Reach For The Sky (1956)

Reach For The Sky (1956)

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Smug. That's the word.
Smug. That’s the word.

Twitter Plot Summary: Douglas Bader loses his legs in a flying accident, yet goes on to become a successful fighter pilot during WW2.

Genre: Biography/Drama/War

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Key Cast: Kenneth More, Muriel Pavlow, Lyndon Brook, Lee Patterson, Alexander Knox, Howard Marion-Crawford.

Five Point Summary:

1. Never fly a plane dangerously just because a civilian pilot goads you.
2. Those Canadians and their uncouth appearances. For shame, chaps.
3. Worst marriage proposal ever.
4. Getting your false leg stuck in your plane as it hurtles towards the ground. Bad show.
5. Bader showing the Germans what for. Just because he’s got no legs doesn’t mean he can’t do a runner!

Douglas Bader, as portrayed in this film, was a bit of a maverick, circumventing the rules as and when it suited him and causing a significant number of headaches for his superiors. But he got the job done and, in wartime in particular, this was no easy feat. Oh, and there’s the fact that he lost both his legs in a flight-related accident. This anti-authoritarian, never say die attitude is what makes him determined to walk again, albeit on tin legs. After being advised that he’ll never walk without a cane, Bader resolves to never walk with one.

After war breaks out and Bader manages to get called back into active service, he takes control of a squadron comprised mainly of Canadian pilots who are low on morale and lacking discipline. Bader whips them into shape through enforcing strict uniform dress code and a strict regime. Soon he’s appreciated by the squadron for bending the rules to get them the supplies they need in order to be fully prepared to fight.

Kenneth More is on top form as Bader, portraying the typically British stiff upper lip attitude whilst maintaining an air of disregard for rules and regulations at the same time. Later when he’s shot down over France and imprisoned by the Germans, he makes numerous attempts to escape and is a constant thorn in the side of his captors, to the point where they have to move him from camp to camp in a bid to control him. Naturally, this fails until they moved him to Colditz, purportedly escape-proof. As it happens, Bader remained there until the close of the war, so as far as Bader was concerned this was true.

Yep, still smug.
Yep, still smug.

Whilst it’s possible to hold the whole “stiff upper lip” thing against it, Reach For The Sky works because the key elements of Bader’s life are shuffled for greater dramatic resonance and to create a thoroughly engaging story. The direction from Lewis Gilbert is on par with what we’d normally expect from this period in cinema, but it’s More who sells it. It’s a testament to the human spirit, that despite everything life throws at us we can still bounce back. Be it the loss of both your legs, the war itself, relationships, even imprisonment after crashing again behind enemy lines. Despite every obstacle put in his way Bader seems to have brushed it all to one side and just got on with things.

Despite the positive messages, that’s not to say that Bader himself was as pleasant as More makes him appear – arrogance isn’t the best quality in a person, and he seemed to have spades of it. Still, it’s the film I’m here to review, not Bader. Irrespective of what he was really like, the film version of Bader is entertaining.

Going back to my point about Lewis Gilbert’s direction, that’s not intended as a slight to the work he did on this film – the drama works because of how he’s constructed each scene, and the action is compelling for exactly the same reason. Yes, so the war is glorified and the true impact on the nation and its combatants isn’t highlighted as it perhaps should have been, just enjoy it for the glorious piece of post-war propaganda it is and leave it at that.

Favourite scene: Bader is given a dressing down by the Germans for constantly trying to escape, much to the amusement of his fellow prisoners.

Quote: “Legs or no legs, I’ve never seen such a mobile fireball.”

Score: 3.5/5

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