This year’s crop of war documentaries cover recent conflicts, or at least that’s true of the ones I’ve seen anyway. So it’s surprisingly refreshing to see David Fairhead and Ant Palmer’s Lancaster. Although yes, this film has its work cut out for it to stand out against other World War II docs in streaming platforms. It uses the reliable elements of archive footage and interviews, but these interviews are insightful in many ways. First, there’s the obvious reason that time thins out the generation that both fought in the war and became its victims.
Second, that the interviewees in this documentary are people who either flew the Lancaster, the airplane that helped Britain and the Allies win the war. It also features the one civilian who was on the receiving end of the bombs that the Lancaster deployed. These interviewees display many emotions as they discussed their taboo role in the war. But what comes out is a pragmatism, that Britain had to bomb the Germans back after the latter bulldozed the former’s cities. The documentary finds pilots from all parts of the former Empire, including British women and Jamaican men. It treats them equally as it looks back at a time when they weren’t equals.
Lancaster, in other words, uses these interviewees to show the Air Force’s achievements in a war that the Allies won. Viewers can feel their pride at least in this part of the film. It uses other methods to do so, like showing animation of newspaper clippings, showing the difference in the RAF from 1939 to 1943. The documentary presents those clippings more slowly than the spinning papers in Citizen Kane. However, doing so also displays the animation work that comes off like a high schooler’s work.
Thankfully, Lancaster returns to the interviewees talking about operating their planes. The documentary’s other methods also come off better on screen. There’s the occasional scene where the Lancaster takes flight above a cloudy night sky. If anything, there’s a lot of great work in the sound design. It, for instance, takes clips from movies that Britain made about the Air Force during that time. It gives viewers more than one sense of both the chaos and the majesty of those air raids. Charles Dance’s narration also illuminates the technical side of the war these pilots were fighting.
Through the interviews, Lancaster‘s crew also captures different versions of the events without making them seem too different. The documentary eventually brings up Dresden. One retired pilot discusses how he saw the similarities between Dresden and his hometown and thus his moral apprehensions about bombing the former. Another pilot said that it was like any other raid. What’s interesting about these interviews is the interviewees’ body language, as that, as well as the documentary’s other elements, make that war’s emotions feel fresh.
Watch Lancaster in theatres and on demand.