World War II has been expertly depicted on screen an innumerable amount of times for as long as the idea of a war has been in existence. There are so many different, important stories to shine a light on, that there will likely never be an end to using it to make art. The average American likely has an idea of many of the major events that happened during the war, but they may have a blind spot when it comes to more British-focused occurrences. Film Movement Classics’ new Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics helps brings some beloved British tales to our shores in some stunning new restorations. These five films provide a wide-range of stories that keep you thoroughly engaged from beginning to end. Check out what makes each of them unique below!
Went The Day Well? (1942)
Bramley End, snug and safe, seemed far away from the events of World War II. Little did the villagers suspect the grim events, which were impending. They were surprised, but welcomed the lorry loads of Royal Engineers that rolled onto their village green. They had no reason to suspect that the soldiers were disguised German parachutists, and even less reason to mistrust the leader of their little community, Oliver Winsford.
Went The Day Well? serves as a highly fictionalized look at what the English believed could happen when it was made in 1942, while acting as a bit of propaganda. The slow, covert creep of the Germans into a quaint English village radiates an eerie alternate reality. Told in flashback, the villagers of Bramley End are overtaken by the duplicitous German soldiers over a holiday weekend. The Germans are not one to pull any punches, and the film does rack up a body count when citizens get out of line. Where it turns into a bit of propaganda is when the citizens are shown to be doing their “duty” of banding together and thwarting the Germans by surveillance or force. All of the actors are doing quite a wonderful job in their roles, and the film keeps a fast pace during its brief hour-and-a-half runtime. The explosive finale takes no prisoners, as it makes fully certain you know who the heroes and villains of the story are. The inclusion of this title in the set is appreciated, as it provides a needed bit of escape that you do not have to link to a particular real-world tragedy.
Went The Day Well? comes to Blu-Ray newly restored courtesy of the BFI National Archive and released by Film Movement Classics in an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.37:1. This is the first time the US has been able to purchase these new presentations domestically. There are some noticeable instances of damage in this print, but it largely looks quite excellent with remarkable clarity. The black and white photography offers up nice contrast with ample detail. The transfer offers a healthy amount of natural grain that helps retain the filmic look of the feature. While it would be easy to fixate on the relatively minor damage the transfer reveals, it should be appreciated that the film has been so meticulously restored to look as good as it does.
The Blu-Ray disc offers up an LPCM 2.0 mono track that is largely quite strong. Dialogue comes through crisp and clear with no noticeable issues. The levels are balanced well so that there are no problems with competing sounds. There are minor instances of crackling during the score at particular points, but it is not persistent. The restoration has ensured that audio damage has been eradicated for the most part. The audio track sounds better and better as the film plays out.
There are no special features included on this disc.
The Colditz Story (1955)
The Germans believed that no man could escape from Colditz Castle, set as it was in the heart of the Reich, 400 miles from any neutral frontier. This film, based on Pat Reid’s epic novel, tells the story of how the British, French, Dutch and Polish prisoners of war who were incarcerated in Colditz set out to prove their captors wrong.
The Colditz Story is a fascinating look at a story that would seem pretty unbelievable if it were not based on first hand accounts. The tone established here is an interesting one, as it brings almost a lightness to the Germans due to their seeming lack of concern at the consistent attempts at escape. That is not to say that there are not real stakes established, but the fact that escapes are discovered numerous times without a greater body count is wild. When you watch the prisoners come together to formulate the perfect escape, you feel as if you are watching the highest stakes heist film. These actors make their characters really sympathetic, and you truly root for them at every step. John Mills and Eric Portman are the perfect pair of British gentlemen to bring major gravitas to the lead roles. The Colditz Story takes the massive conflict of the war and boils it down to a really personal story that gets at the core of human resilience. This is the perfect balance of inspiration and suspense backed by impressive performances and production.
The Colditz Story comes to Blu-Ray newly restored courtesy of StudioCanal and released by Film Movement Classics in an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.66:1. This is the first time the US has been able to purchase these new presentations domestically. Once again, this is largely a really impressive transfer with only the occasional instance of print damage noticeable. It seems to become a trend that the transfers get better as you make your way through the set. This one showcases some fantastic detail and good textural details with clothing and dirt and grime on the prisoners. The black-and-white photography implements nice contrast to accentuate details, while not giving way to any blooming or black crush. Any minor issues appear to be source related rather than any digital ticks. The preservation attempts have really paid off for this one.
The Blu-Ray serves up a LPCM 2.0 mono track that once again sounds quite good. Dialogue comes through clearly even with different accents being thrown around by the prisoners. Nothing ever feels like it gets lost within the mix. Francis Chagrin’s score can be a bit overwhelming, personally, but it sounds technically pleasant outside of some minor issues in the upper levels. Sound effects come through well without distortion. Fans of the film should be please with the audio quality of this release.
- Colditz Revealed: A 54-minute documentary focusing on the actual POW camp, Colditz Castle. This plays like a deeply engaging television special with interviews from historians and actual soldiers and prisoners, along with some of their relatives. The stories are fascinating and chilling, but really worth hearing. This is essential if the subject interests you in the least.
- Restoration Comparisons: Three minutes of comparisons with select scenes showcasing the extensive digital cleanup that was conducted to eliminate the numerous nicks and scratches on the print. This makes you appreciate the newly restored presentation even more.
The Dam Busters (1955)
An epic war story of World War II. Scientist Dr. Barnes Wallis believes World War II can be shortened by destroying the Ruhr dams, thus paralyzing the enemy’s industrial nerve center. In spite of the difficulties caused by the critical situation at the time, he works steadily to perfect a special bomb of his own invention for the purpose. Air Ace Wing Commander Guy Gibson is chosen to form, train and lead the hand-picked squadron.
Those unfamiliar with the story of The Dam Busters are in for a really exciting treat. The first half of the movie focuses primarily on the dream of one man, Dr. Wallis (Michael Redgrave), who believes he can create something to help turn the tide of war. The process of using hard science and physics to tackle big issues can actually be quite thrilling when depicted on screen. Modern films such as The Imitation Game employ similar story beats of a driven genius hell bent on making their dream a reality. The film also gives the goods when it comes to seeing the project come together to an actionable mission. The special effects may be remedial by modern standards, but the sequences are nonetheless thrilling. Star Wars fans can also thank this film for inspiring the attack on the Death Star and the end of the original film. There are so many fun and exciting bits in this film that make this a joy to watch. The only unfortunate portion to note, which the disc addresses in a pre-movie warning, is that there are some racist terms used in the film due to a poorly named dog, which the special features reveal mirrored real life. This is a tough pill to swallow, but if you feel you can get past that, The Dam Busters is a thoroughly excellent film.
The Dam Busters comes to Blu-Ray newly restored courtesy of StudioCanal and released by Film Movement Classics in an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.37:1. This is the first time the US has been able to purchase these new presentations domestically. This restoration is really something to marvel at, as it takes a really rough looking print and cleans it up substantially. There are still minor nicks, and at least one errant line of noticeable damage, but the film appears very natural and filmic. Film grain is present without being too intrusive, which allows details not to be scrubbed away. Textures on clothing and within the production design are now way more apparent than ever before. The contrast in the black-and-white photography is stellar. There is some special effects work that would be considered laughable these days, but works well when viewed in the context of the time. The last quarter of the movie takes place during a night raid, and black levels are sufficiently deep. Overall, Film Movement Classics should be applauded for giving us such a great presentation.
The Blu-Ray comes with a LPCM 2.0 mono track that is effective. Dialogue and special effects are balanced well without one ever compromising the other. Dialogue comes through crisp and clear throughout the runtime. The iconic “The Dam Busters March” by composer Eric Coates is a truly rousing piece of music that comes to life on this disc. The audio special effects during the ending attack sequences are effective and weighty within the track. There are no apparent issues with the sound portion of this film.
- The Making Of The Dam Busters: A new 40-minute featurette that covers the actual operation and subsequent film. This does a great job of leading you through all of the different developments including the publishing of the book, how they decided to adapt the film, casting the project, filming techniques and more. The subjects they get to contribute interviews are very knowledge and keep things interesting at all times.
- Sir Barnes Wallis Documentary: A 29-minute archival piece featuring an in-depth interview with the real life Wallis and other important figures from the time. Wallis goes into great detail about the actual operation, developing the bouncing bomb and his personal feelings about how things played out. This is an important piece of history that is worth checking out.
- 617 Squadron Remembers: A 57-minute special on the men that flew the mission, which includes fascinating interviews from those with clear memories of the night. Nothing really beats firsthand accounts. Due to the secretive nature of the mission, it is interesting to hear what each person thought they were potentially going to be attacking. A lot of care was put into constructing this piece.
- Footage Of The Bomb Tests: Nearly seven-minutes worth of actual footage from Britain’s National Film & Television Archive showcasing several attempts at testing the bouncing bomb. The footage is in rough shape, but the fact that we even have access to such material is wild. It really helps you see how easy it was for things to go wrong with just the slightest error.
- The Dam Busters Royal Premiere: A three-minute Pathe News alert that highlights the premiere night with footage of the guests, including Princess Margaret. This is often used as a technique in period pieces, but to see an actual alert is a lot of fun. One of my favorite features on the disc.
- Restoration Comparison: A five-minute look at the restoration of the movie that gives some background on film preservation, as well as some interviews with those who worked on the project. These individuals seem to care about preserving the original look of the film while making it look the best it can.
- The Dam Busters Trailer: A minute-long trailer for the film that gives a really brief overview of the story while showcasing the new restoration. It is rousing, and it does a great job of getting you to want to see more.
It is early May: the year 1940. In London, the civil population, lulled into an atmosphere of false security, goes about its business as usual. Even the official war communiqué’s merely report activity on the Front. But Charles Forman, war correspondent, knows better. As the war in France takes a turn for the worse, he signs on with the Merchant Navy and volunteers for the greatest mission ever mounted…the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Christopher Nolan fans are already quite aware of this story, but they may be unaware that his film was not the first one with the name Dunkirk. Nolan’s version is a technically extravagant and visceral experience that highlights the horrors of the situation in a thrilling way. This original version from 1958 may not be as flashy, but it aims to keep you more connected with the characters emotionally to raise the stakes. Stars such as John Mills, Richard Attenborough, and Bernard Lee lead this incredibly talented stable of actors to great effect. There is something so moving about watching common people come together to help their fellow countrymen. The action sequences leading up to the mass rescue are expertly staged on a scale that is nearly unbelievable. Nolan brings something unique to his version of the story that is hard to top, but that does not mean you should write off this engaging depiction of mass bravery. This is the most traditionally well-rounded World War II picture of the set.
Dunkirk comes to Blu-Ray newly restored courtesy of StudioCanal and released by Film Movement Classics in an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.66:1. This is the first time the US has been able to purchase these new presentations domestically. Once again, a full restoration has done wonders for a classic film. While there are still minor issues such as very minute specks or damage and pretty heavy grain in darker sequences, but overall this is a pleasing presentation. The transfer reveals some interesting details in the production design and costuming. The contrast in the black-and-white photography appears natural, and grain appears in mostly healthy amounts. There is some archival footage within the movie that is in noticeably worse shape than the normal film, but it would likely be an impossible task to make it look much better than it does due to source issues.
The Blu-Ray comes with a LPCM 2.0 mono track that serves the movie about as well as any of the other tracks on this set. Dialogue is balanced well, and sound effects are appropriately lively within the mix. Everything appears to be naturally placed to replicate the original intent. The score from Malcolm Arnold is a pleasing one to hear on this disc. There is not much in particular to make this stand out any more than anything else in the set, but the lack of any dropouts or audio damage is very much appreciated.
- Dunkirk Operation Dynamo Newsreel: A four-minute archival Pathe Gazette news story featuring actual footage from the evacuation. Seeing this piece of history on film is staggering. Such a cool feature!
- Young Veteran Ealing Short: A 22-minute short film is presented from Ealing Studios that acts as something of a reflection on the prototypical solider “Young Burt.” It is an interesting journey from training to Dunkirk, where things get tough, but ultimately work out. An interesting addition to the set!
- Interview With Actor Sean Barrett: A 22-minute conversation with Sean Barrett, who appeared in Dunkirk when he was a teenager. Barrett shares his memories from filming, which are quite enlightening. It is interesting to hear how he would sometimes get too sucked in to his performance and actually becomes fearful of explosives on the beach.
- John Mills Home Movie Footage: Ten-minutes of actor John Mill’s personal footage from the set of Dunkirk gathered from the National Film and Television Archives in England. This footage is silent, but shot in color. It provides a nice time capsule to show what the actors were experiencing and how many people were involved in the battle scenes.
Ice Cold In Alex (1958)
A thousand square miles of blazing, pitiless desert, and a story so unusual, so gripping that it could spring only from life itself. The Mediterranean of 1942; along the barren North African coast where war has turned towns into smoking ruins, and the grim struggle surges to and fro. But that is just the background; the story is about people, not war – and it happens to be true.
When an alcoholic officer (John Mills) has to lead an unfortunate group across the desert after a botched evacuation, the concept of WWII nearly melts away as personal human dramas take precedent. This is a riveting tale that hooks you early and keeps you glued to the screen through a methodically paced journey filled with environmental and human obstacles. Whether it be navigating a minefield or coming across a stranger who may be untrustworthy, the stakes always appear to be life and death. This is only effective because the movie reveals just enough about the relatively small cast to make you invested in each individual outcome. The performances are stellar all around, but Mills is particularly noteworthy as someone who is trying to keep his demons at bay as he is faced with overwhelming obstacles. This film may seem like a bit of an oddball compared to the other films in the set, but that is exactly why it deserves to be here. Ice Cold In Alex perpetuates the idea that World War II cannot be summed up by one type of story because ramifications reverberated throughout the world. This character-driven approach works so well that you will not want the journey to end by the time your reach the conclusion.
Ice Cold In Alex comes to Blu-Ray newly restored courtesy of StudioCanal and released by Film Movement Classics in an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.67:1. This is the first time the US has been able to purchase these new presentations domestically. It may be due to the fact that this is my favorite film from the set, but this also appears to be the best looking quality wise. The black-and-white photography is gorgeously shot with a nice contrast. Film grain is natural without being intrusive. There is a staggering amount of detail and texture present, especially in the sweaty faces and the filthy clothing after a run-in with quicksand. This release also features the least amount of remaining damage among the five titles. This is a top-notch effort from the company.
This Blu-Ray with a LPCM 2.0 mono track that sounds pretty wonderful. As with the video portion, the audio on this disc probably sounds the best overall when compared to the other four releases. Dialogue is crystal clear and easily distinguishable. This film is more subdued than the others, which leads to more quiet moments with greater environmental effects in the mix. The score is kept to a minimum, but what does pop up sounds nice and balanced. Fans should be beyond pleased with the five-star sound quality featured here.
- Extended Clip From A Very British War Movie Documentary: A thirteen-minute excerpt from A Very British War Movie in which some of the cast, crew and various experts discuss the film. Topics include John Mills taking a different kind of role, dealing with flies on set, the quicksand sequence, getting accidentally hammered on set and more.
- John Mills Home Movie Footage: Fifteen-minutes of actor John Mill’s personal footage from the set of Ice Cold In Alex gathered from the National Film and Television Archives in England. This footage is silent, but shot in color. It’s interesting to see candid footage of the Libyan people and landmarks of the country through the eyes of Mills.
- Interview With Melanie Williams: A nearly sixteen-minute conversation with Williams, who is Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia. Williams discusses how this film plays against normal tropes of war films, how it fits into film history, how Diana was nearly a perfectly progressive character, cut sex scenes and more. Williams is really a wealth of information.
- Steve Chibnall on J. Lee Thompson: A nearly thirteen-minute interview with Chibnall, who is Professor of British Cinema at De Montfort University. Chibnall gives a lot of interesting background on director J. Lee Thompson including how he took inspiration from Hitchcock, his fascination with unconventional heroes, changes from the book and more.
- Interview With Sylvia Syms: A 22-minute interview with actress Sylvia Syms (Diana) in which she is very candid about her experiences on the film. You do not get many first hand accounts from actors who were under contract with studios, and hearing how they were treated is difficult to hear at times. Syms nonetheless still loves the films and provides some lively anecdotes that are worth hearing.
Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics pulls off the impressive feat of presenting five different films with unique personalities and viewpoints that coalesces comfortably into a singular theme. Each film gives you something different to sink your teeth into without ever feeling like you are getting burnt out by a similar type of story over and over. It just so happens, each film also proves to wildly entertaining. Film Movement Classics has provided each film with a new digital restoration that will blow your mind with its undeniably superb A/V presentation. Not only that, the supplemental features provided are worthy of your time to gain a greater appreciation for these stories. Those unfamiliar with these British war stories should not hesitate to check this collection out if they have even the slightest interest. Highly Recommended
Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Film Movement Classics has supplied a copy of this set free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.