Before any of you comments section-based stand-up comedians pipe up saying something like ‘What do you mean, that FILM starring Tom Hardy wasn’t actually real?’ it’s worth bearing in mind that when it comes to war, there is an expectation that reality is at least considered. In fact, some say you shouldn’t mix entertainment and the real-life cataclysm of conflict at all – Michael Haneke has been vocal about his distaste of Steven Spielberg on this front – but if you are going to trudge into that tricky terrain, then a sense of realism is paramount.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was heralded on this front. The film accurately depicted the fact that the Second World War was fought by children. As veteran and writer, Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.”
However, aside from Nolan’s noble portrayal of children clad in regalia, there is one element of Dunkirk which lasted long in the mind. Spitfires formed the forefront of the movie’s narrative as pilots battled it out over the beaches in epic sequences brilliantly scored by Hans Zimmer’s musical wizardry. Tracer bullets shot through the air and their hot glow and the fizz they made was indeed accurate, but in reality, the battles would’ve been far shorter.
All the dipping and weaving that was necessary to make a fighter plane agile enough to be of use meant that they had to be very light. Thus, the fewer external fixtures the better. This meant that the guns could only be fixed with limited ammunition and it’s not like you could reload mid-flight either.
Therefore, the reality is that Spitfires were only fixed with about 20 seconds worth of ‘gun time’. These planes were more akin to aerial snipers making shots count as opposed to a machine gun with endless bullets whizzing through the air. However, it’s not often you watch a war movie and see a pilot being conservative with his firing.
While on the surface, it might be clear why directors have shunned realism for the excitement of an all-action battle, in truth, tales of pilots in battle wondering just how many bullets they have left before they’re a sitting duck is surely equally tense and nerve-shredding.
With 300 rounds per gun, pilots had 20 seconds of trigger time which also meant it was important to get close to the enemy in order to ensure you hit the target. This meant that often the recommended range was a mere 100 yards (91 metres). The most skilled pilots might have been able to stretch that to 400 yards in the right conditions, but for the most part, aerial battles were a dogfight based on sheer nerve, no matter what Hollywood says.