Director Guy Hamilton describes the film as a "present" from producer Harry Saltzman that became a "poisoned pill" when bad weather wreaked havoc, but time has proven the filmmakers' instincts were spot-on in constructing a docu-drama based on de-classified facts, and contributions from German and British technical consultants.
Concluding comments in the final featurette from Assistant Director Garth Thomas (Aerial & Second Unit), and Production Manager Bernard Williams (Aerial Unit), also point out a rather curious irony: the film's $17 million budget was bankrolled by US-based United Artists [UA] on a recreated battle that preceded America's involvement in WW2; meaning a good chunk of the lucrative U.S. audience were unfamiliar with Britain's desperate stand against the Teutonic invaders, and didn't respond at the box office as warmly as the Brits.
By the time "Tora! Tora! Tora!" emerged on screens in 1970, critics seemed to turn on these epic, docu-dramas that relied less on contrived love sagas and more on historic plot points & tragic irony to maintain dramatic momentum. The interviews in this Special Edition describe a kind of filmmaking that in today's digital domain will never exist on such a scale.
Shot in Spain, France, and England, this logistical nightmare was meticulously organized by the production's stellar staff; had these men and women not started each day with a careful game plan, lives could have been lost during the hair-raising stunts and reconstructed dog-fights, and the film may well have been terminated and written off as a costly mistake. Using what was then the 35th largest air force in the world, the filmed air battles are simply jaw-dropping. The vintage planes in flawlessly edited sequences are tributes to the daring-do of the war pilots, and the stuntmen who preserved on colour film the hard-learned art of air combat.
While the commentary on Disc 1 contains a lot of gaps (the segments really should have been indexed with navigational prompts to the next recollection), the memories of production manager Williams, assistant director Thomas, and documentarian Paul Annett offer a lot of info not covered in the featurettes. (Guy Hamilton briefly appears at the beginning of the track, but remains largely silent thereafter).
Better still, "The Battle for The Battle of Britain" - a vintage 50 minute making-of documentary for TV, co-directed by Annett - has host Michael Caine narrating the intricate production episodes, and features incredible footage of Messerschmidts buzzing the actors during a recreated raid in France. (The doc also opens with some Q&A responses from Americans outside the U.S. Consulate in London, and verifies the unfamiliarity that many Americans, in the late-Sixties, had of the battle.)
Hamilton, Annett, Williams, Thomas, and actress Susannah York also appear in the engrossing featurettes "Authenticity in the Air" and "A Film For The Few," while longer and more personal recollections from veteran Squadron Leader Basil Gerald Stapleton appear in a separately indexed interview.
Though Ron Goodwin's replacement score stands on its own, film fans and admirers of Walton's work will get a treat in being able to select a new sound mix with the original score recordings. The dialogue and sound effects are still in mono, but Walton's score, much like the remixed Goodwin score in Dolby and DTS, booms through the speakers in a good 5.1 treatment. MGM's decision to offer viewers a film's rejected score alongside the original mix is a first, and should be commended.
(This new DVD edition, released in tandem with MGM/UA's 2-disc edition of "A Bridge Too Far," also contains the film's final release titles, designed in streamlined red-white-blue by Maurice Binder, which properly credit Ron Goodwin as composer of the film's final score. For some peculiar reason, the U.S. single disc release used a print with early titles that credit Walton as sole composer, with Goodwin's name nowhere in sight, and the print closes with Walton's original End Titles.)
This Region 2 set also follows the pattern used by independent labels such as Rusico, offering multi-language menus for the extras on Disc 2. All of the featurettes and interviews have optional subtitles, including several Nordic languages not identified in the test pressing reviewed here.
Note: the Region 1 NTSC 2-disc edition, released by MGM/UA in October of 2005, ports over all of the Region 2 extras, except the English 5.1 DTS track, which has been replaced by a French Dolby 5.1 track.
Click HERE for more information on the film and soundtrack restoration for DVD.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan