Saturday, 1 September 2018

Three-oh-three times two

All of a sudden, two films on the same historical subject turn up on the cinema screens at the same time... Hurricane (in Polish 303 Bitwa o Anglię) and Dywizjon 303 - Historia prawdziwa (in English 303 Squadron - the True Story).

Bit of background: 303 (Polish) Sqn was the top-scoring RAF unit in the Battle of Britain. The contribution of Polish pilots in this and the other Polish fighter squadron taking part in the battle (302), or spread around other non-Polish units, was extremely significant. After Great Britain, Poland supplied more pilots to the Allied side than any other country, with New Zealand in third place.

So which is the better film? Snap judgment: Hurricane is better scripted, a story better told, but Dywizjon 303 has by far the better aerial combat sequences, which form the centrepieces of both films. The Battle of Britain was a decisive event in WW2, marking the end of Hitler's ambitions to conquer the United Kingdom. Both films share the same story arc, beginning with the squadron's formation and initial scepticism and niechęć of the British authorities towards the Polish flyers, through to their success in combat and media fame to their shabby treatment after the war.

The publicity machines for both films have been going full-out for several weeks. Dywizjon 303's poster irked me, with the 'O' in the middle of 303 being coloured white-red-blue - what should have been the blue-white-red of the RAF roundel. Every colour in the wrong position. Which suggested that historical detail is not going to be observed in what is claimed to be a true story. (Who in the film studio let this poster through? It shrieks 'ignorance'.) The claim is that the film is based on wartime best-seller Dywizjon 303 by Polish journalist and author, Arkady Fiedler. I have the book (16th edition from 1974, signed by the author even) and have read it several times, yet the film is a far cry from the book.

Hurricane is better scripted, it is tighter, with no extraneous back-stories (like Dywizjon's pre-war scenes from Dęblin flying school and a bizarre scene in 1938 Austria). Hurricane shows death in the face; death by drowning, death meted out by Germans to Polish civilians, ever-present death, there at every turn throughout the war. [The scene where a Daily Mail reporter gets a punch in the face from a Polish pilot will no doubt raise a cheer in British cinemas!]

The biggest mystery in Dywizjon for me is the character of 'Jones' (Andrew Woodall). A British man in army (not air force) uniform, driven around in a Rolls-Royce, trying to honey-trap Polish airmen through his attractive assistant 'Victoria Brown'... What's all that about? What are the writers of Historia prawdziwa trying to say? These two characters are not in Fiedler's book; are they cyphers? Are they trying to represent the duplicity of the British establishment or something? 'Jones' and 'Brown'. Entirely superfluous.

Both films show the initial strained relations between the battle-tested Polish flyers and their British superior officers. The four non-Polish officers, Group Captain Stanley Vincent, Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett and Flight Commanders John Kent and Athol Forbes are portrayed well, as they quickly come to appreciate the Pole's bravery and skills in combat.

On the ground, Hurricane comes across as the more realistic of the two films. Locations, sets, props (in particular the vehicles - Dywizjon's production team rustled up a bizarre selection of cars and trucks). Both films depict an England that starts at the White Cliffs of Dover, contains pubs, bit of countryside, London, and just over there to the right, Northolt aerodrome.

In the air, the crucial fight scenes, Dywizjon is so much better. The strain, on pilot and aircraft is visible, audible. The battles are more tense, realistic. (There's one moment in Hurricane when a Heinkel He-111 bomber is hit, and its glazed nose explodes in a fireball, as though the plane's fuel tank was located in the bomb-aimer's position.) As well as computer-animated sequences, there's also the strange introduction of post-war colour footage (from the 1969 film Battle of Britain?) of Spanish-built Heinkels and Messerschmitts (easily identifiable to avgeeks due to their deep-radiatored Rolls-Royce Merlin engines).

So which to see - Hurricane or Dywizjon 303? I'd recommend watching this 45-minute long Channel 4 drama documentary from the 2010 series Bloody Foreigners, called Untold Battle of Britain.

This tells the story extremely well - and it seems that both Hurricane and Dywizjon 303 draw on this far more than on Arkady Fiedler's book. I'd recommend watching the Channel 4 story first (or, if you've seen the two 303 films already, watch this now!).

The definitive book on the subject for non-Polish readers is For Your Freedom and Ours: The Kościuszko Squadron - Forgotten Heroes of World War II, by Lynne Olson & Stanley Cloud (William Heinemann, London). If it's not on your bookshelf, it should be.

Finally, when in London, visit the Polish War Memorial outside Northolt airport.

This time two years ago:
Kępno's intriguing station

This time four years ago:
Thoughts occasioned by the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2

This time five years ago:
A green light for consumer spending

This time seven years ago:
Procrastination - is it the same as laziness?

This time nine years ago:
Remembering the outbreak of WW2


White Horse Pilgrim said...

You've just answered a question for me. Whilst waiting for a trail yesterday I saw a poster for Hurricane on the far platform across the tracks and wondered what the film might be. Now I know and will go and see it. I'm guessing that the other film won't appear in the UK.

When I was a child, Johnny Kent's autobiography was a staple on my bookshelf. (It's still there, amidst many more books.) The story he told of the bravery and skill of the Polish pilots remains etched within my memory.

Andrew Craig said...

One of the weirdest things about Hurricane is the timing: a Polish pilot steals a French plane and escapes from France before the Germans have completed their conquest - and arrives in Englannd to find the Battle of Britain already in full swing!