When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 June (1.25 pm)
When it was released, Reach for the Sky became a colossal hit in UK cinemas, the top grossing film of the year and sealed Douglas Bader’s status as a bona fide English hero. Certainly the tale of a pilot who lost both his legs after a flying accident, and then returned to the skies through sheer force of will, becoming a central figure of the Battle of Britain in 1940, is a winning one, and it’s told winningly. It starred Kenneth More, one of the highest profile British actors of the 1950s and an entirely appropriate choice for the film’s story. More was entirely capable of depicting Bader’s sense of determination and his mounting popularity as a disabled man leading other fighter pilots into aerial combat. It’s a great portrayal and it fits the character the film is trying to create perfectly.
Unfortunately, whilst the story of Bader’s recovery after his crash is heartwarmingly true, Reach for the Sky goes for a picture book version of his life that omits or plays down certain details. Had the film been made twenty or more years later, it would almost certainly have taken a ‘warts and all’ approach, perhaps highlighting his neglected childhood, the lack of love from his parents that transformed him into a fierce and competitive spirit, his rudeness to others, a notable amount of bad language and his tendency to exaggerate his own flying prowess, wildly adding to the number of ‘kills’ he actually made on his exploits. What we get is Boys’ Own Bader, a bluff and larger than life yet definably heroic figure who inspired others through his example. There are elements of that in reality, true, yet during World War Two it seems clear that the media, ever eager to find great Britons in order to inspire an exhausted country, bought into his image, and it’s this ‘heightened’ Bader that More portrays.
By all accounts, Richard Burton was the first choice for the role before he declined and it was offered to More, and you can imagine a quite different Bader emerging in the former’s hands. And yet More’s the better fit for the resulting film, bringing a real indomitability to his part that Bader must have needed to possess in overcoming his disability. In his playing, there’s little of the tortured soul that might have been brought out as a consequence of his accident, more a stolid resoluteness to get back on his feet – and eventually into a cockpit – that must have been an easy sell into British hearts. It’s great stuff, More’s impressive jaw never more lantern-like as he takes lick after lick in his early, post-amputation scenes and comes back fighting. There’s a world of contrast between this and, say, the rather pathetic figure Tom Cruise turns into after he’s fatefully shot down in Vietnam during Born on the Fourth of July; a different figure for another age, telling quite distinct stories.
Here, Bader’s such a dominating figure that the rest of the cast barely get a look in. Lyndon Brook, as his friend and the film’s narrator, does little but provide the voiceover. Dorothy Allison’s Nurse Brace gives one impassioned speech to Bader about feeling less sorry for himself when so many people have prayed for him, and then vanishes once he’s left hospital. His wife, Themla, is played by Muriel Pavlow, and simply plays the supportive spouse, ever fretting about his survival and moving out of his way as he attempts another gold shot.
Reach for the Sky was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would go on to work with More a year later in the fantastic The Admirable Crichton, before making a couple of very high profile Bond adventures. As those 007 entries would show, Gilbert had no problem directing action scenes, something revealed here in the great aerial combat sequences. Some of it is stock wartime footage, particularly those depicting the German pilots reacting to attacks from the British, but much of the film follows actual Spitfires and Hurricanes, along with antique flyers from the 1920s that remain in preservation today. The aerial photography makes for some fine bits of shooting, Gilbert getting across really well the tactics deployed by Bader and how effective they were, something quite difficult when many scenes of this kind appear to depict aircraft almost randomly soaring across the screen.
I’ve applauded British war films of this era on these pages a number of times for their honesty and attempts at realism. In that sense, Reach of the Sky is a bit disappointing, showing an idealised central character that focuses entirely on his positive achievements rather than the less wholesome aspects. But it is likeable, with almost the perfect 1950s British actor hired to command the film’s image of Bader, and that’s never really a bad thing.
Reach for the Sky: ***