It’s easy to become numb to the statistics when reading about war. Hundreds killed from this bombing run, thousands dead on that battlefield, thousands more injured or homeless from the destruction. But large scale events are made up of very individual stories, the stories of the people who have their home destroyed, are shot down during an attack, are killed when their unit is ambushed by the enemy. There are also some wars that capture the imagination, with great stories of heroism and tragedy both, notably World War II. No war has been more closely examined by writers and filmmakers than WWII.
Every nation has its narrative of this horrible war, a war that racked up over 50 million deaths, but few lands were more imperiled than Great Britain. Estimates are more than 475,000 people were killed (both military and civilian) and the stories of heroism during the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the Battle of Normandy, are seemingly endless. But it’s still the individual stories that really highlight the extraordinary tragedy of this global conflict. Stories like that of RAF Flight Lieutenant Douglas Miller, as portrayed in the new indie WWII film Lancaster Skies.
Miller (Jeffrey Mundell) was a Spitfire pilot during the grueling Battle of Britain when his younger brother was tragically killed while away at a farm, evacuated from the family home in London. Determined to do damage to the enemy, Flight Lieutenant Miller transfers to Bomber Command. He’s assigned to replace a recently killed skipper, becoming captain of a bomber crewed by a group of men who themselves are grieving the loss of their skipper and almost entirely uncommunicative.
The only person who will talk to him is the wise-cracking Williams (David Dobson), who as co-pilot can’t avoid feeling like there was something he might have done to keep the Skipper alive when the plane was strafed. Also wracked with guilt and completely emotionally shut down is rear gunner Moore (Kris Saddler), who froze up and stopped firing on the German fighter during that fateful mission.
It’s quite a shell-shocked crew, with Miller so closed into himself with his grief over the loss of his little brother that he rudely ignores her when WAC Kate (Joanne Gale) expresses interest. She finds him handsome and intriguing. The crew try halfheartedly to come together as a team while waiting for their plane to be repaired, and finally are assigned a bombing mission over Berlin: The Brits are bringing the war to Germany. But Miller needs to find some level of peace with what’s happened in his family and become a leader for his crew if they have any chance of surviving the mission. Meanwhile, we gradually learn that the likable Williams has a shocking secret that could absolutely change everything.
Lancaster Skies is a classic shoestring budget movie, reportedly filmed for under $100,000. That’s including cast fees, crew, equipment, and visual effects. As a result, it’s no surprise that it feels a lot like a stage play with very modest sets and almost all interior scenes. Once you accept these limitations, I found Lancaster Skies moving and poignant, a reminder of the very human cost of war.
If you’re used to massive Hollywood productions like Nolan’s brilliant Dunkirk, Das Boot or Saving Private Ryan, however, you might find this amateurish. It’s really low budget. But there’s still a good story here about a group of young men who were doing their best to ignore the horror of their situation and do the right, honorable thing, even when scared witless. And Miller? His family tragedy is everyone’s wartime tragedy, the human cost of civilians inevitably caught up in a war. I recommend Lancaster Skies. Like climbing into a bomber, just know what you’re getting into before you start the journey.
Dad at the Movies Note: There’s surprisingly little death and destruction for a WWII movie, muchly due to budget limitations. Nonetheless, the deaths that happen, like Miller’s little brother are potentially upsetting (though it happens off camera). Probably not appropriate for pre-teen, this is a good film to spark conversation about war, the cost of battles and the lives lost during WWII, as well as the take away some of the “glamor” of warfare from modern video games and big-budget cinema.