The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Dam Busters

Bryan Young | December 9, 2013

The Dam Busters is a 1955 British film set in World War II. It tells the daring true story of an Royal Air Force raid to destroy a trio of German dams, deep in enemy territory.

Conventional weapons simply wouldn’t do the job, so scientists had to develop a new way of delivering a bomb: skipping it across the water so it would wedge up against the dam. In order to hit the target, the pilots had to fly exactly 60 feet from the surface of the water and every bomber in the mission had to drop their bomb at exactly the same spot.

At first glance, the only similarity one might assume this film would have to Star Wars would be the “impossible shot” motif. Hitting the precise spot on the dam was as impossible as hitting a small thermal exhaust port, not much bigger than two meters wide. The entire film is built around the science in developing the technique to hit the target, then ends in a stunning aerial battle to see the work pulled off. George Lucas managed to efficiently and economically condense everything great about this film into a subplot and finale for the fourth episode of the Star Wars saga. But there’s so much more this film provided Star Wars than just a major plot point.

For starters, the special effects photography was overseen by none other than Gilbert Taylor, the cinematographer on A New Hope. When taking that connection into account, there’s a lot of Star Wars ancestry you can trace to The Dam Busters. The film has many shots out of the cockpits of ships against rear projectors, informing the look of the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit throughout Episode IV. There are also shots of planes skimming the surface of the German countryside, fired at by anti-aircraft guns with painted in gunfire; it’s all re-created shot-for-shot on the surface of the Death Star, with the laser blasts painted in red and green instead of white.

X-wings above the surface of the Death Star

Gilbert Taylor isn’t the only crew-member to find his way from The Dam Busters to Star Wars, either. The make-up artist for the film is none other than Stuart Freeborn, the legendary mind behind the Yoda and Jabba the Hutt puppets.

While the assault on the German dams bears much visual resemblance to the assault on the Death Star, Lucas saw fit even to steal lines of dialogue. When the pilots head out, they each check in with their call numbers, as the squads of fighters do in A New Hope.

As the British pilots approach the superstructure, one asks, “How many guns do you think, Trevor?”

To which Trevor replies, “I’d say there’s about ten guns. Some in the field, some on the tower!”

The similarities go even further… A tense countdown leads to the first bombing of the German dam, just like the trench run. After the first bomb attack against the German dam is away, one of the pilots exclaims, “It’s gone! We’ve done it!”

To which he’s told, “We haven’t! It’s still there!”

That bomber tells his other pilots to set up for their attack run, eventually taking three bomb runs to destroy the target.

During this entire battle, the scientists and masterminds behind the bombing run are left in a quiet room at the British Command Headquarters, poring over maps and waiting for radio reports to come in, mirroring the room at the Rebel Base that Dodonna and Princess Leia oversee the attack on the Death Star in.

This movie was well over two hours and Lucas masterfully boiled its essence down into thirty minutes in Star Wars, icing on the cake of an already great film. It’s been said that footage from this film is even what Lucas used to cut into the animatics for A New Hope, and after watching this film it would come as no surprise.

For modern audiences and Star Wars fans, The Dam Busters is definitely worth watching. If you want to watch it with the kids, I’d recommend getting your hands on the American version if you can. The canine mascot of one of the pilots has an offensively racist name in the British version, but they dubbed over it in the American version, changing the dog’s name to “Trigger.”

Other than that, it’s totally appropriate for all audiences and is terribly exciting.

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