Bombs Away

The idea was genuinely brilliant – scientist Barnes Wallis developed a bouncing bomb, designed to skip across water, sink, then explode, shattering German dams and weakening the enemy’s steel production.

Discussions around the real world events and their importance to the greater cause remain debatable. Now, the dam destruction falls under war crime statutes; hundreds were drowned as the water flooded factories and towns, not all of them soldiers. Germany was then able to resume operations in little over a month. The attacks on multiple sites were, in execution, nominally effective in their goal.

Yet, The Dam Busters lingers in British culture for showing national ingenuity, resolve, and strategy – every element needed in a native war film. While history marginalizes the bombing runs, the science demonstrates Britain’s resolve. Wallis came up against not only physics, but wartime bureaucracy. Government rejected the idea as implausible, even chastising the absurdity. Wallis (Michael Redgrave) kept going, not only in research but in order to be heard, he skirted leadership.

The Dam Busters celebrates victory, doing so without commentary

It’s repetitive and overlong as a film, seeing Wallis’ various tests play out. As the mission becomes possible, Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) begins working through the in-flight challenges, the odds ever greater against success. The Dam Busters follows the in-war hero’s journey, consistent in ensuring the stakes go against the British troops.

There’s additional reason The Dam Busters permeates: George Lucas used the finale as a basis for Star Wars: A New Hope’s finale. The connections are clear. Bombing runs come up against AA fire, attacks miss their target, pilots crash, and it’s a visual effects spectacle. Even shot-for-shot at times, the trench run borrows liberally for its drama.

Credit then to this 1955 effort for inspiring more than a country, but a central piece of pop culture too. The Dam Busters celebrates victory, doing so without commentary. Other than a snippet of German workers fleeing rushing water, the death toll isn’t mentioned.

Nationalist cinema shies away from such realities, and that’s undeniably Dam Busters. For showing what science can achieve and the resourcefulness within Britain’s ranks, Dam Busters does what it needs to, coupled with the drama and memorable characters. The 617 RAF Squadron who carried out the attacks are given a crowd-pleasing epic, along with a wonderfully composed military hymn.

Video

The remarkable results of a new 4K scan show immediately in this transfer. Precision grain and immaculate sharpness pair to display detail in droves. Texture swells, pinpointing the tiniest stitch on a uniform or suit. Facial definition goes well beyond what’s expected of something this vintage. Consistency this great is rare.

Expertly calibrated gray scale gives Dam Busters all the depth required, keeping bombing bay operators draped in pure black shadows. High contrast builds dimension, also superb.

While certain stock footage is unavoidably damaged, few other imperfections remain. Occasional scratches (only notable during effect shots, primarily) and dirt appear, yet in minuscule quantity. The clean-up efforts make Dam Busters look new at times. Sensational work.

Audio

Like the video, the PCM mix is given equal care. Fantastic care is taken to preserve the score, holding true at its high treble peaks, and this isn’t an easy source. The horns reach a high pitch. Clarity loses nothing except from the usual ‘50s era scratchiness.

More surprising is the low-end, giving bombers proper weight as they take off. Their engines roar. It’s more than unusual to feel this much bass from something this vintage, and to have it sound natural.

Extras

Splendid stuff here too, worthy of a stand-alone release. A newly produced making-of runs 40-minutes, an excellent watch. Sir Barnes Wallis is remembered in a 29-minute piece, while the pilots themselves appear in a nearly hour-long documentary (recorded in the mid/late ‘90s it seems). Actual test footage runs six minutes, and Dam Busters’ premiere is highlighted in a commercial reel.

Don’t skip the restoration comparison; that’s mislabeled. The five minute featurette delves into the mastering process with the team who handled the camera negative.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

The Dam Busters
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
4

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Pure post-war spectacle, The Dam Busters isn’t concerned with the after effects, only the national pride that led to a British victory.

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