Reach for the Sky (1957)




Director:     Lewis Gilbert.

Starring:    Kenneth More (Douglas Bader), Muriel Pavlow (Thelma Bader), Lyndon Brook (Johnny Sanderson), Lee Patterson (Turner), Alexander Knox (Mr. Joyce), Dorothy Alison (Nurse Brace), Michael Warre (Harry Day), Sydney Tafler (Robert Desoutter), Howard Marion-Crawford ('Woody' Woodhall), Jack Watling (Peel), Nigel Green (Streatfield), Anne Leon (Sister Thornhill), Charles Carson (Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding), Ronald Adam (Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory), Walter Hudd (Air Vice-Marshal Halahan).

British RAF flyer who loses both legs fights to fly again


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

On his first day, Douglas Bader rides his motorcycle to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell.  Along the way he has a slight accident and rips the top of his bowler hat.  In formation, the hat makes him stick out and he receives some criticism.  He makes friends with John Sanderson who remains his close friend for decades.  Within a couple days, Bader is airborne, training in an Avro 504.  His flight instructor soon lets him fly solo. 

Bader is very outspoken and frank.  He also likes to do unapproved tricks in the air.  He soon gets scolded by Air Vice-Marshal Halahan.  Upon graduation Sanderson and Bader are both assigned to 23 squadron at Kenley. 

Kenley 1930.  Bader has a girl named Sally who he likes a lot.  He also likes to go over to the Reading Aero Club to do some extra flying.  There he is challenged to do some low level aerobatics, even though he knows that these performances are against the rules.  Bader flies low over the airfield a number of times, but then on one run he dips his wing a little too low, it strikes the ground and his airplane crashes.  His fellow pilots rush out to him.  Bader says:  "I can't feel my legs."  He is taken to the hospital in critical condition.  The right leg is practically severed, the left leg is crushed, two ribs are broken and he has some minor facial injuries.  Doctor Joyce has to amputate the right leg.  They try to save the left leg, but it becomes infected and has to be amputated also. 

Lying in bed Bader's pulse is very low.  The pain leaves him which means he is slipping away from life.  He hears someone making a lot of noise, who then is scolded:  "A boy is dying in there."  Bader knows he is the "boy".  This makes him determined to survive.  The pain returns. 

Sanderson is posted to the Middle East.  Before he leaves, he is given the task of telling Bader that he has lost both legs, not just one.  When he hears the news, Bader sobs.

Bader is now in a wheel-chair.  He likes his nurse who is named Brace.  Sally comes to visit with him, along with some fellow pilots.  They tell him that there will be an inquiry into the accident.  Bader worries if the air force will keep him.  He is determined to leave his wheel-chair.  With a wooden peg he walks on crutches but often falls.  But he won't let anyone stop him from practicing.  He learns that Sally has left him and he mentions this to Brace.  He says he wishes he were dead.  This makes Brace mad and she scolds him for letting himself get so down emotionally.  No disciplinary action is to be taken against him.  That is a big relief to Bader. He tells Brace that she saved his life. 

At Uxbridge Bader is able to drive a car with his peg leg.  He and two buddies stop at a restaurant.  Bader takes an immediate liking to the waitress named Thelma Edwards.  He tells his buddies that he will ask her out one day. 

Ministry of Pension Hospital, Roehampton.  Bader has his peg leg replaced by artificial legs.  The doctor tells him that he will always walk with the help of a cane.  But Bader refuses to use a cane.  He promises the doctor that he will soon be walking without any outside help.  It is not going to be an easy task and even after some practice, he walks worse than the monster Frankenstein.  But he keeps at it.  He pays a visit to his old hospital ward and shows the guys he can walk without crutches or cane.  He is challenged to walk to his old bed.  It isn't a pretty sight, but he makes it to the bed. 

Bader goes back to Kenley and 23 squadron.  His friend Harry and he take a ride in the Avro trainer.  Bader wants to be approved for flying.  Chasing that dream he speaks with Wing Commander Hargreaves.  The bad news is that because of his legs, they will not pass him as qualified to fly.  He wonders if he will be grounded for good, but Bader keeps pushing for acceptance. 

He takes a desk job which he hates.  To boost his spirits he starts golfing.  He sees Thelma now and then and they draw closer.  They are soon married in a civil ceremony.   The news of the day is that Hitler succeeds Von Hindenburg. 

1939.  Air raid sirens go off as German planes threaten Great Britain.  Bader goes to see Halahan again.  He tells him:  "I've got to fly again."  Halahan sends him back to Central Flying School for re-qualification.  Of course, he passes with flying colors.  He is allowed to fly for the air force again.  With his experience and great self-confidence, Bader is soon made a flight commander. 

The Germans have invaded France.  The squadron is soon taking off to support the evacuation of British and French troops from France.  In the dog fights Bader shoots down a plane.  Sanderson's plane goes down over France.  Despite Bader having recently "broken" a Spitfire, he is put in charge of the 242 squadron of mostly Canadian fliers.  They fly Hurricanes instead of Spitfires.  The squadron is desperately in need of good leadership.  When Bader arrives he finds a very demoralized squadron who have no pride in their flying group.  He has to prove himself somehow, so he takes off in a Hurricane and gives them a very impressive display of fancy flying.  The men are impressed. 

A big problem facing the squadron is the lack of the proper tools to fix the airplanes.  Bader tries to rectify the situation, but keeps hitting roadblocks.  In desperation, he marks down his squadron as non-operational.  This makes the chain of command very mad.  The Commander-in-Chief calls him in and he scolds Bader.  The chief is annoyed, but Bader gets his tools.  Now the 242 squadron is marked as fully operational. 

Speaking on the radio, Churchill declares:. 

I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'

Bader learns that Sanderson is safe, but is held as a prisoner of war by the Germans.  Bader really wants to get in the action against the German airplanes.  But he is assigned to a northern area of defense and the action is in the south.  Bader wants to fly south to help out, but air control won't let him.  After what seemed to be an interminable wait, the men get the call to scramble.  They are tremendously excited to get into the action.  With a total force of 12 airplanes, Bader and his crew face 70 German airplanes.  The squadron scores 12 confirmed and 7 probable kills.  Command is so pleased with the performance that they place two more squadrons under the command of Bader.  Soon he is asking for a total of five squadrons and he gets his wish.  The unit is known as the Duxford Wing.  The pilots come to look upon him as a superman.  His breezy confidence in the air gives the new pilots a greater sense of calm in the air.  The Battle of Britain comes to an end.  Hitler postpones the invasion of Britain and it is soon forgotten as Hitler concentrates on the attack on the Soviet Union.

Bader is made a Wing Commander and stationed at Tangmere.  He directs three Spitfire squadrons.  They make many sweeps over Rouen, France.  In fact his squadrons make more sweeps than anyone else in Fighter Command flying 30,000 feet over France twice a day.  When he pays a visit back home, his wife desperately tries to get him to go golfing with her for two weeks in Scotland.  But Bader can't leave the war. 

While involved in dog fights two airplanes collide and the wreckage of a German airplane strikes Bader's airplane and sends it heading for the ground.  Bader is able to jump out of the plane and descend to earth safely via parachute.  Thelma learns that Bader went down and may be dead, but later a fellow co-pilot calls her and tellsl her that her husband is now a prisoner of war.  She says she knew the Germans wouldn't be able to kill him. 

In a German prisoner of war hospital, Bader makes his first escape.  He is helped by the French villagers, but is caught by the Germans.  In the next eight months he escapes twice more, but is caught each time.  So the Germans move him from camp to camp and then eventually to Colditz Castle where he finishes out his four years of captivity.  He is freed in the spring of 1945.  Bader goes home to Thelma.  She is very happy to see him, but upset when he wants to have one more fling in the Far East against Japan.  But he never makes it over to the Far East. 

September 15, 1945.  The Fifth Anniversary of the greatest day in the Battle of Britain.  Twelve pilots of the few of the few involved in that battle fly during the ceremony.  The group captain is Douglas Bader.  He tells his wife as he prepares to fly:  "I'll be back in an hour."

Good, inspirational movie.  At first I thought it might be all about the overcoming of disability, but the second half of the movie had quite a bit of World War II action.  Bader was quite the outspoken leader and is very well played by Kenneth More.  My wife also liked the movie. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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