Norway, 1944, and a resistance fighter against the Nazis must get out of the country if he is to relay vital information to the Allied forces in the United Kingdom. To create a diversion, Lieutenant Erik Bergman (George Chakiris) and his comrades set up an ambush on a country lane, blowing up a car and machine gunning the enemy troops, then rushing him towards a field where an aeroplane lands and picks him up with the Nazis futilely firing after the disappearing craft. Once he is in England, the powers that be start using his know-how to establish one of the most daring raids of the Second World War, and the man to lead it is American Wing Commander Roy Grant (Cliff Robertson). All leave is cancelled!
If there's one movie 633 Squadron was deeply indebted to it was the classic fifties effort The Dambusters since it essentially implemented the same basic story outline to tell its fictionalised tale, and if you had to pick between the two you would have to go with the well-nigh unbeatable tribute of The Dambusters. This film's fame rests on the fact it regularly shows up on television so is inescapable for vast swathes of the British public, and if they have somehow managed to miss seeing it, then the theme music by Ron Goodwin will be ingrained in many minds. Like the earlier film, it was decided to create a memorable theme tune to stir the emotions as the derring-do played out, and Goodwin surpassed himself.
In fact, so proud were the filmmakers of his unforgettable music that they used it at every opportunity, making it synonymous with the Royal Air Force for generations, particularly if those generations had ever watched the Air Shows from Biggin Hill or Farnborough on the BBC presented by Raymond Baxter which also were very fond of the theme. It didn't quite supplant The Dambusters March in the affections, much as the source film didn't eclipse what had gone before, but even those who don't recognise the title will likely recall that tune. So there was one aspect branded into the memories, but what of the rest of it, did 633 Squadron and their mission to blow up a Nazi rocket factory in time for the D-Day Landings succeed in the same way or did it fall short?
In truth, it was pretty simplistic stuff, with paper thin characterisations and an itchy trigger finger, as if director Walter Grauman couldn't wait to get back to the action and his cast were right behind him in that frame of mind. Certainly those action sequences were the most enthusiastic in the movie, building to a toy aeroplane-tastic finale where the Mosquito raid takes place in the fjord with bullets flying and explosions going off, though the fact the Allies won the war does mean we will be less than surprised at the outcome of the squadron's endeavours. Before all that, they worked out a scheme to ensure there was something exciting happening at regular intervals, so for example our heroes would be at the airfield and a couple of Luftwaffe planes appear then proceed to strafe the area with their firepower.
Which would be unlikely in real life, but contributed to the sense of urgency nonetheless in a film owing more to popular war comics of the day than to what actually happened, and even to the run of British war movies of which this was a last gasp before a more cynical era intruded. Robertson, a pilot and fan of flying when he wasn't making films, made for a humourless protagonist, though when you saw what passed for jokes in the other characters you would be thankful for that. He claims early on that he has no time for women - the war is more important, apparently - but then Bergman's sister Hilde (Maria Perschy) pops up and he finds something personal to fight for in addition to the greater good, one of the most tepid romances in the genre. That said, when Bergman is captured by what passes for a Nazi dominatrix and has to be blown up to prevent him cracking under torture, it's Grant who shoulders the responsibility, and Hilde is remarkably understanding. When Harry Andrews is the boss, you do what you're told, one supposes. Action-packed, then, but not much more.