THE DAM BUSTERS: War Filmmaking Never Changes

The trench run existed 20 years before STAR WARS did.

When we talk about influences on Star Wars, the conversation usually tends towards the philosophical and the narrative. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces gets brought up often, as do The Hidden Fortress and Flash Gordon; university courses have been run on Star Wars’ links to Eastern religion. The cinematic craft of the movie - outside of concept art and “how did they do that” visual effects docs - is often underappreciated, particularly as it pertains to prior works.

1977 George Lucas was a well-versed cinephile with an intriguing blend of influences in everything from art cinema to sci-fi serials. But in putting together the space battles for his his science-fantasy epic, he went to a source that seems off-genre, but makes sense when you consider the Star Wars' wholesome spirit of derring-do (and, you know, fighter planes): World War II movies, and specifically the 1955 British film The Dam Busters.

For its first half, The Dam Busters seems an odd film to cite as an influence on Star Wars. It’s a surprisingly dry film about military engineering and politics, as Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) and his compatriots work towards making a bomb that can skim over the surface of a river (and thus over torpedo nets) to destroy strategically important German dams. But convincing the higher-ups that the plan can work - not to mention actually carrying it out - proves more difficult, and that’s where the comparisons come in.

Like the final act of Star Wars, The Dam Busters tells an incredible story of a crowning achievement in military precision. The pilots in Operation Chastise had to fly at an altitude of sixty feet, over water, at night, under enemy fire, to deliver a specially-designed bomb to a precise target. Not all the bombers hit their targets; only two of the target dams were breached, and indeed, some bombs merely impacted on the surface. 53 of the 133 pilots involved were killed in action, and hundreds of civilians and POWs died as well. Even the dams that were destroyed were fully re-armed and operational within months. But like the best military operations, the story behind The Dam Busters was bold and audacious, ultimately proving a victory of propaganda and morale.

The Dam Busters is old-school in a lot of ways. It’s a tale of spiffing British wartime ingenuity and courage; it’s shot in Academy ratio in black and white; every time the flight crew’s black dog is referred to by its name, Nigger, it’s tainted by a pungent whiff of casual racism. The film’s lasting legacy is its climactic dogfight sequence, happily acknowledged by George Lucas as the inspiration for the Rebels' attack on the Death Star trench. 

Conceptually, the two sequences are very similar, but the homage runs deeper than that. The Death Star sequence becomes, at times, a borderline shot for shot remake of The Dam Busters. All those shots of pilots checking in from their cockpits are straight out of the 1955 films, with even much of the dialogue copied note for note. The turbolaser towers; the back-and-forth between the fighters and the base; even the specific way fighter crashes are cut - it’s all Dam Busters, beat for beat. Lucas used clips from the film (and 633 Squadron, which forms a curious middle link between the two) in his pre-visualisation of the Death Star attack sequence, and it shows.

It’s easy to ignore how effective the Dam Busters trench run is, given the ubiquity of its Star Wars equivalent. There’s nothing flashy about the coverage. We’re limited mostly to shots of the pilots’ reactions, with occasional cutaways to their points of view, or quick flashes to exterior shots of aircraft. The effect - particularly given the tight cutting between pilots - is to place the viewer in the cockpit, simulating the claustrophobic radio chatter and the stress of staying on target.

Lucas’ use of The Dam Busters’ dogfight sequence fits well with his repurposing of World War II iconography in a science fantasy setting. The Empire is designed with Nazi Germany in mind, with sleek, snappy uniforms and stark architecture, while the more functional Rebel pilot uniforms evoke actual aircraft flight suits. It makes sense that Lucas would draw from one of the great World War II films for his dogfight scene, particularly given the lack of action references from within science fiction at that scale.

It could be argued that parts of John Williams’ score took inspiration, too, from Eric Coates’ iconic Dam Busters March, itself inspired by the marches of English composer Edward Elgar. The final strains of the Throne Room theme, particularly, are extremely reminiscent of the 1955 film’s theme tune. There’s a steadfast nobility to both that fits those final ceremonial moments of Star Wars and frankly the entire film of The Dam Busters.

Director Michael Anderson would end up working across a broad array of genres throughout his career, from sci-fi (Logan’s Run) to pulp adventure (Around the World in 80 Days) to creature features (Orca) and straight-up pulp action (Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze). Each of those films demonstrates a classical mode of shooting, but nothing has entered the cinematic lexicon quite like The Dam Busters.

Lucas wasn't the only filmmaker inspired by Anderson's work. Renowned military historian and historically renowned filmmaker Peter Jackson has been teasing a remake since 2008. It’s supposed to be directed by previz artist Christian Rivers (who likely deserves a portion of the directing credit on several of Jackson’s films), and incorporate input from newly declassified military documents and original Dam Buster, New Zealander Les Munro, who sadly passed away this August. A lot of work has gone into the production already, particularly from Weta Workshop and writer Stephen Fry, but it’s never managed to score a green light. Maybe one day.

Perhaps The Dam Busters is just too old-school a story to retell today. Perhaps we’ve become jaded to dogfight sequences after seeing six Star Wars films and countless films about fighter pilots (including the Lucas-produced Red Tails). It’s essentially a story about a bunch of men practicing a thing and then doing that thing, which takes a great deal of directorial skill to turn into riveting cinema. But Michael Anderson pulled it off, and in doing so created visual vocabulary that has endured to this day. He turns 96 next month. Good show, sir.