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Reach for the Sky (1956)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

1928. Douglas Bader enrols as a cadet at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, where he learns to fly. A year into his training, Air Vice-Marshal Halahan commends Bader on his flying skills, but reprimands him for his reckless attitude.

1930. Bader, along with his friend Johnny Sanderson, is posted to the Kenley RAF base. Bader is chosen to perform an air display at Hendon. At the Reading Aero Club, civilian pilots congratulate Bader on his performance at Hendon, but challenge him to perform a 'show'. Bader at first declines, knowing the dangers of low flying in Bulldog aeroplanes, but after some taunting accepts the challenge. While performing aerobatics, the wing of his plane clips the ground, causing Bader to crash.

In hospital, both Bader's legs are amputated, but he resists death with the help of devoted nurses. Johnny breaks the news of the amputations to Bader, who takes it stoically.

Bader struggles to accept his new circumstances, telling Nurse Brace that he would rather be dead, but she once more inspires in him the will to live. The Air Force takes no disciplinary action against Bader. He leaves the hospital hoping to fly again.

While convalescing, Bader drives to the country with two friends, using his 'peg' leg and crutches. They stop for tea, and he flirts with a waitress named Thelma, deciding that one day he will dance with her.

At the Ministry of Pensions Hospital, Roehampton, Bader's tin legs are fitted. Within three weeks he is able to walk without the aid of a stick. After further practice he asks Thelma out. That night they dance.

At the Central Flying School, Bader proves he can still fly, but he is grounded for medical reasons. He leaves Kenley, preferring to quit the Air Force than take a ground job.

Bader starts an office job, but finds he is ill suited to the routine. He finds a new challenge in playing golf. Just before the start of war, Bader and Thelma marry.

1939. Due to the war in Europe, Bader is reinstated in the Air Force as a Flying Officer. On a mission over Dunkirk, Johnny's Spitfire is shot down. Bader is offered the command of 242 squadron, which has suffered greatly in France. He encounters initial resistance from the Canadian airmen, but wins their respect through his flying skill and determination to secure the squadron badly needed equipment.

The squadron listens to Battle of Britain reports on the wireless, but is told to wait until the enemy attacks its area. Thelma tells Bader that Johnny is safe, but a prisoner of war.

242 squadron is called out to fight. Bader's tactics prove highly successful. He soon leads a special formation of five squadrons, the Duxford Wing, which contributes greatly to the success of the Battle of Britain. By 12 October, Hitler has postponed his invasion until the following spring, signifying the first Nazi defeat.

Bader is posted to Tangmere as a Wing Commander. After a long period of fighting, Thelma persuades Bader to take a holiday, but on his next mission he collides with a German plane over France and is forced to bail out.

The Germans take Bader prisoner, but he soon attempts escape. A member of the French resistance takes him to shelter, but German soldiers discover his hiding place the following day.

Over the next eight months Bader makes two further unsuccessful escape attempts. At a camp in Germany, he is told he will be moved again. Bader refuses despite the threat of force, but his friend Harry Day persuades him to agree in order to prevent trouble for other prisoners. He is finally sent to Colditz Castle, where the American army frees him in the spring of 1945.

Bader and Thelma are reunited in England. Bader hopes to have one last fling at battle, but the war ends before he gets his chance. On September 15, 1945, 300 aircraft fly over London in triumph, celebrating the fifth anniversary of the greatest day in the Battle of Britain. Johnny and Thelma look on as Group Captain Douglas Bader leads the aeroplanes over the city.