633 Squadron (1964)

Wing Commander Roy Grant (Cliff Robertson) is the commander of 633 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, flying de Havilland Mosquitoes on raids against the German forces in occupied Europe during World War II.

In the run up to D-Day in 1944, 633 Squadron is given a highly dangerous mission to bomb a German rocket fuel factory in Norway. Just to complicate things, their target is not the factory itself but a rock face overhanging it that will collapse onto the factory and destroy it. To do that they need to fly at extremely low level along the length of a Norwegian fjord and under the guns of the German defenders.

To increase their chances slightly, the Norwegian resistance, led by Lieutenant Erik Bergman (George Chakiris), will attack the German anti-aircraft guns along the fjord just before the attack takes place.

Grant isn't that enthusiastic about the plan, but while the squadron trains for the mission, he at least has the distractions of Bergman's attractive sister Hilde (Maria Perschy).

Cliff Robertson in RAF uniform in 633 Squadron
Cliff Robertson as Wing Commander Roy Grant in 633 Squadron

The de Havilland Mosquito has a fair claim to be the best aeroplane of WWII. It was used as a bomber, fighter-bomber, reconnaissance plane, night fighter and ground attack aircraft and excelled in all of those roles. Built mainly of wood, making it very light and fast, the bomber version of the Mosquito originally carried no defensive armament, as it could fly faster than any German fighter. And with a crew of only two, the Mosquito could carry a similar size bomb load to Berlin as the ten man Boeing B-17.

Despite excelling in many roles, it was as a ground attack aircraft and light bomber that the plane became most famous, and some of its missions passed into WWII legend. These included Operation Jericho, when Mosquitoes flew at tree top height over Amiens and blew a hole in the wall of the prison to enable captured resistance fighters to escape. The scene in 633 Squadron where a Mosquito drops bombs on the Gestapo H.Q. in Bergen was probably inspired by the real Mosquito attacks on the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo and Copenhagen.

If you are reasonably familiar with the British cinema of the 1950s, then the plot of 633 Squadron may ring a few bells. An RAF bomber squadron are given a top secret near-suicidal mission, to fly at very low level over water and against fierce German defences, to bomb a target in Nazi-occupied Europe. Yes, 633 Squadron carries a definite echo of an earlier WWII film, The Dam Busters (1955), based on the true story of Operation Chastise, the raid on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany in 1943.

Mosquitoes taxiing on a runway
633 Squadron's Mosquitoes returning to base after a mission 

A comparison between The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron is useful, because it tells us a lot about what happened to WWII films, or at least the British WWII film, in the 1960s. The Dam Busters is made in black-and-white, based on a true story, has a careful and intelligent script with no phoney heroics, and tells its story straight and in a restrained way. It's also a very British film and has little or no interest in attracting an American audience, and it certainly doesn't pander to it or make any allowances for it. 

633 Squadron, on the other hand, is a fictional story, filmed in Deluxe colour and Panavision, with imported American stars and the emphasis on action, explosions and self-sacrifice. The script is notably weaker than that of The Dam Busters, but it benefits from a decent budget and from being one of the first aviation films to be made in colour and widescreen.

633 Squadron was produced by Mirisch Films, a British off-shoot of the Mirisch Corporation, independent producers who enjoyed great success in the 1960s with The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and the Pink Panther series. The film was based on the 1956 novel by Frederick Smith, and adapted by James Clavell, who had co-written The Great Escape, and would later become better known as a writer-director (To Sir with Love, The Last Valley) and successful novelist, the author of the historical novels Shogun and Tai-pan.

When Cliff Robertson expressed some misgivings about the script, Howard Koch (not to be confused with the producer Howard W. Koch), screenwriter on The Sea Hawk (1940), Sergeant York (1941) and Casablanca (1942) was brought in, after the producers discovered he was living in London, having been blacklisted in Hollywood as a supposed communist sympathiser. The film's director, Walter Grauman, had mostly worked in television, and made only a handful of feature films in the 1960s.

George Chakiris and Norwegian resistance members with guns
Members of the Norwegian resistance, led by Erik Bergman (George Chakiris, on the right)

The imported stars are not entirely successful. Cliff Robertson is fine as the war-weary commander of 633 Squadron, although the part is not especially taxing, but George Chakiris is surely no one's idea of a Norwegian and is weirdly miscast as the resistance leader. Just to compound the error, the dark haired, Greek-American Chakiris is cast opposite the blonde and conspicuously Nordic Austrian actress Maria Perschy as his sister, which feels like some sort of meta joke to emphasise the absurdity of his casting. Chakiris had recently won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for West Side Story (1961) and his presence is partly explained by the fact that he was under contract to Mirisch. Maria Perschy's character is little more than a token love interest and, as is often the case with 1960s war films, her hair and make up mark her out as a woman from 1964 rather than the notional 1944 the film is set in.

The supporting cast is better and includes reliable British character actors Donald Houston, Michael Goodliffe and Harry Andrews, the latter as the tough Air Vice Marshal who sanctions the mission. Andrews was heavily typecast in military roles, especially senior officers and, earlier in his career, sergeant majors, and was rarely out of army or air force uniform in the 1950s and '60s.

Cliff Robertson also made a lot of war films in the 1960s, including PT 109 (1963), as John F. Kennedy, Up from the Beach (1965) and The Devil's Brigade (1968), so it was probably inevitable that he and Harry Andrews would meet up in a WWII film again, which they eventually did in 1969 in Too Late the Hero for Robert Aldrich.

Most of the other aircrew in the squadron are not really characterised, but the film does at least show the international nature of RAF Bomber Command in WWII, with a token cocky Australian (John Meillon) and a Sikh (Julian Sherrier) among the pilots.

Mosquito crash in 633 Squadron
Aviation history goes up in smoke: One of 3 Mosquitoes destroyed making 633 Squadron

The film's real stars, of course, are the Mosquitoes. The producers engaged Group Captain T. G. Mahaddie, who would later help to furnish the mini air force for the WWII epic Battle of Britain (1969), to find the aircraft. The film company was fortunate, because Mosquitoes had only just been retired from service and several were obtained from a Civil Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit based in Exeter in Devon.

According to Jonathan Falconer in RAF Bomber Command in Fact, Film and Fiction, nine Mosquitoes were eventually acquired. Five for the flying sequences and another four for use on the ground, together with some fuselage sections for the cockpit scenes. The scene near the beginning, showing twelve Mosquitoes flying in formation, is a special effects shot using three shots of four aircraft put together. 633 Squadron's reputation among aviation enthusiasts is dented a bit by the fact that three complete Mosquitoes were intentionally destroyed during the filming of the air crash scenes.

Two Nord 1002s, French-built versions of the Messerschmitt 108, were used to play the German fighters and a North American B-25J Mitchell was used as a camera plane to film the aerial scenes. The Mitchell also appears in the film in an unlikely white and silver colour scheme as the RAF plane that flies George Chakiris's character back to occupied Norway.

The script for 633 Squadron is not as good as it could be and the romantic sub-plot feels forced. The rocket fuel factory is such an obvious MacGuffin that we never actually see it, only the rock overhanging it and a few of the German defenders. The film also has a couple of absurd moments, especially a scene where a female SS officer tortures Chakiris's character after looming over him and ordering her subordinates to “take off his clothes”, a scene that veers uncomfortably close to Nazi S&M territory.

Anne Ridler tortures George Chakiris in 633 Squadron
Anne Ridler tortures George Chakiris in 633 Squadron's strangest scene

The film also shows some cynicism creeping into the WWII film, with 633 Squadron ordered into a near-suicidal mission, even if it means the destruction of the entire squadron. Robertson's character is also pragmatic more than heroic, arguing that attacking the Germans is “a job, not the Holy Grail” (I did say the script was weak). But as an American, you would think he could have found a safer job in that case, like maybe a schoolteacher in Modesto or an accountant in Des Moines.

At the end, Harry Andrews as the Air Vice Marshal admits that bombing the rocket fuel factory will not stop the rockets from being used against the Allies, only delay them. His line “You can't kill a squadron” sounds like defiance, suggesting that the squadron is greater than its individual members. But it also carries the implication that each individual is therefore expendable. The final scene, as Andrews and Goodliffe discuss the raid and its outcome, is another clear borrowing from the final scenes of The Dam Busters.

It's in the action scenes and the flying sequences that 633 Squadron really delivers. There is some excellent work by the aerial unit, especially the scenes of the Mosquitoes flying over the mountains of the west of Scotland in the film's training scenes, and the German attack on the RAF air base is well mounted. The final attack on the Norwegian fjord is an orgy of gunfire, explosions and model Mosquitoes being destroyed.

The model work was praised at the time but it does look a little obvious now, at least in the attack scenes. It's less obvious in the training sequences, where the models are only seen briefly for shots were the Mosquitoes fly very close to the dummy target on the mountainside. In some of the later scenes the aircraft just have a little bit too much wing wobble to look entirely real, even in some otherwise quite good effects shots.

Angus Lennie and Cliff Robertson in a cockpit
Hoppy (Angus Lennie) and Grant (Cliff Robertson) training in the Scottish Highlands

One outstanding element is the film's music score by Ron Goodwin. It's a relatively simple, action-oriented score based on Goodwin's exceptional, punchy theme tune, which is used pretty much every time 633 Squadron go into action. The film made Goodwin a popular choice to compose music for war films, including Operation Crossbow (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Battle of Britain (1969) and Force Ten from Navarone (1978).

633 Squadron was mostly filmed at Elstree Studios and at Bovingdon airfield in Hertfordshire. The final attack on the Norwegian fjord was filmed at Loch Morar on the west coast of Scotland, and the scenes showing the planes crossing the sea to Norway were filmed off the Norfolk coast. The film was a big hit in Britain and got decent reviews, winning praise in particular for the flying scenes and effects work.

The popularity of 633 Squadron spurred Mirisch into making more WWII films in the UK although, unlike 633, they were generally B movie programmers, often made by a Mirisch subsidiary Oakmont Productions. These included Attack on the Iron Coast (1967), Submarine X-1 (1968) and Mosquito Squadron (1969).

Mosquito Squadron was very obviously modelled on 633 Squadron, although made on a much lower budget. It re-used footage from 633, including the Mosquito crash sequences and parts of the German air raid on the RAF base. The film was also shot at Bovingdon and the Mosquitoes used were painted with the same “HT” squadron codes as those in 633 Squadron so that they would match the recycled footage from the earlier film.

British quad poster for 633 Squadron
Original British quad poster for 633 Squadron

It was probably the enduring popularity of the film version of 633 Squadron that inspired Frederick E. Smith to eventually begin writing sequels to his original novel. They began with Operation Rhine Maiden in 1975, and the series ran to ten books in all over 50 years from 1956 to 2007.

It's debatable how much the Death Star attack sequence in Star Wars was inspired by the finale of 633 Squadron. There are certainly similarities, although some of these are due to 633 Squadron's debt to The Dam Busters, another influence on Star Wars. But it seems probable that scenes from 633 were somewhere in the mix when George Lucas was using war film footage as the basis for his spaceship battles in early cuts of Star Wars.

Despite a weak script, some questionable casting, and a big side order of cliché, 633 Squadron is an entertaining enough war film. Although the writing and acting never rise to the heights of its antecedent The Dam Busters, it's notable for its excellent aerial sequences and the punchy and insistent Ron Goodwin score. Mosquitoes have never looked so great on film, and 633 Squadron is a pretty safe recommendation for war film and aviation enthusiasts.

633 Squadron 

Year: 1964
Genre: War / Action
Country: UK
Director: Walter E. Grauman

Cast  Cliff Robertson (Wing Commander Roy Grant), George Chakiris (Lieutenant Erik Bergman), Maria Perschy (Hilde Bergman), Harry Andrews (Air Vice Marshal Davis), Donald Houston (Group Captain Don Barrett), Michael Goodliffe (Squadron Leader Adams), John Meillon (Gillibrand), John Bonney (Scott), Angus Lennie (Hoppy Hopkinson), Scot Finch (Bissell), John Church (Evans), Barbara Archer (Rosie), Julian Sherrier (Singh), Suzan Farmer (Mary), Johnny Briggs (Jones)

Screenplay James Clavell, Howard Koch, based on the novel by Frederick E. Smith  Producer Cecil F. Ford  Cinematography Ted Scaife  Production designer Michael Stringer  Editor Bert Bates  Music Ron Goodwin  Additional photography John Wilcox 

Running time 102 mins  Colour Deluxe  Widescreen Panavision

Production company Mirisch Films  Distributor United Artists


  1. I may not seek out 633 Squadron, but I am certainly going to have The Dam Busters March in my head for the rest of the day.

    1. That raises an interesting question - which is the better theme music? I think I might have to give it to The Dam Busters, but they're both pretty great.

  2. One of the great "cheap movie bin" finds I have is a DVD 3-pak with this movie, The Bridge at Remagen and The Devil's Brigade.

    1. And now I'm jealous. Bridge at Remagen is one I keep meaning to take a look at again.

  3. I researched this film extensively for my book 'Planes on Film' so I would like to make a few corrections. A total of eleven Mosquitoes were acquired for the film. Five were airworthy although no more than four are seen flying together at any one time. Three non - airworthy Mosquitoes were used for crash scenes. One Mosquito appears as a dismantled aircraft at Bovingdon. Two others were used for studio work such as cockpit scenes. The film was shot at MGM Studios at Borehamwood not Elstree Studios. Location work took place in the summer of 1963 at RAF Bovingdon and elsewhere. For the Norwegian and trainng scenes three Mosquitoes were based at Inverness Airport (RAF Dalcross). Colin M. Barron

    1. Bear in mind that I said complete aircraft, so not cockpits or fuselage sections. And I did already say that it was filmed at Bovingdon. The source I used stated that it was filmed at Elstree studios, but Elstree and Borehamwood are sometimes confused because of their proximity. So I will consider changing it if you can point to better sources.

  4. The irony is that the real RAF Coastal Command 333 Squadron was manned by Norwegian pilots and navigators. The film could have had thrilling script without the ridiculous plot lines.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts