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  • Ephemeral Nature
  • Robert Fyne
S. P. MacKenzie. The Battle of Britain on Screen: “The Few” in British Film and Television Drama. Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 181 pages; $25.00 paper.

In Act III of Shakespeare’s interpretation of the Trojan War, Troilus and Cressida, the Greek warrior, Achilles—irritated by snubs from some Hellenic leaders—blurts out to steadfast Ulysses about his battlefield achievements, “What are my deeds forgot?” Always the pragmatist, Ulysses, with more important things on his mind, reminds his friend about the ephemeral nature of wartime triumphs: “Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devoured / As fast as they are made, forgot as soon / As done.” For Achilles, these brief words offer little conciliation, reminding him not only of how fleeting his good deeds are but also of how, on the road to oblivion, they can become, like memory itself, so indistinct that their truth or falsity is lost.

Six decades after World War II’s dramatic ending, similar events echo Achilles’ frustration. Calling the Allied Forces “barbarians,” German revisionists still routinely denounce the daylight bombing raids of their homeland and recently have demanded that Queen Elizabeth II apologize for destroying the Dresden Frauenkirche. Apologize? The former Third Reich nation whose unrelenting Luftwaffe attacks wrecked city after city, including Rotterdam, during the peak of their westward offensive, wants an apology. And how about Japan? One government official after another continually denies the Nanjing Massacre, claiming these atrocities never happened. Even in New Orleans this distortion of memory continues. A World War II combat veteran, now serving as a resource guide at the D-Day Museum, routinely bites his tongue when American visitors nonchalantly ask, “Who won the War? Which side were we on?”

How did the mayhem of the Second World War turn fuzzy and opaque? Will this twentieth-century conflict become a remote cipher, an outlying subject similar to the Peloponnesian Wars? These are some of the questions that a South Carolina professor examines in a wonderful study of the outnumbered RAF pilots who finally turned the tide against the Luftwaffe in the perilous summer of 1940. As Dr. S. P. MacKenzie reports, about one-third of the United Kingdom’s population does not know that this most famous of air defensives, The Battle of Britain, occurred during the Second World War. This triumph, he continues, may become just another textbook marker listed chronologically alongside Trafalgar or Naseby.

As MacKenzie points out, it is no secret that most people—especially English and American—spend far more time in front of a screen than reading a book to get their history. For better or worse, the popular screenplay of The Battle of Britain, with all its fiction and fact, its hyperboles and distortions, explains away recent events in a breezy manner that synthesizes education with entertainment. As for Britain’s Finest Hour, the anguish of those difficult months come alive in a handful of national films, high-powered, volant photodramas produced during a fifty-two-year period. Without question, these moving pictures remain the legacy of those frightening days.

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In all, seven motion pictures depicted the air battle—which in 1940 prompted Winston Churchill’s pithy observation about so many owing so much to so few—and while each title approaches the subject heroically, every storyline reflects a contemporary understanding of the War. Screenplays such as The Lion Has Wings (1939), The First of the Few (1942), Angels One Five (1952), Reach for the Sky (1956), The Battle of Britain (1969), Piece of Cake (1988), and, finally, A Perfect Hero (1991) restate the high cost of stopping Nazi advances by determined airmen. At the same time, a few Hollywood dramas—A Yank in the RAF (1941), International Squadron (1941), and Eagle Squadron (1942)—tender an American perspective.

As Achilles noted, memory’s chameleon-like nature adds and detracts from actual experiences. Today’s equivalent is trendy history. Certainly, World War II, with [End Page 81] its multifaceted battlefields, diverse ideologies, and ambiguous outcomes, remains a popular theme for motion-picture entrepreneurs, and each new screenplay presents another (and sometimes revisionist) interpretation of those faraway places. Who would dispute that...


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pp. 81-82
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