Watched the movie Battle of Britain (1969, script by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex) yesterday. I haven't seen it since well before I started getting into the whole scriptwriting thing so I was watching with my brand-new "screenwriting head" on.
How is it that this film actually works at all? And pretty well at that. Who is the protagonist? Who's the antagonist? Does this film break all the rules and still work?
Well, of course they're really guidelines and not rules* but they work as rules, and when people try to break them it usually fails miserably. So what's going on with this film? After all what we get are lots of air battles interspersed with fragments from the lives of half a dozen people.
How does it work?
This isn't an in-depth analysis, no time for that, but an overview.
The protagonist is the RAF and the antagonist is the Luftwaffe. When you recognise that the rest falls into place, the goals are well-known and obvious: The Luftwaffe must destroy the RAF so that the German invasion of Britain can take place.
The relative strengths are important - the Luftwaffe is a massive force, the RAF are the few.
But you cannot have a concept as a protagonist, nor antagonist, hence the snippets of the lives of people involved on both sides - and time is spent emphasising how similar the people on both sides are, apart from the German High Command (being the source of badness).
What happens in those snippets mirrors the events in the overall scheme, thereby fulfilling a fundamental requirement in screenwriting - events must be things that we can empathise with, we may not be able to empathise with the problems of the Air Vice Marshall in the darkest hour - but when Sgt Pilot Andy's wife and children are killed in the related sequence, we can get that.
Once you have a grip on the protagonist and antagonist the plot develops in a standard three Act sequence (including a mid-point reversal). The film works through to an Aristotleian** crisis: the point where there are no more reserve pilots or planes; shown by the almost dialogue and sound-effect free battle sequence followed by the incredibly tense point where suddenly nothing is happening (it's worth noting how tense "nothing" can be after so much action).
And the final resolution, for the audience, when we see (again no dialogue) the German invasion force moving away from the coast.
Interestingly Churchill does not appear in the film (though Hitler does, just once at a rally, with a specific plot purpose), in fact not even Churchill's name is used - he is referred to as the "Prime Minister" just once. I believe this to be an important and wise decision on the part of the writers. Churchill personified the struggle against the Axis powers and has become (justifiably) a colossus that straddles the war. If he had been included it would have robbed the film of its ability to represent the stages of the battle through the lives of those directly affected - it would have had to have been done solely through Churchill himself.
This is a masterclass in the screenwriting of something that should not work on the Big Screen - but does.
* The "they're more guidelines than rules" joke is not a Pirates of the Caribbean original, Terry Pratchett used it in his 1995 Discworld book Soul Music. I know 'cos I just read it and he uses it three times in the book. (I don't see this as a criticism of Pirates, it's a good joke and probably a tribute.)
**From Aristotle's "The Poetics".
What's on the turntable? "Machine Messiah" by Yes from "Drama"