Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lost Flyboys: First Light (2010) and Battle of Britain (2010)

Sometimes you wonder why certain movies get transferred to DVD, especially projects broadcast on British TV that never ran on television here, featuring actors you've never heard of. It's not that First Light (2010) is a terrible film; it's just that it's innocuous. And considering the story it’s telling, it shouldn't be.

In 1940, 18-year-old Geoffrey Wellum (the unknown-to-me Sam Heughan – in fact, the only actor I'd heard of in this film is Gary Lewis who played Billy Elliot's dad in Billy Elliot) managed to successfully enlist in the RAF just in time to be thrust into the middle of the Battle of Britain. He was an untrained, untried Spitfire pilot taken under the wing of the unit he's assigned to. He rapidly adapts and wins the respect of his squadron by demonstrating natural talents in the air. It takes him awhile before he is permitted to fly in combat, but with the dwindling number of fliers dropping like, well, flies, they finally let this young, shy man take part in a sortie.
Geoffrey Wellum
Filled with flyboy clich├ęs of brave pilots, troublemakers, stupid daredevils, brave men and young love, First Light manages to do only two things that are the least bit original. The film is based on a true story, but instead of being a straight adaptation, the narrative during the war is intercut with real present-day interviews with the 89-year-old Wellum. What this fills in that the dramatization itself fails to properly illustrate is the fact Wellum had a nervous breakdown during the Battle because he had to fly sortie after sortie after sortie (some 50+). The dramatization tries to deal with the impact the fighting had on him and other men, but the material is just too slight to have any emotional impact. Perhaps that is why they felt the need to have Wellum interviewed to talk about his breakdown (a title card at the end also tells us that Wellum recovered and then went on to fight during the Siege of Malta two years later and suffered another breakdown). Maybe it was a tiny budget that cut into their ability to make the material compelling (the picture is only 79-minutes long).

The one other thing they do get right is the ribald language. As Wellum approaches the enemy for the first time, he exclaims, “oh my fucking god!” We then get a reverse shot of what he is seeing: hundreds and hundreds of German airplanes. This is practically the first flyboy film I've ever seen that allowed the characters to actually swear like, well, pilots. Of course they cursed up a storm, whether in shock or in anger as they tried to shoot the shit out of another plane that just wouldn’t go down. It gives the film a bit of authenticity that is missing from the rest of the project. Oh yeah, the flying sequences are pretty good, too, and if they are CGI, quite realistic. It's just a pity they didn't spend more time on the story and less on the battle scenes. If they had they may have been on to something.

Colin and Ewan McGregor
Ironically, at the same time, BFS Entertainment, the Canadian releasing company of First Light, released a BBC documentary called Battle of Britain. The doc details the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain by having actor Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge) and his air force pilot brother, Colin, look at key moments of action from that battle and how the Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane pilots won what many consider WWII's turning-point battle. They not only conduct interviews with Spit pilots who are still alive (including Geoffrey Wellum), but also examine what skills were needed to actually fly a Spitfire. This is done by having fighter pilot Colin learn to fly a Spitfire by training in the same sort of airplane the pilots in WWII would have trained in. Only once he's mastered these was he allowed to fly a Spitfire itself.

Battle of Britain is actually the other-side-of-the-coin film to First Light. Where First Light is mostly a dramatic film intercut with brief present-day documentary footage of WWII pilot, Geoffrey Wellum, Battle of Britain is mostly a current-era documentary featuring short archival footage from WWII that was probably staged for the propaganda cameras at the time. Of the two, Battle of Britain is the better film because it manages to tell its story in toto, where First Light tells only half a story (the Siege of Malta material would have been far more interesting).

Battle of Britain isn't a very deep doc though and it covers ground we've all seen before, but the footage of Colin McGregor learning to fly the Spitfire is actually very entertaining. It also contains a few surprising moments around the memorial for WWII RAF pilots. Shaped like a gigantic propeller and located on the southern coast, it's not a memorial at all, since all the names of all the men who flew during WWII, whether they survived or not, is included. It's a lovely tribute to everyone who risked their necks in those crazy-fast (for the time) airplanes.

One of those crazy-brave people was Geoffrey Wellum. It's unfortunate that the film that is about him is slight and unmemorable. He deserves a much fuller tribute.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

No comments:

Post a Comment