters were shot down or crashed, including a site where a couple of German citizens maintain a memorial for the fallen British troops.
The only special feature in the set is a 31-minute piece on Last of the Dambusters that is practically an additional documentary unto itself, featuring extended/alternate scenes of the dig in France, interviews with Johnny Johnson, and additional cg footage recreating the bombings.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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