Lord of the Rings auteur Peter Jackson is producing a remake of a brisk little World War II movie called The Dam Busters, which celebrated Operation Chastise, the May 1943 bomber attack by the RAF 617 Squadron on key dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland. It also presents a couple of big problems that could be ignored when the film was made in 1954, but could very well blow up in the faces of contemporary viewers and remakers.
It’s easy to see why Jackson was drawn to the story: it has all the ingredients for a special effects extravaganza, and the bombing sequences are pretty suspenseful. In order to get past the torpedo nets shielding the dams, engineer Barnes Wallis (played by Michael Redgrave in the 1954 film) designed a drum-shaped “bouncing bomb” that literally skipped across the water to reach the target. If that weren’t enough ingenuity, in order to get past German antiaircraft batteries, the squadron came up with an ingenious system of downward-pointing spotlights that let the pilots gauge their height while flying low in the dark. The raid caused catastrophic flooding in parts of the Ruhr Valley, and as anyone who’s seen The Two Towers can tell you, Jackson and his people really know how to stage a good apocalyptic flood.
Trouble is, in terms of its effect on the war, Operation Chastise was about as useful as the firebombing of Dresden. Most of the people killed by the flooding were slave laborers shipped in from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and the impact on German manufacturing was almost negligible — the dams were quickly repaired and the German war machine barely missed a step. Moreover, the necessity for repeated bombing runs gave German gunmen plenty of chances at the squadron, and of the 19 bombers sent on the mission, eight did not return. The courage and commitment of the airmen are beyond doubt, but the loss of so many lives for such a relatively small return raises legitimate questions about the operation.
And then there’s the little problem of the squadron commander’s dog. It was called Nigger. Apparently Jackson still hasn’t decided what to do about the dog’s name. If you Netflix the film, you’ll find it really is jarring to hear the dog’s name used so casually, over and over.
Not that anyone’s asked me, but I’d tell Jackson to keep the name. For one thing, it’s historically accurate. (When the dog was killed in a traffic accident, the squadron used “Nigger” as their password, as a tribute.) For another, while there’s no doubt the right side won World War II — or that it needed to be fought, whatever Pat Buchanan may have hallucinated about Germany’s intentions — it will be refreshing to get a subtle reminder that there were some not-so-great things about the “Greatest Generation,” or that the “Good War” wasn’t all good.