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Reach for the Sky (1956)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Reach for the Sky (1956)
35mm, black and white, 135 mins
Directed byLewis Gilbert
Production CompanyPinnacle Productions
Produced byDaniel M. Angel
ScreenplayLewis Gilbert
Additional scenesVernon Harris
Source bookPaul Brickhill
PhotographyJack Asher
MusicJohn Addison

Cast: Kenneth More (Douglas Bader); Muriel Pavlow (Thelma Edwards Bader); Lyndon Brook (Johnny Sanderson); Lee Patterson (Stan Turner); Alexander Knox (Mr. Joyce); Dorothy Alison (Nurse Sally Brace)

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RAF pilot Douglas Bader loses both legs after a terrible plane crash. Through determination and strength of character, he overcomes great obstacles to become a World War II flying hero.

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Based on Paul Brickhill's biography of Douglas Bader, Reach For The Sky (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1956) is a celebration of one man's heroism. While many 1950s war films highlighted the value of strong leadership, few concentrated so singlemindedly on the exploits of one man. In The Dam Busters (d. Michael Anderson, 1955) and The Colditz Story (d. Guy Hamilton, 1955), teamwork is essential to success; in Reach For The Sky, Bader's almost solitary actions save the day.

Bader was an inspiration to many, overcoming the loss of both legs in a 1931 plane crash to become a Battle of Britain flying hero. Yet Reach For The Sky deserves much of the criticism it has received for its narrow focus. Other characters remain woefully undeveloped; when Bader commands a group of Canadian airmen, their main purpose is to reflect Bader's skills in leadership, rather than to engage us in their own narratives. The film is middle-class in emphasis, with no reflection of the period's social changes, and no sense of the contribution made by working-class characters.

It is perhaps unfair to criticise a biopic for focusing on its subject, but the burden of fact limits any directorial voice, resulting in the film depending heavily on Kenneth More's performance. More spent time playing golf with Bader, studying his character, and came to feel that they shared the same philosophy of life. His portrayal of Bader as wilful, but essentially charming, downplays the more objectionable elements of the man, yet there are still glimpses of Bader's rough edges (particularly in his sometimes dismissive attitude towards wife Thelma, and in his reckless attitude to safety). Bader's plight is genuinely moving, however, especially in the pre-war hospital scenes when the man used to being forever best struggles with his new circumstances.

Reach For The Sky tugs purposefully at the heartstrings, as when Bader overhears two laughing nurses being told, "Shhh - there's a boy dying in there," and John Addison's score accentuates the melodrama, but the balance between character study and action prevents the film from being swamped by sentiment. A war story as well as a biopic, the film employs special effects and location shooting to great effect. The combination of spectacular aerobatics, recreations of the Battle of Britain, and an inspiring story of courage may well explain why Reach For The Sky was the biggest British box office draw of 1956.

David Morrison

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Video Clips
1. 'I've got to fly!' (2:36)
2. Tin legs (1:24)
3. King's regulations (4:19)
4. 242 Squadron (3:42)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Addison, John (1920-1998)
Gilbert, Lewis (1920-)
Harris, Julie (1921-)
Letts, Barry (1925-2009)
More, Kenneth (1914-1982)
Tafler, Sydney (1916-79)