Saturday, 28 October 2017

633 Squadron (1964)

People take note: Behind every great man (or at least every Hollywood A-lister) stands Wee Shughie McFee. The diminutive Crossroads chef, played by Angus Lennie, was first there in 1963 to peer over Steve McQueen's shoulder in The Great Escape, and he's here again in 633 Squadron made the following year.

Actually 633 Squadron has more in common with another WWII classic, The Dam Busters. Indeed Walter Grauman's film is determined to replicate the beats of that stirring, daring tale of RAF derring do, but to do them with the determined intention of being much, much bigger. As a result, it's a bombastic movie that lacks the tense subtlety and focus of Michael Anderson's superior film, and feels more like a series of action setpieces searching for a plot. Despite the utterly commendable decision to forego the stereotypical 'chocks away' depiction of a fighter-bomber squadron to feature instead commonwealth and volunteer fliers of American, Australian and Indian nationality, the characters are a little one dimensional, sacrificed at the alter of action to such a degree that you would be forgiven for thinking you're watching Thunderbirds puppets instead of real-live actors. Of course, it doesn't help that some of these performers are miscast and wooden anyway - hello George Chakiris, the Greek-American star of West Side Story, cast here as an unlikely Norwegian Resistance fighter thanks to his contract with Mirisch.

Still, Chakiris does give the film one of its most memorable moments; captured by the Nazis he is interrogated by a strangely alluring female SS officer (played by an uncredited, but unforgettable Anne Ridley) who ultimately supervises some extreme genital torture! It's a weird moment in a film that is already reaching some odd places. For the kids who queued up at the cinema simply to see the Boys Own style heroics, this scene must have conjured up some curious feelings within them and helped to beckon them towards adulthood.

The film was based on a 1956 novel by RAF veteran Frederick E. Smith (just one in a series of 633 novels the author published between then and 2007) which drew on many real life missions undertaken by the RAF, including 613 Squadron's successful 1944 attack on the Dutch Population Registry Building where Gestapo records were held, 617 Squadron's bombing of the German battleship Tirpitz in the Norwegian fjords, the 1942 Oslo Mosquito raid which attacked Gestapo HQ in the Norwegian capital and 139 Squadron's assault on the molybdenum mine in Knaben in southern Norway in 1943. The real highpoints of this adaptation are the splendid aerial battle scenes (which of course went on to heavily and unmistakably influence George Lucas for his 'trench run'  finale to the first Star Wars film) and Ron Goodwin's marvellous score. The filmmakers certainly knew they were onto a good thing with Goodwin and I have Al Murray to thank for this little, telling factoid: Eric Coates' memorable The Dam Busters March is used just three times in the 1955 movie, Goodwin's theme can be heard a staggering seventeen times throughout 633 Squadron, coming along once every six minutes.

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