Reach for the Sky

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Reach for the Sky
original theatrical poster
Directed byLewis Gilbert
Written byPaul Brickhill (book)
Lewis Gilbert (screenplay)
Vernon Harris
(add'l scenes)
Produced byDaniel M. Angel
StarringKenneth More
CinematographyJack Asher
Edited byJohn Shirley
Music byJohn Addison
Distributed byThe Rank Organisation
Release dates
  • 5 July 1956 (1956-07-05) (world premiere, London)

  • 30 April 1957 (1957-04-30)
Running time
136 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office£1,500,000[3]

Reach for the Sky is a 1956 British biographical film about aviator Douglas Bader, based on the 1954 biography of the same name by Paul Brickhill. The film stars Kenneth More and was directed by Lewis Gilbert. It won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film of 1956. The film's composer John Addison was Bader's brother-in-law.


In 1928, Douglas Bader joins the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a Flight Cadet. Despite a friendly reprimand from Air Vice-Marshal Halahan for his disregard for service discipline and flight rules, he successfully completes his training and is posted to No. 23 Squadron at RAF Kenley. In 1930, he is chosen to be among the pilots for an aerial exhibition.

Later, although his flight commander has explicitly banned low level aerobatics (as two pilots have been killed trying just that), he is goaded into it by a disparaging remark by a civilian pilot. The wing tip of his bi-plane touches the ground during his flight and he crashes dramatically, and is clearly badly injured.

Mr Joyce, surgeon at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, has to amputate both legs to save Bader's life. During his convalescence, he receives encouragement from Nurse Brace. Upon his discharge from the hospital, he sets out to master prosthetic legs. Out for a drive with two other RAF pals, they stop at a tearoom, and here he meets waitress Thelma Edwards. Once he can walk on his own, he asks her out.

Despite his undiminished skills, he is refused flying duties simply because there are no regulations covering his situation. Offered a desk job instead, he leaves the RAF and works unhappily in an office. He and Thelma marry at a registry office on a wet afternoon.

As the Second World War starts, Bader talks himself back into the RAF. He is soon given command of a squadron comprising mostly dispirited Canadians who had fought in France. Improving morale and brazenly circumventing normal channels to obtain badly needed equipment, he makes the squadron operational again. They fight effectively in the Battle of Britain. Bader is then put in charge of a new, larger formation of five squadrons. Later, he is posted to RAF Tangmere and promoted to wing commander.

In 1941, Bader has to bail out over France. He is caught, escapes, and is recaptured. He then makes such a nuisance of himself to his jailers, he is repeatedly moved from one POW camp to another, finally ending up in Colditz Castle. He is liberated after four years of captivity. The war ends (much to Thelma's relief) before Bader can have "one last fling" in the Far East.

On 15 September 1945, the fifth anniversary of the greatest day of the Battle of Britain, Bader, now a group captain, is given the honour of leading eleven other battle survivors and a total of 300 aircraft in a flypast over London.





Lewis Gilbert said Daniel Angel wanted to buy the rights for the book even without having read it, before it had been published, because he sensed it was going to be a best seller. Angel bought the film rights for £15,000 and showed the book to Lewis Gilbert while they were making The Sea Shall Not Have Them together. Gilbert and Vernon Harris started writing the script but Harris dropped out. Terence Rattigan turned down the job. H Bates started writing it and turned it down. William Alec Douglas tried then gave it up. Lewis Gilbert wrote the script in collaboration with Paul Brickhill who wrote the book.[4]

Richard Burton was the first choice for the lead and he was considering it but he dropped out when he was offered the lead in Alexander the Great at what Gilbert describes as "three or four times the salary".[5] The second choice was Laurence Olivier who turned it down - Gilbert later admitted Olivier would have been miscast.[4]

Kenneth More was cast instead at a fee of £25,000.[6] Producer Daniel Angel recalled:

My wife said to me, 'Kenneth More is Douglas Bader.' And so he was! He was a good actor, but, looking back, I don't think he was all that versatile and he wasn't physically a very attractive man. He couldn't play love scenes. He was more of a playboy type. He was Douglas Bader! Bader wasn't a technical adviser but I suppose Kenny More modelled himself physically on Bader.[1]

More arranged to meet Bader to prepare for the role. They played a round of golf; much to More's surprise (as he was a good golfer), Bader beat him decisively.[7]

Lewis Gilbert said Douglas Bader was difficult to deal with and did not help at all during filming:

When he read the script he said I had made a terrible hash of it because I'd cut out a lot of his friends. I pointed out that the book contained hundreds of names and I had to cut it down or else the film would run for three days. He said, 'That's your problem. If you don't get my friends in, I won't double for the film,' because he was going to double for Kenneth More in long shots. I explained to him that that wouldn't stop the film being made; I said that we would undoubtedly find someone with a disability similar to his - which he did. In fact a number of his friends had helped me with the script, although we didn't tell Douglas that. Douglas wasn't in the film at all.[8]

To depict the various Royal Air Force bases realistically, principal filming took place in Surrey at RAF Kenley, and around the town of Caterham. The cricket match was filmed at nearby Whyteleafe recreation ground. Studio work was completed at Pinewood Studios. Available wartime combat aircraft including Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters were arranged to take on the aerial scenes.

Angel later said that his favourite part of the film was when Bader was trying to learn how to walk again in hospital. "I've been in hospital myself, on and off since the war, and I'd seen a lot of that sort of thing," he later said. "It was a very touching performance from Dorothy Alison, who seemed to sum up so much in a few moments."[1] Alison received a BAFTA nomination for Best British Actress.[9]

The film's composer John Addison was Bader's brother-in-law.[10]

The book was also adapted for Australian radio in 1954.


The film fared well with the public, being the most popular film in the UK for 1956. When the film was released in North America in 1957, the American release version was slightly altered with 12 minutes edited out. The Rank Organisation, the film's distributor, made a concerted effort to ensure the film was successful in America, sending Kenneth More over to do a press tour, and setting up Rank's own distribution arm in North America, but the public was not enthusiastic.[11][12]

Because Bader had fallen out with Brickhill over the split of royalties from the book, he refused to attend the premiere, and only saw the film for the first time eleven years later, on television.[13]

When the film was released, people associated Bader with the quiet and amiable personality of actor More. Bader recognised that the producers had deleted all those habits he displayed when on operations, particularly his prolific use of bad language. Bader once said, "[they] still think [I'm] the dashing chap Kenneth More was."[14]

It won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film of 1956.

Filmink later argued the film "became acknowledged as a classic, unfairly mocked by Gen-X critics who were forced to watch it on television too many times, and who forget that the film was made by people and for audiences who had been through that conflict, many of whom had seen people die, and could view it in proper context."[15]


Aircraft used in the filming of Reach for the Sky.[16]
Aircraft Registration
or serial
Role Fate Photo
Avro 504K E3404 Flying Airworthy with The Shuttleworth Collection, Old Warden, United Kingdom.[Note 3] An Avro 504
Avro Tutor K3215 Static Airworthy with The Shuttleworth Collection. K3215
Bristol F.2b D8096 Camera ship Airworthy with The Shuttleworth Collection. D8096
Bristol Bulldog K2227 Static Preserved at RAF Museum, Hendon, United Kingdom. K2227
Hawker Hurricane I P2617 Static Static exhibit at RAF hendon Museum.
Hawker Hurricane IIC LF363 Flying Airworthy with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, RAF Coningsby, United Kingdom. Hawker Hurricane IIC
Hawker Hurricane IIC unknown Static Believed scrapped.
Spartan Arrow G-ABWP Static Airworthy, privately owned. G-ABWP
Supermarine Spitfire XVI RW345 Static Scrapped May 1956
Supermarine Spitfire XVI RW352 Flying Scrapped 1957
Supermarine Spitfire XVI SL574 Flying Preserved at the Air & Space Museum, San Diego, United States. Supermarine Spitfire XVI
Supermarine Spitfire XVI SL745 Static Scrapped May 1956
Supermarine Spitfire XVI TB293 Static Scrapped May 1956
Supermarine Spitfire XVI TB863[17] Static Airworthy with Temora Aviation Museum
Supermarine Spitfire XVI TB885 Static Flying condition United Kingdom with Biggin Hill Heritage.
Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE288 Static Preserved at Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum, Wigram, New Zealand TE288
Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE341 Static Scrapped at Pinewood Studios
Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE358 Flying Scrapped by Coley's Ltd, Feltham, United Kingdom in April 1957
Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE456 Flying Preserved at Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland, New Zealand Supermarine Spitfire XVI



  1. ^ Actually Flight Cadet (later Air Commodore) Geoffrey Stephenson; the change may have been made due to Stephenson's death in an air crash shortly before filming began.
  2. ^ Clark is the last actor named in the opening credits supporting cast, although his name and character was omitted from the full end crawl.
  3. ^ All dates are as of December 2019 unless indicated otherwise.

In the scene where Bader is attempting,to rejoin the RAF at the beginning of the war, Stephenson's name and rank may be seen on the door from which Sanderson emerges.


  1. ^ a b c McFarlane 1997, p. 22.
  2. ^ Chapman, James (2022). The Money Behind the Screen: A History of British Film Finance, 1945-1985. Edinburgh University Press. p. 359. ISBN 978-1399500777.
  3. ^ Harper, Sue; Porter, Vincent (2003). British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference. Oxford University Press. p. 176. ISBN 9780198159346.
  4. ^ a b Fowler, Roy (1996). "Lewis Gilbert Side 6". British Entertainment History Project.
  5. ^ McFarlane 1997, p. 222.
  6. ^ More 1978, p. 169.
  7. ^ "Exploits of air ace Bader in war epic". The Australian Women's Weekly. 26 October 1955. p. 31. Retrieved 6 May 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
  8. ^ McFarlane 1997, p. 221–222.
  9. ^ "Film in 1957". BAFTA Awards.
  10. ^ Frayn Turner, John (30 April 2009). Douglas Bader: The Biography of the Legendary World War II Fighter Pilot. Pen and Sword Books. p. 233. ISBN 978-15-267-3615-4.
  11. ^ More 1978, p. 181.
  12. ^ "Of human Bondage". 10 March 2000.
  13. ^ Dando-Collins 2016, pp. 303–304.
  14. ^ Mackenzie 2008, p. 168.
  15. ^ Vagg, Stephen (16 April 2023). "Surviving Cold Streaks: Kenneth More". Filmink.
  16. ^ "Lewis Gilbert, Douglas Bader's film biographer". Aeroplane. 38 (9): 28. September 2010.
  17. ^ Morris, Gerard S (2000). Spitfire: The New Zealand Story (Hardback). Auckland: Reed Books. p. 283. ISBN 0-7900-0696-0.


  • Bader, Douglas (2004). Fight for the Sky: The Story of the Spitfire and Hurricane. Ipswich, Suffolk, UK: W.S. Cowell Ltd. ISBN 0-304-35674-3.
  • Brickhill, Paul (1954). Reach for the Sky: The Story of Douglas Bader DSO, DFC. London: Press Ltd. ISBN 1-55750-222-6.
  • Dando-Collins, Stephen (2016). The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill. Sydney: Penguin Random House. ISBN 978-0-85798-812-6.
  • Dolan Jr., Edward F. (1985). Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Hardwick, Jack; Schnepf, Ed (1983). "A Buff's Guide to Aviation Movies". Air Progress Aviation. 7 (1).
  • McFarlane, Brian (1997). An Autobiography of British Cinema. London: Methuen. ISBN 978-0-4137-0520-4.
  • Mackenzie, S.P. (2008). Bader's War. London: Spellmount Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7524-5534-1.
  • More, Kenneth (1978). More or Less. London: Hodder & Staughton. ISBN 978-0-340-22603-2.

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