Forty years after its release, the makers of 'The Battle of Britain’ recall a film of stupendous ambition

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Forget the stars, watch the skies. It wasn’t Michael Caine, Susannah York and Laurence Olivier who made the film The Battle of Britain truly special when it was released 40 years ago this September – it was the battles in the air. The scenes in which duels for supremacy are fought over the garden of England offer a unique, kinetic ballet of whirling aircraft, their white contrails and black, oily smoke turning the sky into a giant animated Paul Nash painting. All against William Walton’s thrilling music.

Capturing all this on film still seems something of a mad undertaking. Try setting a movie largely in the sky, featuring a battle with no clearly defined beginning or end whose terrain is the boundless blue, marked only by ever-changing clouds and shifting sun. The aeroplanes used in filming were already museum pieces, but so many were needed that they constituted the 35th-largest air force in the world at the time.

Not since Howard Hughes sent men crashing to their real deaths in the 1930 Hell’s Angels had such a cinematic flying circus been assembled. But turning the sky into a film set, in the face of terrible weather, nearly bankrupted its producers and drove director Guy Hamilton – who had made Goldfinger and would direct more Bond movies – close to despair. “One thing everyone forgets is that the real Battle of Britain stretched over three months, but the actual number of flying days was about 28,” he says. “We had 28 good flying days over a year.”

Gathering the air fleet had taken Gp Capt Hamish Mahaddie two years. He assembled 35 air-worthy Spitfires, a trio of Hawker Hurricanes and more than enough Heinkels and Messerschmidts.

The German aircraft were bought or loaned from Spain. The Spanish also provided pilots, led by Commandante Santa Cruz, a veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, when he flew with the Luftwaffe.

The historical parallels don’t stop there. The credits list Sqd Ldr Ginger Lacey as simply one of the film’s many historical advisers. But this ace of the real battle (he notched up 28 kills), flew for most of the film, the temptation for one last aerial duel, albeit fictional, proving too strong to resist.

Or so it’s said, by Texan chief stunt pilot Wilson “Connie” Edwards, who flew alongside Lacey. Edwards had previously flown American aircraft in CIA-backed Latin American coups and the ill-fated Bay of Pigs adventure (“That was a bad deal. Got all kinds of bullet holes through me”).

He would spend so long on the film that he was finally paid off with 11 planes. “ I was contracted for six weeks and 11 months later I was still getting shot down – 128 times, and that doesn’t count the practice runs. I could tell right quick I wasn’t gonna win the war.”

But who was winning this cinematic war in the air? The whole thing was a giant, maddening aerial jigsaw, cursed by British weather. The real Battle of 1940 had been fought in burning blue; the skies of 1968 were a soggy grey...

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