What Could Have Been #31 | Dambusters

What Could Have Been #31 | Dambusters

Director Peter Jackson has spent more than a decade trying to remake the iconic British film, Dambusters.

Peter Jackson is a director best known for his work adapting the works of J. R. R. Tolkien to the cinema screen with two successful film trilogies, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

For more than ten years, Jackson has unsuccessfully tried to remake a classic British film, Dambusters.

This piece of cinema history was originally released in 1955 and told the story of British bombing raids on German dams during the Second World War.

What made the Dambusters story so interesting was the involvement of special bombs that were spun to high speeds before release enabling them to skip across the water and hit their targets.

To ensure success, the huge Lancaster bombers had to fly just 150ft above the ground making them extremely vulnerable. Nineteen bombers were involved in this operation but sadly eight planes and 53 crewmen were lost.

617 Squadron were successful in destroying two of the targets and it is they who were the main focus of the original film.

Jackson feels the film portrays the events in a, “slightly romanticised view of what happened” because many of the real facts about the missions were still top secret, including the fact the bombs were spun upon before release.

His script would be based on the book, Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, written by James Holland.

One of the full-scale replicas of a Lancaster bomber at Hood Aerodrome in Masterton, New Zealand in 2009.

The story of the remake begins in 2005 when an interview with the late Sir David Frost reveals he bought the rights to the original book in 2003 on which the original film was based.

In 2004, Peter Jackson won an Oscar for directing the third instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King.

Somehow, Sir David Frost learns that Jackson is not only a huge fan of Dambusters but also has a framed poster up on his wall. This is enough encouragement for Frost who calls Jackson and allegedly a deal is struck in that first initial conversation between the two.

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Christian Rivers who had storyboarded all of Jackson films is attached to the project as a director in 2006. This was originally going to be Rivers directorial debut but that title later went to 2018’s Mortal Engines.

Meanwhile, Jackson was already trying to figure out one of the films thornier issues. In the original film, the Wing Commanders dog was called Nigger. The dog’s name was also used as a code word to report a successful mission over the radio.

This couldn’t be done now in a modern film for obvious reasons. Jackson spoke of changing the dog’s name, “It is not our intention to offend people. But really you are in a no-win, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario. If you change it, everyone’s going to whinge and whine about political correctness. And if you don’t change it, obviously you are offending a lot of people inadvertently.”

English actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry lets slip in 2007 that he is writing a draft of the script and Frost is the Executive producer.

Peter Jackson even phones astronomer Brian Carter in 2008 to find out the exact location of the moon in the night sky back in 1943.

Whilst this sounds like Jackson is over researching for detail, the light of the moon was essential for the night-time bombing raids but it also made the aircraft more vulnerable to the anti-aircraft fire.

Stephen Fry (left) interviews Peter Jackson (right) in front of the full-size replica WW2 planes.

Lucky members of the press were apparently shown early test footage in 2009. A nature documentary with Stephen Fry entitled, Last Chance To See, featured an interview with Jackson. What makes this relevant is the background of the interview where you can see several replica WW2 bombers and planes.

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Jackson later reveals he has ten replica planes that were manufactured in China and then shipped over to Weta Studios in New Zealand.

In 2010, Jackson had planned to start production on the Dambusters remake but fellow director Guillermo Del Toro pulls out from The Hobbit. Jackson stepped in to direct and produce the three films and this will occupy his duties until 2014.

With The Hobbit trilogy now finished, Jackson mentions in a 2014 interview that he wants to make Dambusters next as people have been asking him for it for that last five years.

Dambusters news remains quiet for several years until 2018. Whilst in a promotional mode for Mortal Engines, Jackson says he is still eager to make the film with Christian Rivers still attached as director,

“We are clinging on to the rights for The Dam Busters, and we have them for another year or two. It’s just a great story, it’s always been a great story. But it’s an even greater story now than it was in 1955 because, back then, there was still so much of the story that was under the Official Secrets Act.

“They couldn’t show the bomb spinning, because the fact that they applied backspin to the bomb to make it jump on the water was still a state secret. The real story is so much more interesting. It’s a story of politics, of ingenuity and peril, and it’s also a story about trying to do something that cost an awful lot of money.”

So there may still be a chance we’ll see the 617 Squadron back on the big screen once more.

John Abbitt

About the author | John Abbitt

@UKFilmNerd | John loves film, and he used to write for his own website, The Tydirium Hangar Bay, in the late 1990s. Whilst that website became lost in the passages of time, John's love of film did not. He's back, writing for The Unheard Nerd.