Hollywood on the march again

It appears that moves are afoot in Tinseltown to remake another flying epic – in this case The Battle of Britain.

The original 1969 movie was directed by the godlike genius of Guy Hamilton (responsible for the British spy movie masterpieces Goldfinger and Funeral in Berlin).  Hamilton was employed by James Bond producer Harry Saltzman to depict the summer of 1940 with an all-star cast including Sir Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Trevor Howard as Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park and luminaries such as Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Edward Fox among the pilots.

It is a movie brim-full of bravado and armed with no shortage of quotable moments that have probably done more for sales of Airfix kits than any other venture of the past 50 years. Here’s an old favourite to set the tone:

The production famously featured enough aircraft to count as the 35th largest air force in the world. Wartime bomber pilot, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, brought together 18 Spitfires and six Hurricanes, while the Spanish Air Force was still flying licence-built Heinkel He-111s, Junkers Ju52s and Messerschmitt 109s and provided no fewer than 61 aircraft in total.

Admittedly not all of the aircraft flew (it’s always fun to spot the ‘Messerschmitts’ in formation with the three airworthy Hurricanes, for example), but the resulting film was for the most part flown for real. Better still, it was filmed under the direction of genuine Battle of Britain aces on both sides of the conflict led by Group Captains Tom Gleave and Peter Townsend on the British side and General Adolf Galland representing the Luftwaffe with characteristic verve.

The film cost $12 million – an incredible fortune in 1968 – and by the end of production money was tight, meaning that scale model Stuka dive bombers were used rather than the planned restoration of the RAF Museum’s full size example. Although generally receiving favourable reviews, the renowned critic Roger Ebert picked up on the cost cutting in his review, saying:

“The airplanes are another sore point. Sure, Harry Saltzman spent millions to assemble and repair Spitfires and Hurricanes, and there was even a TV special about the authenticity of the movie. But you’ve got to USE airplanes; it isn’t enough to own them. Some of the aerial photography is very good. We see dogfights actually filmed in the air and fought by real planes (instead of by models and visual effects). But the aerial scenes are allowed to run forever and repeat themselves shamelessly, until we’re sure we saw that same Heinkel dive into the sea (sorry — the ‘drink’) three times already.”

Despite Ebert’s reservations, much of the aerial photography and the actors’  performances were astounding, leaving us with scenes to treasure such as this one, when Robert Shaw’s Captain Skipper leads his men in to intercept another Heinkel raid:

Fast forward 48 years and the Oscar-winning producer, Graham King (The Departed), has hired Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) to write a new script. Towne and King have previously worked together in the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible series.

King recently told Entertainment Weekly that the film is personal project, saying: “My father lived in London and watched this spectacular dog fight over the city, so bringing this story of endurance and triumph to the big screen means a great deal to me…”

It has now been reported that nine of the Hispano ‘Buchon’ fighters – licence-built Messerschmitt 109s – used in the film have been unearthed still wearing their fictional warpaint from 1968. At least four of them are being recommissioned for the remake. It would seem that money was so tight that by the end of filming they were presented to the flying co-ordinator in lieu of currency!

10509600_10152571807334669_420488992343864099_n

Four Hispano ‘Messerschmitts’ are receiving some TLC

In total there are three genuine Messerschmitts of the correct vintage and seven Hispano Buchons airworthy in the world, with a further 29 Messerschmitts and 14 Hispanos under restoration to static or flying condition.

Elsewhere in the world there are nearly 240 Spitfires known to exist worldwide, of which 54 are currently airworthy and 113 are in various states of restoration. Thanks to the population explosion in restored airframes there are many more period-correct Spitfires available today than Guy Hamilton had in his ‘air force’ – in the 1969 movie many of the Spitfires were given cosmetic makeovers to appear closer to 1940 specification, being nicknamed ‘Mk. Haddies’ in deference to the Group Captain.

Hurricanes are less plentiful but nine are airworthy and six more are potentially ‘runners’, with 14 on static display in Europe and North America. Two genuine Heinkel He-111s are on static display, 11 of the CASA 2.111s used in the film still exist – but for the Junkers Ju88s, Dornier Do17s and Messerschmitt 110s there is little hope.

345E56DF00000578-3598540-Shine_Spitfire_N3200_front_the_oldest_Spitfire_still_flying_and_-a-81_1463702986520

Spitfires are multiplying at a rate unseen since the Forties

There are now two airworthy Gloster Gladiators in the UK, plus a Bristol Blenheim and a static Boulton Paul Defiant. Their use all depends, of course, on how authentic – and how well-funded – the remake is intended to be. And, of course, there is the question of how much of the final film is shot for real and how great a role digital special effects will play.

The S&G is therefore watching developments with a measure of trepidation. Hollywood’s idea of the Battle of Britain will be based upon what is sellable, as was last seen in the odious tosh that was Pearl Harbor – a movie that will live in infamy.

Will the presence of the Royal Navy at anchor and the almost complete absence of a workable German invasion plan warrant a mention? Will the remake toe the line and depict the mythical ‘Few’ of Churchill’s invention? Will Tom Cruise single-handedly win the Battle as an American volunteer who is ostracised for wearing crepe soled brothel creepers in the officers’  mess?

Locations shouldn’t be too great a problem – doubtless Goodwood/Westhampnett will be in the mix and Duxford is a given. Sadly for all concerned, the closest airfield to the white cliffs in wartime and star of many scenes in the original movie, Hawkinge, has long since been buried under the urban sprawl.

One thing is for sure: very little could ever replace the sight of Susannah York preparing for a night of passion. One can rebuild a Spitfire pretty easily, but other things are unrepeatable.

battleofbritain_docsc2

Advertisements

James Dean goes racing, 1955

Here’s a rather lovely little bit of film for fans of the grassroots sports car racing promoted by the Sports Car Club of America in the 1950s – breeding ground for practically every American driver to make a splash on the international scene. This particular film shows the May race meeting of 1955 in Santa Barbara, California and it shows one of the locals getting involved in the action – Hollywood heart throb, James Dean.

Santa Barbara’s circuit was a temporary affair at Goleta airport – a wartime airfield that became the regional airport and hosted both drag racing and circuit racing – the SCCA having events each May and September.

The May race was a two-day affair on Memorial Day weekend but Dean had missed all of the action on Saturday because he was getting his hair done. Such was the studio system at the time that, with filming barely complete on his seminal Rebel Without a Cause, the newest hot-shot in Hollywood was already in for duty on his next feature, Giant.

Presumably rather frustrated at the delay, Dean left as soon as he could without bothering to inform anyone involved in the film where he was heading. He charged up the Pacific Coast Highway to be reunited with the car that he would be racing the next day – his white Porsche 365 Speedster.

Dean qualified only 18th but drove a strong race, climbing as high as fourth until the Porsche burnt a piston, putting him out of the weekend’s action. In the film shot at the event, the slight, bespectacled figure with a cigarette permanently drooping from his lips seems quite at ease – even posing quite happily with a couple of fans.

What the weekend had shown Dean was that, as a racer, his Porsche 356 could no longer make the grade. He had to find something faster if his talents were going to be rewarded. Before then, however, there was another movie to made and when it was made clear to Warner Brothers and the production team on Giant how their star man was spending his weekends, a memo was sent banning him from competition for the duration of the shoot.

With a difficult cast headed by Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, motor racing would have seemed like an uncomplicated oasis that was frustratingly being kept out of reach. Dean apparently spent his down-time on set pondering the virtues of cars like an Offenhauser-powered Lotus until he bit the bullet and ordered another Porsche – in this case a 550 Spyder.

The cost was reportedly his old 356 in part-exchange plus $3,000 – which was a vast sum of money. But a new car to the specification with which Porsche was cleaning up in the smaller engine classes of sports car racing worldwide seemed like the obvious choice.

In September, with filming on Giant complete, Dean brought his 550 – chassis 550 0055 – back to his garage and began learning how it performed on the roads near his home. This ended up needing one or two repairs – so that when the next available meeting came up at Salinas, Dean decided to try and get more miles in the car by driving it there instead of trailering it.

And it was on the way to Salinas that Dean, driving hard, told his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, sitting in the passenger seat, not to worry about the 1950 Ford coupé that was trying to turn across their path at the intersection on California Highway 466. “He’ll see us,” he said over the roar of the engine and the battering wind. And the rest is history…

james dean 7

 

Big Fiats and Movies

The Internet is currently abuzz with the restored/scratchbuilt thunder of the 1911 Fiat S76, brought back to life in the film The Beast of Turin. If you haven’t yet savoured the full violence of 300 horses blasting out of 28 litres capacity from four gigantic cylinders then feel free to amaze yourself here. It’s hypnotic stuff.

Big Fiats are something wholeheartedly approved of at the S&G – and so too are contemporary movies. So it was that the rip-snorting sound of the S76 set my mind on a path to no less a place than Hollywood in 1914, where the great impresario of the day, Mack Sennett (of Keystone Cops and ‘Mack and Mabel’ fame), actually had a slightly less manic Fiat Grand Prix car as his personal transport.

Sennett was regularly seen careering around California with his great star, Mabel Normand, riding shotgun. And, in a world where anything which came to hand usually ended up in front of the cameras, a Keystone movie was duly made which featured the car.

Entitled Mabel at the Wheel, this was quite an extraordinary movie. Sennett’s car was regularly entered in racing events across the USA at the time, and thus fitted right in to the chosen backdrop: the Vanderbilt Cup qualification race in Santa Monica, which was held from 26 to 28 February 1914 with the Keystone cast of clowns and cameramen in attendance.

Much like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans, therefore, what we are presented with in Mabel at the Wheel is a fictional story overlaid on real race footage. We are also presented with Charlie Chaplin – who, in only his tenth film appearance, takes completely unfamiliar role as a villainous dandy rather than a loveable tramp.

The plot is very much of its time. After an argument with her racing-driver fiancé, Mabel courts the attentions of Chaplin and takes off with him on his motorbike – but falls off, and reconciles with the racing driver. Chaplin then plots his revenge… and if nothing else, you should skip to around the 12 minute mark where he pulls off an outrageous stunt in those pre-special effects days of a century ago:

It’s an enjoyable little yarn – albeit far removed from the quality of Chaplin’s ‘Tramp’ canon – and brings with it a hint of the sheer fever that open road racing had 100 years ago. But it is also the start of a story which will carry us from Hollywood to Indianapolis and the Western Front this Christmas… so stay tuned to find out more about Mack Sennett, his big Fiat and its impact on land and air in the age of adventure.

American idol – The Great Waldo Pepper (new link to film clip)

If you want movies about aircraft done properly, better get a pilot to make them. That’s why The Great Waldo Pepper is such a joy – because it was the work of George Roy Hill.

A feisty presence in the Hollywood firmament, Hill was something of an outsider among the great and the good of La-La-Land. As a child inthe 1920s and 1930s he idolised the great fighter pilots of World War 1, and when war broke out once again he enlisted as a pilot – flying a cargo aircraft around the Pacific in WW2, but becoming a nightfighter ‘ace’ in the Korean war.

Upon leaving the military, Hill worked as a journalist and then took an interest in theatre. He moved quickly to television and then on to making movies, with his debut coming in a 1962 adaptation of A Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Willams. An up-and-down career then hit paydirt with A Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews, which was followed by his best-loved hit: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The leading men on Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, soon learned not to fall foul of their tempestuous director’s strong work ethic. Late arrival on set would see guilty parties strapped in to Hill’s 1930 Waco biplane and subjected to a bracing aerobatic flight.

“If you weren’t on time, he’d take you up in his airplane,” Newman later recalled. “Scared the bejesus out of us.”

It was Newman’s co-star, Robert Redford, with whom Hill’s other enduring successes were achieved. First came The Great Gatsby and then probably the most personal film of Hill’s career in the form of The Great Waldo Pepper, a paean to the barnstorming days of the 1920s aviation boom in which Redford plays a charming, roguish pilot who saw too little of World War 1 but tells a good tale and trades on his matinee idol looks to good effect.

Together with talents such as Bo Svensson, Bo Brundin and the glamour of both Susan Sarandon and Margot Kidder, this is an oft-overlooked gem of a movie and one that is perfect for S&G readers. So enjoy this little clip as Hill takes Waldo to Hollywood…