Dunkirk: The return of the flying film

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was an Amazon bestseller this Christmas.

The film has been praised for its aerial sequences, using real aircraft on a scale that hasn’t been seen in many years. The Battle of Britain historian James Holland said “the flying sequences were absolutely fantastic”.

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Google Searches for Dunkirk on DVD spiked over the Christmas period (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/fCrZc/1/)

With directors like Christopher Nolan committing to avoiding computer generated imagery (CGI) as much as possible, Dunkirk demonstrates that Hollywood has the skills and the resources to film high quality air battle footage. Could the experience of Dunkirk be used to usher in an aerial filming renaissance?

The Benchmark

The benchmark for air battles on film is the 1969 Battle of Britain (directed by legendary Bond director, Guy Hamilton).  The film, shot using a fleet of 100 aircraft, featured some of the most ambitious aerial sequences ever recorded.

Few films since then have met the standard set by Battle of Britain. Dunkirk’s approach has bucked a trend towards the use of CGI to save money and ease in the production. Modern attempts at aviation war films like George Lucas’ Red Tails have been heavily criticised for this approach.

By analysing the filming process of Dunkirk, and the footage used in Battle of Britain, the possible cost of a modern attempt at Guy Hamilton’s classic is revealed.


The first challenge for a modern filmmaker in making a modern Battle of Britain would be finding suitable aircraft for the challenge.

In filming Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan made use of three Supermarine Spitfires, alongside a twin seat Yakolev Yak52 to film the cockpit sequences. The production also used a single Hispano Aviacion Buchon, a Spanish made copy of a Messerschmitt Bf109.

All of the German aircraft used in the original Battle of Britain were Spanish reproductions. A large number of these aircraft were still in use by the Spanish Air Force at the time of the original production, so Hamilton’s team were able to amass a fleet of nearly 50 flying German aircraft.

There are two major differences between the aircraft on offer to filmmakers today, compared with Hamilton in the 60s. Thanks to the work of a number of conservators, there are at least 34 airworthy single seat Spitfires in the UK today, compared with only 12 available to the Battle of Britain film crew. There has also been an increase in the number of airworthy Hurricanes in the UK, from three in the 60s to seven today.

The other difference is the lack of airworthy German aircraft. For the Battle of Britain film, 32 Heinkel He111 bombers were available, alongside 17 Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters.

Today, there are no He111s flying in the world, whilst there are only eight airworthy Bf109s in Europe, and none in the UK. Christopher Nolan’s team overcame this using radio controlled models of the large bombers for sequences in Dunkirk.

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Conservation efforts have saved a large number of Spitfires in the air, but the lack of German aircraft would be a major challenge to filmmakers. (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/sPw9j/1/)

With the period aircraft available, a modern air battle film could make use of a large fleet of 24 aircraft, providing plenty of airframes for complex and exciting aerial sequences.

Flying Time and Footage

Considering that Battle of Britain has a run time of 126 minutes, a surprisingly small amount of that is airborne footage. Only 38 minutes of aerial sequences are found in the film, which works out as 30.2% of the film’s total run time.

This is a bigger fraction of the film than Dunkirk, which only used 21 minutes of aerial footage. Comparing this to the 106 minute run time of the film, this makes 19.8% of the film.

Despite the different focuses of the two films, Dunkirk and Battle of Britain devote similar fractions of their run times to aerial footage. (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/JT4m0/1/)

According to an eyewitness, the Dunkirk film crew flew 12 sorties a day for two weeks straight from Lee-on-Solent airfield to film the airborne sequences. Another report suggested each sortie lasted around 30 minutes, which provides an estimate of 84 hours of filming taking place over that period.

Dunkirk’s ratio of film time (84 hours) to footage in the finished movie (21 minutes) suggests that in a shot for shot remake of Battle of Britain, the 38 minutes worth of aerial footage would require 152 hours of filming.

The Cost

Cost would be the biggest barrier to be overcome for a future air battle production. Whilst it’s difficult to account for the cost of film crews and camera aircraft, it’s relatively easy to work out how much it would cost to loan historic aircraft for the filming period.

The Boultbee Flight Academy is a company that offers pleasure flights in a pair of two seat Spitfires. Based on their price list, the (estimated) cost per flying hour of a ‘warbird’ type aircraft is around $7300.

A future Battle of Britain film, would need the fleet of 24 aircraft flying for 152 filming hours, total ling 3648 flying hours. That would cost around $26.6 Million.

Although such a price tag for 38 minutes of aerial footage might seem expensive, it pales in comparison to wage packets in modern Hollywood. Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. was paid $15 Million for his appearance in Spiderman: Homecoming, according to industry magazine the Hollywood Reporter. This is despite the actor appeared for only 8 minutes on screen, 6% of the films 133 minute run time.

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A fleet of 24 historic aircraft; officially better value for money than Robert Downey Jr. (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/GhtqD/1/)

Could it be done?

Such a film could be closer than it appears. As far back as 2006, acclaimed director Sir Peter Jackson declared that he was to remake the iconic 50s war film, the Dam Busters.

The story of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb and 617 Squadron would be a far more challenging task to try and remake, given that there are only two airworthy Lancasters worldwide.

More than 10 years on, his efforts have so far proved fruitless, as the New Zealander has turned his attention to direct films such as the Hobbit trilogy.

Despite the failure of the Dam Busters project to get off the ground, modern works like Dunkirk prove that there is an appetite for modern retelling of history’s greatest air battles. Despite the technical challenges, and the financial resource required, aerial film making on this scale can be done.

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