There was a surreal discussion on the radio the other day, prompted by the news that Sir David Frost has bought the film rights to The Dam Busters and has plans for a remake. For a small boy like myself, this was thrilling news - because although we were not exactly sophisticated consumers of special effects when I was a boy, even back then we were able to see that the climactic explosions over the Mohne and the Eder dams had been achieved by the low-tech means of scratching an explosion-shaped hole in the film emulsion.
The result wasn't exactly convincing - and my first thought on hearing this report was how effectively modern CGI techniques would render the attack and its consequences. I confess I have a weakness for this kind of thing. Indeed, the new adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was ruined for me by the fact that it opens with a scene-setting prelude in which you fly over London in a Heinkel, dodging flak and searchlights and watching blossoms of flame light up the streets below. After that, frankly, it could only go downhill.
Naturally, the small boy soon got shouldered aside by a grown-up, with grown-up frets. Was this really the right time for a celebration of aerial bombardment? How might the film find itself co-opted into the "war on terror"? Worst of all, since it would clearly require Hollywood investment, would we find ourselves watching the stirring tale of how a squadron of American Liberator bombers, led by a cigar-chomping Texan called Gus Gibson, had overcome the spineless hand-wringing of the RAF top brass in order to pull off this feat of arms?
None of these questions, though, was the issue that agitated those discussing the news on the Today programme. What they worried about, astoundingly, was whether it would be possible to call the dog Nigger. Richard Todd, who played Guy Gibson in the original film, didn't actually mutter: "It's political correctness gone mad," but you sensed that was what he was thinking.
Now, it's true that the dog isn't a negligible element of the original film. By one of those sleights of hand that war films so often pull off, it was possible to believe, as a small child at least, that the dog was the chief victim of the war. Never mind the slave workers and civilians swept away by the torrents, never mind the young airmen who didn't come back. Weep for that black Labrador, run over because of his doggy devotion. True, too, that Gibson's own dog did have that name. But even when I first watched it, we understood that this was something you really shouldn't do any more. And, as it happens, the Americans were more enlightened than we were - the dog was redubbed as Trigger for American markets.
The implication of those talking on the Today programme - if not their explicit statement - was that alteration of this trivial (and mildly discreditable) detail was a kind of double betrayal, of both film and history. And I suppose it's possible to think of circumstances in which one might share their sense that the past would be falsified. If Gibson's dog's name had been instrumental in the planning of the raid, for instance, or if it was argued that Gibson's attitude to racial sensitivities had some bearing on the British war effort. But it would be absurd to suggest any such thing. His dog could have been called "Person of colour" and nothing would be altered. It's a detail of such incidentality that its retention would not justify wounding a single person, let alone millions.
What's also revealed here, though, is a received belief about remakes - which are somehow presumed to owe their chief duty to the past rather than the present. But there is no such thing as a respectful remake, since their very existence presupposes that the original is deficient in some regard. If not, then why bother to remake the film at all?
The point was very expensively made by Gus Van Sant with his remake of Psycho, which replicated the original frame for frame, including the original continuity errors and using some of the original props. Now that had respect. Unfortunately, it didn't have much of a point. Indeed, deference may be the very worst quality a remake can have, since it sends the director chasing after a goal he or she can never achieve.
Far better surely to acknowledge that we may need something different from a story half a century on, and do whatever is necessary to extract it. When it was made in 1954, The Dam Busters wasn't a work of jingoistic bombast marred by casual racism. But it would be now, if it was replicated with no acknowledgement that times have changed. One can only hope for a remake that's brave enough to betray the original.Reuse content