Dam and Blast
The Dam Busters, shown on BBC Television one Sunday afternoon recently, must be the perfect war film for people like myself who don’t really approve of war, or of the military mystique of competitive valour and unquestioning obedience to authority, or of the exploitation of these things for purposes of entertainment, but nevertheless go weak at the knees at the image of a flak-scarred Lancaster bomber coming in to land on a dandelion-strewn airfield at dawn somewhere in East Anglia in 1943.
[*] The most recent addition to this literature is Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox, by Alexander McKee (Souvenir Press, 334 pp., £8.95, 3 June, 0 285 62515 2). Though written without great finesse, and adding little that is substantive to David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden (1963), McKee’s book is remarkable for the large number of eyewitness accounts, both German and Allied, that he has gathered together, vividly describing the apocalyptic horror caused by the area bombing of Dresden on 13/14 February, 1945. Anyone who still doubts that this raid was wholly indefensible on moral, military or political grounds should read it.
Vol. 4 No. 21 · 18 November 1982
SIR: I enjoyed reading David Lodge’s reflections on The Dam Busters (LRB, 21 October), particularly his attempt to show how this popular war film differs, in its clipped-back tones and rather chilly finish, from many others of its genre. Nevertheless, in moving from literary criticism to a more broadly speculative cultural commentary Lodge runs into one or two problems. In particular, his use of what one might call the English department ‘we’ begs large questions. Lodge describes how, at the end of the film, Gibson attempts to console Barnes Wallis, distraught at hearing of the aircrew losses, by commenting: ‘Even if all those fellows had known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be coming back, they would still have gone for it.’ Lodge then observes of this remark: ‘But even if he really believed it, we certainly don’t.’ Oh don’t ‘we’ indeed – and ‘certainly’ too! I can assure him that when I first saw this film as a schoolboy I certainly did ‘believe’ the remark, and so, perhaps, did many others in the audience, though I don’t intend to set up any interpretative unity to counter his. Was it not one more affirmation of quietly heroic sacrifice? Or, at the very least, one of those statements for which the popular mythology of war demanded a patriotic suspension of disbelief? Nothing that Lodge says about the nature of the ending need conflict with this kind of interpretation, which relies on some notion of the terrible majesty of loss and which I imagine many post-Falkland audiences might be as inclined to share as those of the Fifties.
Centre for Communication Studies, University of Liverpool