Release Date(s)1955 (June 4, 2018)
Studio(s)Associated British Picture Corporation (Studio Canal)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This is a UK Blu-ray coded for Region B. US viewers will need an all-region Blu-ray player to view it.]
In 1942, with the Allied war effort against the Nazis well underway, a British engineer, Dr. Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave, The Lady Vanishes, Battle of Britain), conceives of a wild new kind of “bouncing” bomb that can be dropped at low altitude over water. If done precisely right, the bomb will skip over the surface like a stone, then sink alongside the German dams it’s meant to destory and explode. But proving the design works on paper is one thing, actually building the bomb and using it is another. With so much on the line, Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd, The Hasty Heart) is given the task of forming 617 Squadron, training its pilots on the proper technique, and leading them on one of the most daring raids in RAF history.
Based in part upon Paul Brickhill’s novel of the same name (he also wrote The Great Escape) and directed by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, Logan’s Run), The Dam Busters is not only a great war film—one particularly appreciated for its attention to detail—it features some truly remarkable aerial photography using actual British Lancaster bombers. To capture the feel of low-level flight on camera, the air crews actually had to fly lower than they did on the real mission—just 30 feet off the ground in some cases. The film’s leads are both quite good in their roles and eagle-eyed viewers will note an early film appearance by Robert Shaw (Jaws, Force 10 from Navarone), as well as a quick cameo by Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner). The Dam Busters is also noted for its remarkable miniature work. Gil Taylor, who was a special effects photographer here, later served as the cinematographer for George Lucas’ Star Wars. But the Star Wars connections don’t end there. Stuart Freeborn, who would go on to create Chewbacca and Yoda, worked on the make-up team for this film. And no Star Wars fan can watch The Dam Busters without noting the remarkable similarity of its air raid climax to the attack on the Death Star—that later fictional battle was directly inspired by (and patterned after) the one in this film. The Dam Busters is a favorite of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson too, who still has plans to produce a modern remake.
The Dam Busters was shot in B&W on 35mm film with spherical lenses and is presented in the 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio. In honor of the 75th anniversary of the real mission depicted (aka Operation Chastise), Studio Canal scanned the original camera negative in 16-bit 4K and restored it digitally frame by frame to repair damage and remove dust and other age-related artifacts. Downsampled to HD for this Blu-ray release, the result is a stunning 1080p image with superb contrast and impressive detailing. Shadows are deep and well-detailed. Subtle textures are nicely refined and the photochemical grain structure is preserved but never distracting. Optical transitions and rear projection shots are a tad soft here and there, but of course those issues are baked into the negative. This is a striking B&W image—the film has certainly never looked better.
One item of note: The Dam Busters has often been censored for British TV broadcasts (and exhibition in all formats in the US) for its use of the word ‘Nigger,’ which was the real life name of Gibson’s dog and squadron mascot—this version is uncensored as originally produced, though with an appropriate disclaimer added to the film before its opening credits.
Sound is available here in both original English and German 2.0 mono in DTS-HD Master Audio format, with optional subtitles in English for the Hard of Hearing and German. Don’t expect much in the way of sonic frills, but the dialogue is clean, music and sound effects are well layered into the mix, and the track has a full tonal quality that serves the rumbling of aircraft engines well. The audio restoration ensures that there’s little in the way of pops or analog hiss. It’s a solid mix for a film of this vintage.
To help mark the anniversary, this Blu-ray includes some nice extras as follows (in HD or upsampled SD):
- 617 Squadron Remembers (56:29)
- The Making of The Dam Busters (39:31)
- Restoration (4:58)
- The Dam Busters Royal Premier (1955 – 3:19)
- The Dam Busters Reunion (1955 – 2:59)
- Footage of the Bomb Tests (6:36)
- Sir Barnes Wallis (1972 – 28:46)
- Behind-the-Scenes Still Gallery
It’s a great mix of both new and vintage material. The Making of The Dam Busters was created by Studio Canal for this release, offering a retrospective and newly uncovered details on the production of the film. There’s a brief look at the film’s restoration, as well as historical material on the mission itself and the men who made it possible—617 Squadron Remembers and Sir Barnes Wallis. A pair of vintage newsreels covers the UK premier (complete with Princess Margaret in attendance) and a reunion of the pilots involved. There’s also vintage footage of the RAF testing the bomb design in 1942, and a gallery of production photos completes the package. Note that a more elaborate Region B Collector’s Edition version of this release is available too; it includes all of the above, as well as photographs, a 64-page book, and the film in 1.75:1 aspect ratio on Blu-ray as well. You can find that here.
The Dam Busters is a classic of British cinema, not to mention a magnificent true story of the Second World War, and Studio Canal’s restoration is nothing short of superb. Combined with its budget-friendly price and the nice batch of extras, this Blu-ray release is a winner. (Just make sure you have an all-region Blu-ray player to view it, or wait for Film Movement’s new Their Finest Hour box set which includes the film on Region A Blu-ray.) Recommended.
- Bill Hunt