PG | 1h 50min | Documentary | Oct. 14, 2022
The World War II-era British Lancaster bomber was just as iconic as the American B-17 “Flying Fortress” (immortalized in film and news reels by “The Memphis Belle”), but it holds a more complicated place in British popular history. The plane itself and the men who flew it performed with honor and unwavering reliability, but the top brass at Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command has become a source of historical controversy.
Of course, the crew had no say over the operations they flew or the war they fought, as they make clear in David Fairhead and Ant Palmer’s new documentary, “Lancaster: Above and Beyond,” which releases in theaters and on-demand.
Famed Heavy Bomber
With its four-engine design, the Arvo-manufactured Lancaster had superior lifting power and payload capabilities, making it the RAF’s primary heavy bomber for the duration of World War II, following its adoption in 1942. At the time of filming, there were only two left in service, exclusively for ceremonial flights.
However, the “Lanc” still looks surprisingly graceful in the air, given its size. Of course, that made it a considerable target on the ground. Despite the innovative countermeasures developed by the RAF, 55,573 Lancaster airmen did not return from flight operations, out of a total 125,000 who served aboard the bombers.
Fairhead and Palmer chronicle all of Bomber Command’s most significant operations, including their triumphant “dam-busting” missions over the Ruhr Valley and the game-changing bombing of the Peenemunde V-2 rocket station.
On the other side of the ledger, the notorious Dresden bombing run is discussed at length. Perhaps the grimmest segment focuses on the disastrous March 1944 Nuremberg Raid, which resulted in Bomber Command’s greatest single-operation fatalities.
As a documentary, “Lancaster” is intelligently organized, covering the development of the titular bomber, its notable operations (also including bombing the Normandy shore ahead of D-Day), the in-flight experience aboard the Lancaster, and the social environment for its crews on-base.
Many documentaries have chronicled D-Day, Dresden, and the London Blitz, but the way Fairhead and Palmer present them in the context of Bomber Command and the Lancaster provides a new perspective on World War II, at least for American viewers. Frustratingly, the documentary also shows how the Lancaster’s crews’ perilous service was largely overlooked after the war, as well as were recent efforts to finally give them due credit for their service.
“Lancaster” is also a high-quality production, especially by documentary standards. The aerial segments of the bomber in flight provide a strikingly peaceful counterpoint to the sacrifice and destruction the film documents. “Game of Thrones” star Charles Dance narrates with an appropriately respectful tone, while the interview segments are unusually dramatic.
Perhaps the most poignant segment features a former Women’s Auxiliary Air Force volunteer, remembering her late lover, a Lancaster pilot, who was killed in action.
Arguably, the only potentially contentious sequences in “Lancaster” are those that directly address the Dresden bombing, which has long cast a shadow over Bomber Command.
For balance, Fairhead and Palmer include an interview with a German survivor of the resulting fires, who was obviously a very young girl during the war. However, she argues in retrospect, it was probably necessary to defeat the National Socialist war machine.
While some of the participating crew members are clearly still haunted by the wide-scale destruction, others point out the munitions factories that made the city a legitimate military target. Of course, the film reminds us that none of the crew members had any choice in selecting or approving their missions.
During the course of “Lancaster,” viewers will be reminded why the demographic that fought WWII is widely known as “the Greatest Generation” (a term popularized by Tom Brokaw). All the veterans interviewed understood the war had to be won, because the only alternative was unchecked tyranny.
“Lancaster” is not a judgmental or ideological documentary, but it concretely illustrates the difficult choices that have to be made during wartime.
It is also a great aviation film. It might seem far-removed from the mega-hit “Top Gun: Maverick,” but you can still pick up echoes of the Lancaster crews’ dashing swagger, which a character like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell could appreciate.
Very highly recommended, “Lancaster” releases Oct. 14.
Director: David Fairhead and Ant Palmer
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 14, 2022
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5