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633 Squadron

633 Squadron(1964)

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In 633 Squadron (1964), Royal Air Force wing commander Roy Grant (Cliff Robertson) is given the task of destroying a German rocket fuel factory in Norway. The factory is at the end of a fjord sheltered by a huge cliff and is defended by the Nazis, so the assignment is tricky; the planes must fly in at an extremely low altitude and drop specially-built bombs designed to knock the cliff loose and send it hurtling onto the factory. Meanwhile, Norwegian resistance leader Erik Bergman (George Chakiris) is to coordinate a ground attack to knock out the German anti-aircraft guns, a plan that goes awry. The story also works in a romance between Bergman's sister (played by Austrian actress Maria Perschy) and Cmdr. Grant, but the emphasis is on vigorous action, well filmed by cinematographer Edward Scaife under the direction of Walter Grauman.

One of the big selling points of this picture was its use of actual de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers, the so-called "Wooden Wonders" of World War II since they were constructed almost entirely of wood. By 1963, when planning for the film got underway, there were very few of these planes left, and those still around were quite literally about to be sent to the scrap heap. Producer Walter Mirisch later recalled that if he had approached the British Air Ministry just two weeks later than he did, most of the planes would already have been dismantled. As it worked out, twelve Mosquitos were able to be used for the movie -- three that could fly, and nine more to be shown on the ground. According to the film's publicity notes at the time, there was no known previous footage of Mosquitos in flight, so the film took on historical significance. Mirisch additionally rented three German Messerschmitt fighter planes for use in the film, as well as an old Boeing B-25 as a camera plane.

Cliff Robertson, fresh off a role in The Best Man (1964) and a portrayal of John F. Kennedy in PT 109 (1963), landed the lead role, and the fine Shakespearean British actor Harry Andrews took the role of the Air Vice Marshall who gives Robertson his assignment. This was one of many military characters in Andrews's screen career, with perhaps his finest to come one year later in The Hill (1965), for which he would receive a BAFTA award. And as Mirisch later wrote in his memoir (I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History), "There was a character role in it that fit George Chakiris -- with whom we still had options dating back to West Side Story (1961) -- and we considered having him in the film would be valuable."

Director Walter Grauman worked primarily in television but had just directed the feature film Lady in a Cage (1964). He was an old college friend of Mirisch's and had been a bomber pilot himself during World War II. The screenplay, adapted from a novel, was by James Clavell, who had previously written The Fly (1958) and The Great Escape (1963) and would go on to write and direct To Sir, With Love (1967). His own first novel, King Rat, would become a movie in 1965, and Clavell eventually went on to work as a novelist full-time, with Shogun his most famous.

Just before production, Cliff Robertson told Walter Mirisch that he had second thoughts about the script and desired some changes. Mirisch promised that if Robertson would start production as planned, Mirisch would find another writer. The producer was already in London at this point, and he discovered that Howard Koch, one of the screenwriters of Casablanca (1942), was living in London as well, having been blacklisted during the Hollywood witch hunt and forced to find work in England. Mirisch hired him to do a rewrite, and the production continued without any delays.

Filming took place on soundstages at MGM's British studios, at a former RAF base in Bovingdon, England, and in the skies over Scotland, including areas over the Isle of Sky, Loch Ness, and Dalcross. (In the film, the characters train for their mission in Scotland since the topography is similar to that of Norway.) The picture had a $1.3 million budget and became a box office hit, especially in Britain. Reviews were fairly positive, with The Hollywood Reporter praising the "exciting action sequences" and Variety deeming it "a spectacular achievement... Contains some of the most rip-roaring aerial action photography ever recorded on celluloid." The review added, however, that the action was "not matched by the drama it adorns."

633 Squadron made a big impression on George Lucas, who was about 20 when it was released. In Lucas's Star Wars (1977), the final attack through a "trench" on the Death Star was patterned in part on the climactic scene in this film. There are even bits of dialogue here that are very similar to lines heard in the Star Wars scene. (Another influence on Lucas's sequence was the 1955 British war film The Dam Busters.)

The film's success prompted Mirisch to produce several more war movies distributed by United Artists, among them Attack on the Iron Coast (1968), Submarine X-1 (1968), Mosquito Squadron (1969), and Hell Boats (1970). Like 633 Squadron, they were made in England and starred American actors in the lead.

By Jeremy Arnold

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