The story of the bombing mission is told in the movie in three sections. In Act 1, Dr. B. N. Wallis, a scientist played by Michael Redgrave, works endless hours on the seemingly impossible problem of bombing three dams in the Ruhr Valley of Germany. Those dams supplied water and electricity to an industrial area used by Nazi Germany to build war weapons. Knocking them out would knock out those factories. But destroying the dams was proving to be difficult. Earlier attempts failed. Dr. Wallis figured that a bomb released at low levels and designed to skip across the water, the way a stone can be skipped over the surface of a pond, could hit a dam at exactly the right place to blow a hole in it. His theory worked well enough in scale models to get the green light from the military.
In Act 2, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, an ace bomber pilot played by Richard Todd, is recruited to form a squadron that will train to fly at low levels, come at their targets over water and drop these special bombs. His problem is getting his planes to fly at the right speed and at the right height. Flying over water is tricky. Gibson and his men have to create a simple, crude but accurate device to achieve it. In the meantime, Dr. Wallis is trying the patience of the brass with test after test of full sized bombs that fail by breaking apart on hitting the water. Before the plan can be cancelled, Wallis creates a bomb that works and can bounce along the surface of the water.
Even though most viewers will know the outcome, the tension created by the tests and preparations is very effective in this picture.
“The Dam Busters” delivers a lot of excitement and punch. In many ways it is similar to “Apollo 13,” in which three American astronauts face a life or death problem while in space and they, and the scientists and engineers at mission control, must race to find a solution.
The film was directed by Michael Anderson, who had a long and varied career in England and in Hollywood and who directed 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” and “Logan’s Run” in 1976. “The Dam Busters” was based on Gibson’s memoir and a book by Paul Brickhill (who also wrote the book on which the movie “The Great Escape” was based). The screenplay was by R.C. Sheriff, a long-time film and television writer who wrote the scripts for 1939’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” and 1947’s “Odd Man Out.”
And two minor points worth mentioning: First, viewers with a sharp eye will spot a young Patrick McGoohan as a guard at the air base; Second, there is a disturbing note in the film in the offensive name of Gibson’s dog.
(For more overlooked movies, see Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.)