Billy Bishop Goes to War (2010)

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As with a few other titles I’ve reviewed on my journey through the history of Great War Films, my film today was originally a stage play that has made it onto the big screen. The difference with today’s film is that there’s been no ‘Adaption’ as such and what you see on film is pretty much what you’d see if you went to watch it in a theatre. What this means is that we have a paired down bare essentials experience that sets it apart from anything else I’ve set my eyes on so far.

I should declare a slight conflict of interest for today’s fare as well. I’m proud to say I helped in a tiny little way to fund the DVD pressing of the film through Kickstarter when the producers wanted to give away 1000 copies of the film to veteran’s organisations around Canada. Happily they made their target with plenty to spare and I think they ended up with a lot more DVD’s than they originally planned for to give away. For my part I now have the DVD with www.greatwarfilms.wordpress.com named in the contributors section and a warm sense of satisfaction.

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For those who don’t know Billy Bishop was THE Canadian Flying Ace. He has an airport named after him if that’s any measure of your contribution to the world. Who else has an airport named after them? John Lennon, JFK, Alexander the Great. You don’t tend to get an airport named after you unless you’re a ‘Someone’.

The film today is in essence a theatrical re-telling of his war years with the eponymous Billy leading the audience through the story from the comfort of his attic. Surrounded by memorabilia from his youth an aging Bishop reminisces and gives us a first person account of his experiences in training, at the front and then finally above it fighting alongside and against some of the heroes and villains of the battle for the skies.

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As his story unfolds we get to see his initial excitement at going overseas followed by his first experiences of fear whilst watching a U-boat sink some of the ships around him in a convoy. He makes it to land and, after spending some time soldiering, he eventually gets attached to a flying unit as an observer. Following an injury he finally gets his wings and from there he quickly becomes a legend of the skies as his colleague’s crash and burn around him. Eventually he gets removed from active service, his celebrity comes with some expectations from the upper echelons. His death might cause a dip in Canadian public sentiment and support for the war, keep him safe and you keep Canada in the war.

Canadian actor Eric Peterson reprises the role he originally played in the 70’s and is ably supported by composer and writer John Gray on the piano. The songs set the tone and emotional state of Billy at various points through his story and when the singing dries up the accompaniment on the piano is more foley in nature. Sitting atop the piano are photos of Billy in his youth, I also made out a photo of Albert Ball who is the focus of a few of Billy’s stories.

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To put across the internalised thoughts of Billy during the harder times he coped with there are occasional recitations of letters to his beloved Margaret back in Canada. Here he talks about his fears and sense of disbelief at the scale and nature of the conflict. While we get caught up in his stories we are at every turn reminded that these are the reminiscences of an old man. The sentiment switches from pro-war gung-ho excitement, to anti-war disbelief, to misanthropic hatred and finally rose-tinted nostalgia. Each in turn making complete sense and feeling like a natural reaction to the horrors he is faced with.

Having spent a bit of time reading up about Billy Bishop after watching the film I feel I must point out that there is, to this day, some disagreement between historians regarding Bishops war record. He seems to have been given much more freedom to self-report his ‘Kills’ than other pilots. Some historians when attempting to tally his record with the German archives can find little connection between his dates and times of kills and those from the official records. Others highlight that the majority of German records were either destroyed or fiddled with by the powers that be to paint a more positive picture of their numbers. Either way, the guy survived in the air for far longer than almost any other combatant and that on its own is worthy of note.

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As this was originally filmed for TV it comes in at just under an hour and a half in length which is about right I suppose. There’s plenty of story to tell and it clips along a fair old whack. The stage play feel is a good way of telling the story and I like the confidence of the film producers in not trying to adapt it into a more cinema-y format. It works on stage and whatever little tweaks they have made have helped to make it work on screen too.

It’s basic, gritty, real, sweary, honest. I really like it and that’s not just because I’ve got my name on the cover. I like it because whereas the majority of films of the conflict are quite generalist and cover similar ground this is different. It’s a very personal account of the war and there aren’t many other first-hand accounts that have passed into the modern lexicon. Others that springs to mind are Ernst Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’ or Cecil Lewis’s ‘Sagittarius Rising’. Neither of these guys have airports named after them though.

Clicky Clicky to get it for yourself. You simply must!

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