An oft-leveled criticism of today's Hollywood is that it favors spectacle over substance, but one need only look back to 1969's 'Battle of Britain,' however, to see that the movies have never lacked for big, empty-headed effects extravaganzas weighed down by weak scripts and characters that are secondary. 'Battle of Britain,' while technically impressive, is a failure as a story -- despite being almost forty years old, it might as well have been directed by Michael Bay.
The real Battle of Britain was one of the pivotal skirmishes of WWII. Fought over the shores of England and the English Channel during the Summer and early Fall of 1940, the Germans attempted to obliterate the aerial squad of the Royal Air Force to pave the wave for a full-scale German invasion of England. All manner of aircraft clashed in the night skies, with the RAF eventually inflicting enough carnage on the Nazi forces to force them to retreat (though the Germans would go on to change tactics and begin highly-destructive land-based bombings of Britain).
'Battle of Britain' was produced by Harry Saltzman, who was then flush with success from the James Bond series. He took 007's flair for spectacle to heart, turning 'Battle of Britain' into an effects-filled, star-studded affair that was launched amid a breathless wave of pre-promotion. Hawked months in advance, various trailers and footage promised that the film would boast some of the most impressive visual sequences yet seen in a Hollywood film. And indeed, 'Battle of Britain's mix of vintage aerial photography and complex original footage utilizing matte paintings, compositing, and miniatures (all expertly executed by Freddie Young, Skeets Kelly, and John Jordan) still holds up today as a feat of ingenuity (if now inevitably dated). It's just too bad Saltzman seemed so concerned with little but showmanship.
The biggest deficiency of 'Battle of Britain' is the poor script. The characters are all stock archetypes, and only a few game players, particularly the dependably crusty Robert Shaw (as an over-the-top squadron leader) and Laurence Olivier prove at all memorable. There is little human drama aside from the soap opera variety, most irritatingly a gooey romantic subplot (apparently to appease the female audience forced to go see a war flick with their husbands) between the Christopher Plummer and Susannah York characters. It's like something phoned-in from another movie.
The reason to see 'Battle of Britain,' then, is to enjoy the production values and effects work. Though again dated, the film does contain some thrilling aerial sequences, and the basic outline of the story is faithful to the actual events of the battle. I also enjoyed the strong score by William Walton (with additional material by Ron Goodwin added in later) which really pumps up the action. There is also some fine cinematography, and the costumes and production design ring true. It's just too bad the 'Battle of Britain' couldn't support its bombast with a decent script.
MGM offers a 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer for 'Battle of Britain,' framed at 2.3:1. After reviewing the studio's 'A Bridge Too Far' Blu-ray (which also streets the same day), I can say that "Battle of Britain' is the lesser of the two presentations. This image still looks good, but it remains a bit bruised from wear and tear.
The print is in pretty good shape. There is frequent dirt (noticeably worse during the effects shots) but no major blemishes, such as scratches and the like. However, there is print wavering with contrast that fluctuates, though black levels generally hold firm. Colors can be somewhat muted (typical of '60s cinema) but there are moments of lovely saturation, and overall the palette is quite pleasing -- fleshtones in particular are an attractive shade of orange. Detail is good for a film of this era, and while the image can be flat I was overall quite pleased with how much depth MGM was able to squeeze out of such old elements. Unfortunately, the transfer is marred by significant edge enhancement, which improves sharpness but at the cost of irritating ringing and other artifacts. 'Battle of Britain' certainly has many good points, but it's rather inconsistent.
An intriguing trio of audio options are offered for "Battle of Britain' (all in English): DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit), an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround option featuring Sir William Walton's Score Mix (at only 448kbps), and the original English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (192kbps). The DTS-MA mix is certainly the best in terms of fidelity, but it ain't all that great anyway.
The high-res mix still suffers from limited dynamics. High end is flat and cramped, even considering the film's age, with a hollow sound to the score and effects. Dialogue feels sharp and compressed, with little spatiality to the front soundstage. Surrounds are likewise weakly employed, with nary a discrete effect to be found. Nor is there any discernible bleed to the score or atmospheric elements. The William Walton Sound Mix version is even worse, with inferior heft to the mix and a rear presence that is nil. 'Battle of Britain' just doesn't sound particularly good.
There is not a single bonus feature -- not even a theatrical trailer.
'Battle of Britain' is an impressively-mounted spectacle (if certainly dated by today's technological standards), but it's lacking as a narrative. The characters are ciphers, and the drama inert. This Blu-ray delivers solid video and audio, however, which should please fans of the film. Unfortunately, given the lack of extras and high $40 list price, it's hard to recommend this one even for diehards.