Historians Fear Hollywood Is Distorting the Battle of Britain in a New Film by Tom Cruise

Roundup: Talking About History

Cole Moreton Right, in the London Independent (April 11, 2004):

Billy Fiske was a racing driver, a pilot, an Olympic gold medallist and an American - but one thing he did not do was win the Battle of Britain single-handed. Veterans and historians fear that will be the impression given, however, when Tom Cruise plays Fiske in a new film called The Few.

"I've heard it is almost like he won the war all on his own," says Ben Clinch, who loaded the guns fired by the real Billy Fiske and his comrades in 601 Squadron during the summer of 1940. "I can't see how they can make a film of Fiske's life. It was quite short. He was unremarkable, in the context of the squadron. He was just another pilot as far as we were concerned."

Hollywood's version of the Second World War has already shown Americans capturing the Enigma code machine in U571 (they didn't) and leading The Great Escape from a German prisoner of war camp (also not true). Pearl Harbor even suggested that the RAF only thwarted the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 because US pilots popped across the Atlantic to help out. Now Mr Cruise looks set to expand on that with his own version of what Churchill called our "finest hour".

Fiske was a remarkable character who did fly in the Battle of Britain, but recorded no confirmed kills. "It is going to be a farce if we have the Yanks shooting down everything in sight," says Bill Bond of the Battle of Britain Historical Society. "The battle was four weeks old when Billy was shot down. He made several sorties but he didn't shoot anything down, and his impact on the battle was negligible. We are concerned."

The Few is being made by Michael Mann, director of Top Gun, the jet-fighter movie that made Tom Cruise's name. Currently in development, it will be based on the life of William Meade Lindsley Fiske III, son of a wealthy Chicago family, who became the youngest Winter Olympics contestant to win a gold medal, in the bobsleigh at the age of 16. Handsome, charming and addicted to speed, he married the former Countess of Warwick and raced at Le Mans. So far, so historical, and filmable. But alarm bells started ringing when Variety, the movie world's magazine of choice, described the film's historical content. "In 1940, expert German fighters had decimated the Royal Air Force to the point that there weren't enough pilots left to fly the Spitfire planes sitting idly in hangars," it said. "Unable to rouse the US into action, a desperate Winston Churchill hatched a covert effort to recruit civilian American pilots to join the RAF. Risking prison sentences in the then-neutral US, a ragtag bunch of pilots answered the call." The magazine also looked forward to "ferocious dogfights between the overmatched American pilots and the German ace fliers".

This account prompted despairing laughter from Bill Bond last week. "It's hilarious," he said. "Totally wrong. The whole bloody lot. They flew Hurricanes for a start." Spitfires have a more romantic image, however. "Recruited by Churchill? Crap. They wouldn't have gone to prison either." And as for the idea of aircraft sitting idly by in hangars while the brave Americans took to the skies: "What a load of bloody rubbish. We did have a pilot shortage, but not to that extent."

Mr Bond has much more confidence in the accuracy of a forthcoming book by the author Alex Kershaw, whose proposal was the inspiration for The Few. The book is due to be published by Michael Joseph next year. Mr Kershaw also wrote The Bedford Boys, the basis for the film Saving Private Ryan.

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Nicolas James Gordon - 5/30/2005

I have read lots of reports on Tom Cruise's new film, entitled 'The Few'. I must say that I too am concerned. It may be a little early to point the finger with brash statements, such as 'Hollywood raped Britain's history again', and although I live in hope, past productions do suggests that that is what is likely to come. I really hope not, the story of the Battle of Britain shows courage at its greatest height, and all members of the RAF, whatever country they came from, deserve their rightful place in the history books. I hope that writer John Logan shares my thoughts and does indeed put a story that is true to all.
As a British Serviceman, I hold these thoughts close to my heart. I too, am a Screenplay writer (unknown) and have penned a script on the battle of Britain. I can only smile at the phrase 'great minds think alike, as I too entitled my screenplay 'The Few'. It does follow the first ten Americans Pilots to fight alongside the British and the other contingents but does not at all suggest that the fight was one sided, in regards to the Allies. As I said, all those involved were responsible for saving Britain from certain invasion. It is these people who the British, indeed the rest of the democratic world, owe their present lives. We must remember them all!!!
I only hope that this film, when released, shows the facts...I beieve that it will make a better movie.

Thanks for reading...