This film has the honourable intention of telling a glossed over piece of World War II history, the story of the Battle of Britain from the perspective of the Polish pilots and ground crew of 303 Squadron.
The film opens promisingly enough, with a view of Spitfires soaring across a summer sky. Has there ever been a better looking aircraft in flight? If ones emotions are not sufficiently stirred by this sight alone, these images are held aloft to the rousing voice of Winston Churchill delivering the opening of his ‘Finest Hour’ speech, surely one of the most famous speeches in military history.
We next glimpse the arrogant Hermann Göring and senior Luftwaffe officers as they brag about the certain victory to come. Cue our Polish pilots eagerly waiting to take to the skies from Britain and fight for their homeland. However we soon learn the Royal Air Force would rather trust a Hurricane aircraft to a British ‘kid’ with ten hours flying experience than to a highly experienced Polish pilot with 40 times as many hours in the cockpit.
So far so good; the stage is set for a battle in two stages: Stage one, the Poles must battle to win the respect of the British and be given seats in their Hurricane aircraft. Stage Two, the Poles take to the skies to battle the invaders of their homeland. Throw in a love story and we have all the elements we need for a great war-film. What we get is a good war-film, an entertaining war-film, but not a great war-film. Why?
This may be in part because, as the opening credits tell us, this film is based on the book of the same name by Polish writer Arkady Fiedler. Fiedler’s book was a non-fiction account of life in the 303 Squadron (Fiedler spent time with the squadron at RAF Northolt during the war). But a fact filled book is difficult to adapt to the screen and it may be the writers were so concerned with remaining true to Fiedlers highly detailed account that drama suffered as a consequence.
Thus, after a solid start the story loses direction. It meanders around trying to tick the box on too many factual references and the character development suffers for this. It does focus on a central character, the Polish ace Jan Zumbach, but it then takes Zumbach into story dead ends, his relationship with his Polish partner for instance. The director Denis Delic shoots some great scenes but like Zumbach the scenes do not always know where to go next. Delic is primarily a director of Polish TV Series and perhaps this is why the structure does not quite work. It is as though some scenes will be paid off in the next episode, which of course never comes.
However the film is beautifully shot and delivers some fine performances from the mixed Polish and English cast.
The lead role of Jan 'Donald' Zumbach is played by Maciej Zakoscielny, an actor with more than a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt - no bad thing when trying to boost box office. Zakoscielny delivers in the role of a flying ace with love interests at home and abroad (abroad being England) and with such a decent cast one wonders why he (and other cast members) were not called upon to offer a greater range of their acting talents.
There are two good female performances in this male dominated film (as one might expect from a war genre movie), and both play a love interest to Jan Zumbach. Anna Prus (a multi award winning actress from Warsaw, Poland) plays Jagoda, Zumbach’s girl back home. Whilst Cara Theobold (of Downton Abbey fame) plays Victoria Brown, a ministry stooge whose mission is to get close to the Polish pilots, a mission she succeeds in.
John Kay Steel will be familiar to British audiences from his plethora of TV roles (Law & Order, Casualty, Waterloo Road) and he is well cast here as the British officer Stanley Vincent with a snobbish and xenophobic attitude towards the Poles. This must have been close to what the Poles experienced from their upper crust RAF command. However Vincent’s attitude towards the Poles does change after a dogfight with a Messerschmitt 109.
Other notable performances are from Antoni Królikowski as Witold 'Tolo' Lokuciewski. Królikowski used his limited screen time well and gives a nuanced and pleasing performance.
As mentioned the story meanders somewhat, there is an overuse of flashbacks and in an attempt to clarify things for the audience we are bombarded with screen captions telling us the year and location. This was overdone in the extreme. At around the 33 minute mark we are force fed a time and place stamp every minute for 5 minutes. The need to do this should have told the production team something was awry with the structure. And at 1 hour 24 minutes into the film, as Hurricanes take to the sky over Dover, a caption informs us, “September 15, 1940, The Battle of Britain” presumably for those who thought it might be 1415 and the Battle of Agincourt. (Sorry, but I annoyed by all the flashbacks and screen captions).
In the final sequence we see archival footage from end of war celebrations, some of which are from VE day. History tells us the Polish were officially excluded from these celebrations because the British did not want to upset Stalin! This was surely one of the worst displays of betrayal by any country in any war towards a loyal ally. Worse was to come of course, this snub was merely a precursor to handing Poland to the Russian’s. Everything the Poles bravely fought for over the skies of England was considered expendable. None of this warrants a mention in this fully Polish production, possibly because Fiedler’s book couldn’t have known this, being penned as it was in 1942. But for the filmmakers to ignore this is a strange and frankly unforgivable exclusion.
In the final analysis this is an entertaining film. It is beautifully shot, well acted and sharply directed. And a mention must be made of the excellent work of the CGI team on the aerial battles. That it does not take us to the emotional heights we might expect may be because the story did not arc high enough. We do not fall in love with these characters and hence find no hook upon which to hang our emotions. But it is well worth the ticket price and does shine a light on a glossed over part of military history.
Director: Denis Delic
Starring: Maciej Zakoscielny, Piotr Adamczyk, Cara Theolbold, John Kay Steel, Anna Prus, Antoni Królikowski.
Written by: Garrett Hunter firstname.lastname@example.org