For years, the men and women of Bomber Command have been viewed as the pariah's of World War II with the stain of area bombing often defining their contribution to the war. Lancaster, The Feature Documentary aims to change this perception giving the veterans one last last opportunity to tell their story and it does it with complete class and respect.
On Wednesday I was privileged to be invited to the world premier of the film at the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair alongside the film makers and most importantly some of the veterans who feature in the film. Although billed as a red carpet event, to me it felt more like family gathering with many of those attending knowing each other through their connections to the RAF and Bomber Command. It was wonderful for so many of us to meet again in person after the last two years had kept us all apart and delayed the release of the film. Sadly that also meant that we had lost more of the veterans featured in the film but I can't help thinking that they were watching in the squadron bar in the sky.
Seated in the cinema there was a real sense of anticipation. This film has been a labour of love for Directors David Fairhead and Ant Palmer. I got a glimpse of that passion earlier in the year when David and consultant Steve Darlow came to the Petwood to show some advance clips of the film at an event I had arranged. Now it was time for the real deal. After introductions from producers Trevor Beattie and Keith Havilland and some words from the directors it was time to see the film that has been five years in the making.
Starting with the distinctive sound of four purring Merlin engines in the (seemingly) night sky, the opening sequence is as moving as 'Spitfire' from the same team a few years ago. John Dibbs' aerial photography seen throughout the film is some of the most astonishing footage you will ever see of the Lancaster in flight (and on the ground at sunset at RAF Coningsby). The graceful shots of the aircraft over the scenery of the Dams in Derbyshire is counter balanced by the honesty that she was also a menacing weapon of war with a job to do.
Perhaps the key part of this film is the dialogue. The only people that speak throughout the film are the veterans themselves. There is a small amount of narration from Charles Dance for context but the voices of the veterans are key. Describing with brutal honesty how they felt about what they were being asked to do night after night and the effect it had on them during and after the war, is the most compelling part of the story telling here. Throughout the film we experience a range of emotions through the veterans voices and facial expressions. Inner conflict, anger, sadness, loss, humour and determination pour from the screen from every voice. The conundrum of Bomber Command is laid bare from those that lived and breathed it every single night.
A very clever part of the film is the tricky subject of Dresden. "Bomber Command is often defined as the two D's" as David Fairhead told me. Dresden and Dambusters. With regards to the former, everyone has an opinion and yet one thing is common in most of them. None of them were there at the time. Retrospective historians as George 'Johnny' Johnson calls them. So, alongside the voices of the veterans for whom Dresden has been an open wound they have lived with for years was the voice of Ursula Van Dam, a survivor of the Dresden raids. She spoke with a calmness and understanding which many of our armchair historians would do well to heed. Her final words struck a particular chord when describing Bomber Command's attack. 'What else were they supposed to do?" Those of us who take the time to scratch the surface of Dresden and the other raids of the area bombing campaign both in the UK and Germany, understand that total war is horrific. If you wear a uniform or are a civilian, it never ends well. Collateral damage is more than bricks and rubble during total war and that is the real tragedy here. There are no winners. It is a stain on our veterans and the civilian lives lost when politicians distance themselves from the very thing they ordered in the first place and sadly we see this time and time again. The abandonment of responsibility to those who were simply doing what they were asked to do or, in. the case of civilians, simply trying to survive.
Other stories in the film show the depth of loss, an emotion I myself have experienced all to keenly since the last time I felt inclined to write a blog. Wendy Carter tells the story of her first love Bruce Smeaton and how she never had the chance to say one last goodbye before his aircraft was lost. The pain and emotion in her eyes is plain to see and having lost both my parents last year, her story touched me deeply. The long look into the distance as Wendy looked back into the past for one last chance to see Bruce was heartbreaking. I had the pleasure of meeting her after the film and there was a little more to her story than time in the film allowed. Needless to say she is a force of nature and loved talking to her,
The never ending conundrum with Bomber Command is that for some, their deeds will only ever be viewed from the prism of Dresden and the Dambusters. What 'Lancaster' does is reframe the discussion to a wider view and lays bare the human stories of those who were there at the time. They discuss their inner conflict at what they had to do and how for some, they still can't reconcile it. They discuss how they watched night after night as their friends did not return. They talk about the sense of family they had within their squadrons and how it kept them going. They tell it like it is and we owe it to them to listen.
The film makers have produced what in my opinion has been long overdue, a true and honest piece of storytelling about the deeds of men and women who stood up to be counted without question at time when action was needed. They have not shied away from the difficult questions and have tackled them head on with empathy and dignity and respect for both sides of the story. A difficult thing to do given the history of the narrative to date. Whilst this is the story of the Lancaster, it is the men and women who flew her and maintained her who are the real story here. It is the story that needed to be told and 'The Many' have had their say. At long last.