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Hurricane (2018)


Hurricane (released as "Mission of Honor" in the US) is a fictionalised version of the World War II exploits of 303 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. 303 Squadron was mostly comprised of Polish pilots, who had fled their own country after its invasion by Nazi Germany. They made their way to Britain and signed up with the RAF in order to continue the fight against the Germans. The film focuses on 303 Squadron's experiences during the Battle of Britain in 1940, during which time it became the RAF's highest scoring squadron flying the Hawker Hurricane fighter.


Witold Urbanowicz and Iwan Rheon
Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorocinski) and Jan Zumbach (Iwan Rheon)

Although over-shadowed by the more modern, glamorous and famous Supermarine Spitfire, the Hurricane was a solid and successful aeroplane responsible for more enemy kills during the Battle of Britain than all other British aircraft and air defences combined. Unusually, if not uniquely, it served on the front line in all theatres of the war from 1939 to 1945, from Europe to Africa, Burma and the Eastern Front.

Hurricane follows one Polish Hurricane pilot in particular, Jan Zumbach (played by Iwan Rheon), who travels through France in 1940, bribing his way past the Germans and improbably posing as a Swiss watch salesman. When he finds his fellow Poles flying with the Polish Air Force in France have left, he commandeers a plane and hops across the English Channel to England, where he rejoins his comrades and enlists with the Royal Air Force.

In England, Zumbach and his fellow Poles are trained at RAF Northolt under a Canadian officer, John Kent (played by Milo Gibson, son of Mad Mel). Zumbach's colleagues include other real life pilots Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorocinski), and a Czech pilot, Josef Frantisek (Krystof Hadek), who would become the highest scoring fighter ace of the Battle of Britain.

The Polish pilots are eager to have a crack at the enemy, but feel slighted and undervalued. Before they can go into combat they have to learn English, RAF terminology, the use of Imperial instead of metric measurements, and how to fly more modern aircraft than they are accustomed to, with different controls and a retractable undercarriage.

The Poles clash with their British counterparts, and pick up the local girls in the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force). Zumbach finds himself attracted to one in particular, Phyllis Lambert (Stefanie Martini), who works as a plotter in an RAF operations room.


Hawker Hurricanes in flight in Hurricane (Mission of Honor)
303 Squadron's Hurricanes in action

Hurricane has run into some flak, in particular for its CGI dogfights. Although the makers had access to a real Hurricane, much of the aerial material was created using computer generated special effects. Some of it does look a bit phoney and the aerial sequences have a definite computer game quality. It probably also didn't help the film's reputation that some of the dodgiest explosion effects were used prominently in the trailer.

But top grade effects work can't necessarily be expected at this budget level. According to Variety, the budget for Hurricane was around $10 million and, given the amount of action and aerial sequences in it, it's quite an ambitious production for that amount of money. A lot (although not all) of the CGI is generally acceptable, at least on the small screen, and it's often no worse than that seen in some considerably more expensive films.

One review of the film I read stated that CGI is used for aviation films like this because there aren't the numbers of Spitfires or Hurricanes flying now that there were when the British film industry was producing WWII epics in the 1950s and 1960s. This sounds plausible, but in fact there are a good number of Hurricanes available to film makers even now. There are around 15-17 airworthy examples worldwide (estimates vary), 8 or 9 of them in Britain alone, including the near-identical Sea Hurricane variant. The real reason that CGI is used in these films is because it's much easier, safer and cheaper than using real aircraft. For this reason, the advent of CGI technology has led to a mini-revival in aerial combat films, like Pearl Harbor (2001), Flyboys (2006), The Red Baron (2008) and Red Tails (2012).


Women plotters in the Operations Room in Hurricane (Mission of Honor)
Women plotters in the Operations Room, including Stefanie Martini (far left)

While the effects used in Hurricane are mostly serviceable, particularly if you are forgiving of the budgetary limitations, the script is a different matter. The writers, Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith, have a tin ear for period dialogue, and the screenplay is full of modern anachronisms and Americanisms. The characters swear more than I think is plausible for the time period, even casually dropping F bombs in front of their superior officers. And the least said about the scene where an RAF officer talks about when "the shit hit the fan" the better. The language is so anachronistic, in fact, that I have to wonder if this was a deliberate, if misguided, attempt to modernise the film and the characters.

The screenplay frequently strays into the corny, and sometimes fatally confuses dramatic classicism with cliché. It's also notably unfocused, with rather too many characters who are not really introduced, and it often feels as if it's not sure what story exactly it should be telling. Mostly the film concentrates on Jan Zumbach, to the detriment of the other characters. But there are also some random and irrelevant elements that should have been dropped altogether. These include Phyllis Lambert's dealing with an unpleasant senior officer who harasses her because he resents her superior understanding of German tactics. The film comically exaggerates the female plotters' role in these scenes. Lambert doesn't just take instructions and push counters across a map, she is also shown implausibly advising her commanders on likely German strategies.

Realism is not generally the film's forte. Dogfighting tactics seem to be non-existent, and the fighter pilots on both sides are easily jumped by their opponents without warning, because they're often not even looking around them. Planes frequently explode into flames, even when they've only been hit in the tail or a wing, just because it looks more spectacular. In one scene, when the Poles are escorting British bomber aircraft on a training mission, the film switches suddenly from day to night and back again without explanation, in only a minute or so of screen time.

There are also two improbable moments when Zumbach dispatches German aircraft using unorthodox methods, as he is unable to fire his guns. In one scene he mashes the tail of a German fighter with his plane's propeller, and in another he barges into a German aircraft to send it into a dive. While these kind of events did sometimes happen, they were exceptional and it seems very unlikely that similar incidents would happen only weeks apart to the same pilot, who must be very unlucky anyway if his guns keep jamming or his ammunition runs out this often.


Iwan Rheon in Hurricane cockpit
Jan Zumbach (Iwan Rheon) in combat

Zumbach's flight across the English Channel, seemingly undetected either by the Luftwaffe or by the Royal Air Force, is also pretty unlikely. Zumbach seems blissfully unconcerned by the air defences on either side, lands his plane on the English coast without being intercepted, and then simply strolls to a nearby hotel where his compatriots are staying. In reality, Zumbach travelled to England by the more practical, but slightly less exciting means, of a boat.

The performances in the film are variable, although Iwan Rheon (more familiar as the villainous Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones) comes out of it well, and is fairly convincing in the scenes where he has to speak Polish. Milo Gibson, as the Canadian RAF officer John Kent, looks distractingly like his dad, but his acting range seems a bit limited, mostly involving squinting when he wants to look serious.

The romantic elements are interwoven into the film not at all artfully. Stefanie Martini's fictional character Phyllis Lambert seems too modern a creation and she is given too much prominence in the film. The Poles are only roughly sketched as characters, presented as outwardly swaggering if dishevelled pilots, while inwardly they are secretly tormented by what happened, and is still happening, back home in Poland. The film's habit of spending too much time with Martini's character, and other distractions, means that the Polish pilots are not properly delineated as individuals, making it difficult to keep up with which one has just been shot down or badly burned in an air crash.

The film has a few effective smaller moments, as when Zumbach returns to a house where he was welcomed in earlier, only to find it and its occupants randomly destroyed by a German bomb. Or when the Poles rush to grab a trophy from their first kill, and are confronted by the burned bodies of the German bomber pilots, something that sets off one character's increasing reluctance to engage with the enemy. Although this scene is let down a bit by the fact that the trophy they take from the German aircraft is a cloth Swastika randomly draped across the plane, in a surprisingly shonky piece of art direction. The film also gets some easy laughs from a scene where Zumbach translates a British Sergeant's speech to the Poles into something much more humorous in Polish. It's an old gag, but a reliable one.


Iwan Rheon and Milo Gibson in RAF uniform
Jan Zumbach (Iwan Rheon) and John Kent (Milo Gibson)

The film doesn't give the audience much sense of the greater air battle that 303 Squadron were taking part in, or where the Poles fitted into it exactly. It tends to take for granted that we all know and understand that. It also doesn't explore how or why 303 Squadron became the RAF's top scoring fighter squadron in the Battle of Britain. Was it really because they were all more handsome and virile than their British comrades, as the film makers seem to think? I'm guessing probably not. The real reason is likely to be the Poles' famously fanatical hatred of the Germans. But maybe that didn't seem like a particularly edifying story to tell.

The film's timeline also seems a little bit confused. After the Battle of Britain it loses interest in the war altogether. In fairness, this affliction also affects much of the rest of the modern British film and TV industry. But, in the case of Hurricane, it's a bit jarring for the film to suddenly leap forward from 1940 to 1946. One of the characters then refers to the two of them having been together for three years, which might be technically correct (it's hard to know) but does seem strange, as they first seemed to be romantically involved in 1940, not 1943. But this is symptomatic of the film's often choppy narrative.

The film draws to a bitter ending, as the Poles are excluded from the post-war victory parade through London, in order to appease Stalin. The film is right to be angry about this, although it doesn't allude to the irony of the fact that Britain and France originally went to war with Germany in order to defend Poland.

Director David Blair probably thinks he's unearthing an untold story, but the contribution of Polish pilots in the RAF during the Battle of Britain is reasonably well known in Britain (and Poland), if not elsewhere. There have been high profile documentaries on this subject in Britain, and the 1969 aerial epic Battle of Britain, still the definitive feature film version of this story, featured the Polish squadrons fairly prominently.

I suspect that the director of Hurricane had seen that film anyway, as there are several shots and scenes very reminiscent of it, from the German pilots' briefing in front of parked Messerschmitt Bf 109s to the German officers gathered on a French cliff top to watch their bomber fleet pass overhead.


Iwan Rheon sitting in a Hawker Hurricane
Zumbach in his Hawker Hurricane

I'm afraid we also have to talk about the 'B' word. It seems necessary at the moment to view every new British WWII film through the narrow prism of Brexit, whether it be 2017's Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, or Hurricane. Are we reading too much into these films, or are they deliberately loading them with contemporary messages? Is it them, or is it us? In the case of Hurricane, it's definitely them.

As Hurricane skips forward to the end of the war, it briefly explores the plight of Zumbach, who has just three days to pack his bags and get out of Britain. All the brave Poles will have to go home, just because the British voted for Brexit were so ungrateful after the war ended.

But the film is disingenuous in these scenes. Although it mentions the Polish Resettlement Act in passing, it tries hard to give the impression that the Poles were summarily booted out of the country. In reality, the Resettlement Act was passed specifically to allow Poles to stay in Britain after World War II and more than 150,000 did so. This was despite the desperate shortage of housing and the millions of British men and women leaving the armed forces and looking for homes and jobs of their own.

Explaining his plight to Lambert, Zumbach tells her "If you don't enrol in their resettlement scheme, you've outstayed your welcome." In other words, if you don't take advantage of the legislation designed to allow you to live and work in Britain, then you can't live and work in Britain. Well, duh.

The problem is that the film is straining too hard for some Brexit era relevance. Just to underline its anti-Brexit credentials, there is even a scene where a Daily Mail journalist gets punched by one of the Polish pilots. Because the Daily Mail supported Brexit. No wait, there was an excuse given. I can't remember what it was, but we all know the real one.


Stefanie Martini in WAAF uniform
WAAF plotter Phyllis Lambert (Stefanie Martini) in one of her quieter moments

In fact, the depiction of Britain and British characters in Hurricane generally is problematic, beyond the anachronistic attitudes and dialogue. The film makers are eager to extol the virtues and bravery of the Poles, but unfortunately they have decided that the easiest way to do it is to malign their British allies in comparison.

It's true that British commanders were unsure about using the Polish pilots, as were the French before them, but there were good reasons for that. The Poles couldn't speak English, were used to flying very different, pretty much obsolete, aircraft with completely different controls, and their morale was initially assumed to be poor. Given that the Polish Air Force had been defeated by the Germans quite rapidly, the fact that the Poles could be capable pilots when given modern machines came as a surprise.

While Hurricane briefly alludes to some of these issues, its depiction of the British characters is highly unflattering, especially in comparison with their Polish counterparts. The British RAF pilots are portrayed as arrogant, boorish and xenophobic, while the officers on the ground are ignorant and incompetent sex pests. British women are much more agreeable, but that seems to be largely because they're all so easy.

In Hurricane's version of the Battle of Britain, the British officers are mostly arrogant and unpleasant, if not incompetent, and seem to be in dire need of some feisty women and a squadron of Poles to save the day. You can almost imagine the director and his screenwriters getting together and saying "We'll show those ignorant Brexiteers. It was really the Poles who won the Battle of Britain and all our boys were arrogant twats." In that regard, Hurricane is a peculiarly British film, wanting to put down its own efforts in order to laud others.


The Polish pilots in Hurricane (Mission of Honor) 2018 film
Some of the Polish pilots in Hurricane

In the US, Hurricane was released under the forgettable title "Mission of Honor". The British title is probably slightly misleading, as the film is clearly not really about the Hawker Hurricane, despite its prominence in the film's many air battles. But the British title is preferable to the American one, which is too generic and B movie-ish.

The critics seem to have mostly been kind towards the film, if not over-enthusiastic. Kim Newman, in Empire, did pick up on the film's Brexit-bashing, which plenty of critics didn't. Newman stated that the film would appeal mostly to "World War II buffs, Polish patriots and air display patrons", although I think Hurricane's shaky grasp of period means it probably wouldn't appeal equally to all of those groups.

As is sometimes the case, Hurricane was released at roughly the same time as another film on the same subject, Dywizjon 303. Dywizjon 303, known as "303 Squadron: Heroes of the Battle of Britain" or "Squadron 303: The Battle of Britain" in English language markets, was directed by Denis Delic and also released in 2018.

The 2001 film Tmavomodrý svět (Dark Blue World in English) also starred Hurricane's Krystof Hádek and told a similar story of Czech pilots in the RAF in WWII in a more restrained way, although it too got bogged down in the pilots' romantic entanglements. More obscure is Nebeští jezdci (1968), a film about Czech bomber crews in the RAF in WWII.

Hurricane covers some familiar ground, but it does have a moderately different angle to some of its predecessors and is generally a sincere effort. The result, though, isn't entirely satisfactory. While it's true that Hurricane's special effects are sometimes below par, more serious is its tone deaf and anachronistic script, iffy politics and awkward romantic elements shoehorned into the story. Despite some occasional effective moments, the serious intent in the film is undermined by the clichés on the ground and by too much hokum in the air. But at least it's better than Red Tails.


Hurricane

Year: 2018
Genre: War, Action, Period Drama, Historical
Country: UK
Director: David Blair

Cast  Iwan Rheon (Jan Zumbach), Milo Gibson (John Kent), Stefanie Martini (Phyllis Lambert), Krystof Hádek (Josef Frantisek), Marcin Dorocinski (Witold Urbanowicz), Manuel Klein (Trost), Raphael Desprez (Favier), Rosie Gray (Georgina), Emily Wyatt (Kate), Robert Portal (Keith Park), Andrew Sweet (Senior controller), Marc Hughes (Ellis), Graham Padden (Rawlings), Teresa Mahoney-Bostridge (McCormac), Jamie Langlands (Met officer), William Nash (Naval controller), Hugh Alexander (Rollo), Kit Patrick (Harry Keating), Michael Houston (Duty Sergeant), Daniel Cech-Lucas (Jimmy), James Henri-Thomas (Osbourne), Matt Malecki (Zygumy Klein), Kamil Lipka (Antoni Siudak), Rad Kaim (Zdzislaw Krasnodebski), Christopher Jaciow (Zdzislaw Henneberg), Rafael Ferenc (Ludwik Paszkiewicz), Slawomir Doliniec (Witold Lokuciewski), Adrian Zareba (Gabriel Horodyszcz), Filip Plawiak (Miroslaw Feric), Nicholas Farrell (Hugh Dowding), Michael Diercks (Weber), Maria Estevez-Serrano (Magda Kowalik), Torin Pocock (Blue Leader), Phil McKee (Higgins), Sam Hoare (Roland Kellett), Michael Keogh (W.O. Jones), Stuart Packer (Medical Officer), Drew Cain (Horobin), Tam Williams (Holland), Daniel Maggott (Landlord), David Pike (Elderly soldier), Damian Dudkiewicz (Jacek Baczewski), Darren James King (Dacre), Joan Kempson (Queenie), Rod Arthur (Henry)

Screenplay Robert Ryan, Alastair Galbraith  Producers Kristian Kozlowski, Matt Whyte  Cinematography Piotr Sliskowski  Production designer Michael Fleischer  Editor Sean Barton  Music Laura Rossi  Costume designer Richard Cooke

Running time  107 mins  Colour

Production company Prospect 3, Lipsync Productions; in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Kaleidoscope Film Distribution, Film Slate One and Stray Dogs Films  Distributors Kaleidoscope Film Distribution (UK), Rakuten (online)



This post is part of The World War II Blogathon, running from 1st - 3rd September 2019. You can join the blogathon, or read more about it, here.




Comments

  1. I've never heard of this film and I think it's interesting and an honourable thing to tell the story of those whose story often goes unheard and unseen. Thanks so much for the review and bringing it to my attention!

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