Douglas Bader (Kenneth More) was one of the heroes of the Battle of Britain where pilots took to the skies to combat the Nazi menace during World War II, but he did not begin his Air Force career in the late nineteen-twenties as heroic, anything but as he was prone to misbehaviour and had a problem with being told what to do by authority. He would encourage his mates in training to do the same, and as a pilot he was not exactly getting off to a stellar career as far as his superiors could see, not even able to land the biplanes properly at first. His extracurricular activities would get him into hot water as well, drinking and carousing mostly, with womanising thrown in for good measure. However, it would be an incident in 1931 that changed his life forever...
Well, sort of, as he continued to behave as the know-it-all and not listen to anyone but himself if he could help it, it's just that now he didn't have any legs. Douglas Bader was a war hero, there was no doubt about that, yet as an individual he was not the most affable of men to say the least, certainly not around the time the film drawn from the biographical book was set, but the moviemakers couldn't exactly make him totally unlikeable or risk turning off an audience all geared up for over two hours of relentless patriotism. There were many war films made in the British entertainment industry in the fifties as the nation's society tried to recapture some glory thanks to there still being an austerity drive in this era, and abroad the United Kingdom was seeing its influence dwindling.
Indeed, Reach for the Sky happened along at the point of the Suez Crisis, a turning point for the country as it illustrated Britain could not rely on its past as a superpower anymore, so the public were keen to see a depiction of their compatriots that bolstered the notion they were yet putting the great in Great Britain, and sure enough this production fast became one of the biggest hits their film industry ever saw. No matter that Bader's reputation as not particularly a nice guy could have sabotaged the project, as director Lewis Gilbert, adapting the book himself, cannily cast Kenneth More as the lead - Richard Burton was reputedly who the producers actually wanted as first choice, which would have made for a very different experience. But More was one of the most popular stars in the country.
Therefore he could do no wrong with local audiences, and that essential likeability, that embodiment of indomitable national character, served him well as Bader. More, guided by Gilbert, took an interesting tack, not toning down Bader's arrogance but channelling it in a way that would make the viewer appreciate his usefulness against the enemy, not to mention being glad he was on the right side since that boundless energy in spite of his disability was focused on the good fight, thus summing up the British pluck and faith that they were morally correct, a faith meaning there was no way we could not win against evil. While the accident is shown to be Bader's own stupid fault, trying to show off by performing stunts when he should have been reining himself in, the aftermath was surprisingly gruelling for a film of this decade.
There was not gore or anything, but in More's acting we could tell how agonising his recovery was as first Bader has the limbs amputated, then fights back from the brink of death to manage walking once more thanks to his "tin legs", every step of the way never backing down or giving in to his perceived physical disadvantage. In a manner that Tom Cruise was reminiscent of in Born on the Fourth of July, More was more convincing no matter the vintage of the setting, as he was not aiming for awards glory by playing against type, he was acting within his range and proving very effective to that end while retaining a degree of the stiff upper lip as expected. He's never mentioned in lists of the greatest screen actors, yet like many of those who would play a particular type More was very good at what he did, and in Reach for the Sky he achieved excellence with apparent ease. Backed by a solid cast including the sensitive, worried Muriel Pavlow as his wife, he was able to render what could have been an offputting personality understandable and laudable. Music by John Addison.