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Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) frets as the Luftwaffe begins its bombing raids. The German plan is to destroy the RAF on the ground and to break the backbone of the Brits at home. Baron von Richter (Curt Jurgens) visits Sir David Kelly (Ralph Richardson), the British Minister to neutral Switzerland with details of Hitler's terms. The Baron believes they are generous but Sir David is in no mood to consider the guarantees of a madman. Meanwhile, time is running out. The RAF is desperately short of pilots and planes, but the wily Dowding devises a crafty plan to limit the effectiveness of the German raids and buy more time.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
The extensive 150 minutes Special Features package includes a 1969 documentary in which passers-by outside the American Embassy in London are asked what the Battle Of Britain means to them. Young Britons and Americans are confused. One thinks it might have had something to do with the American War Of Independence, and an embassy employee rather stupidly refuses to comment because she doesn't think she should comment on anything! But two are crystal clear about the battle that turned the tide in a war that Britain seemed likely to lose. "It brought the U.S. into the conflict where we should have been much earlier," one said. And: "If it wasn't for The Battle Of Britain I wouldn't be here today."

The DVD release coincides with the 60th Anniversary of WWII, and pays tribute to the courageous pilots who fought and sacrificed life and limb in the skies above "the lonely island." Dedicated to absolute authenticity the production scrounged over 100 vintage war planes from all over Europe, assembling, in numbers, the world's 35th largest air-force. With British aces Ginger Lacey and Bob Stanford Tuck serving as technical advisors, along with Adolf Galland, who was one of Germany's most destructive WW2 airmen. The aerial action, littered with smashed and plummeting planes, explosions, falling debris and parachutists, is spectacular and terrifying.

A fascinating bonus feature, Authenticity In The Air underlines the "huge safety risk" of working with vintage planes that had not flown for over 25 years. Director Guy Hamilton who served, ironically, with the navy and would follow this historical epic with a trio of Bond films, plants the viewer right in the cockpit with pilots from both sides as they are peppered with fire from all points of the compass. The images are at times gruesomely graphic...Hurricanes, Spitfires, Stukas and Messerschmitts are shot to smithereens, as the blood of pilots and gunners are spattered on windscreens and canopies.

Originally shot in 70mm Panavision, the DVD images are gloriously crisp and clean. It all happens, up there in the sky, a mite too repetitively, and most of the pilots are faceless behind their goggles and masks and have no names when the BBC count them among the casualties. Down below, it's eerie to see black smoke billowing over backgrounds of pristine green, but the star-studded cast is wasted in personal stories that are as fragmented as the blasted bombers. Squadron leader (Robert Shaw) barks orders at skylarking pilots ("Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area") while Wing Commander (Michael Caine) laments that he must send Spitfire pilots with only seven hours fly-time to their doom.

Christopher Plummer is effectively terse as an officer who detests his wife's increasing commitment to the WAAF. "Trusting in radar and praying to God" is Laurence Olivier as a solemn Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding who fears a crushing defeat with his undermanned force. At one stage he imparts a stunning statistic...that every available British plane is doing battle in the air, leaving no reserves on the ground. "The essential arithmetic," he explains gravely, "is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at a rate of four to one if we're to keep pace at all." Under Hamilton's direction, these people come and go without fanfare.

Their stories have no beginning and no end and the lack of human interaction may account for the film's failure. Over 700 people were employed in the aerial units alone, and so most of the $12 million cost, way over budget, was blown in the air, while on the ground only $2 million was salvaged at the box office.

This Special Edition DVD allows a first or a second look, lest we forget those more than 500 young pilots who gave their lives in that fierce and furious battle, who did "such a tremendous thing for the whole free world." They deserve not to be confused with the latest in arcade games.

Published September 9, 2004

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(UK, 1969)

CAST: Laurence Olivier, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York

DIRECTOR: Guy Hamilton

SCRIPT: James Kennaway, Wilfred Greatorex

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 enhanced; DD 5.1. Languages English, Spanish, German, Dutch, French.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Battle For The Battle Of Britain; A Film For The Few; Authenticity In The Air; Recollections of an R.A.F. Squadron Leader; Images From The Sky animated photo gallery, original trailer.

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: August 18, 2004

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