On Jan. 11, the White House issued an official, albeit tongue-in-cheek, rejection to an online petition urging the American government to build a Death Star. “Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”
Reading this statement in bemusement, I realized it was time I finally spoke with Gilbert Taylor, the 99-year-old cinematographer of Star Wars who passed away last Friday and was perhaps the last connection to authentic World War II aerial photography and Hollywood magic. A serviceman in the Royal Air Force during the war who later cemented the look of Cold War paranoia in Dr. Strangelove, Taylor’s camera captured some of the great cockpit sequences ever committed to celluloid, a tradition that reaches back to screen spectacles of the silent era like Wings, the first film to claim Best Picture.
Taylor not only helped establish the visual identity of the Star Wars universe, but also photographed The Dam Busters, the 1955 British film George Lucas patterned parts of his Death Star climax after. Long targeted for a remake by Peter Jackson, The Dam Busters charts how bouncing bombs were developed and ultimately deployed by Lancaster bombers to sabotage the dams that provided power for Nazi forces. The similarities in the construction of the Dam Busters finale, in which bombers engage in repeated flyovers to pinpoint a perfect shot in the soft underbelly of a massive target, and Lucas’ montage of a one-man starship reducing the Death Star to dust (“Great shot, kid, that was one in a million!”) is startling. This YouTube mashup that lays the Dam Busters soundtrack over the “Trench Run” sequence from Star Wars is particularly revealing. Taylor was behind the camera for both attacks, and his images continue to soar.
I spoke with Taylor by phone at his home on the Isle of Wight on Feb. 28. It was a snowy day, he told me, before issuing a word of caution. “You can’t really interview a deaf man on the telephone,” he said into the receiver, which his wife, Dee, kept positioned at his ear. “But here I am. I’m almost 99, waiting to be 100.” While Taylor never reached his centennial, his memory that day was tack-sharp. He answered my first question, about whether he recalled his first flight on an airplane, without hesitation. “I was 15 years old and I flew to Paris,” he said. “It was a four-winged plane, and they served lunch on the flight.” The name of the plane, which he carefully spelled for me, was Helsa. I asked if he remembered his first camera. “I was 10 years old, and my uncle was a newsreel cameraman who had a Williamson” he said. “I unfortunately fell ill with fever. I was sent from my home to stay with my uncle. I used to look after his camera and polish it—it was mahogany—and I cared for it. When I was eventually 15, I got my first job as a cameraman.”
During the war, Taylor’s proficiency with cameras was an asset for the Allies. “I flew in a Lancaster bomber in a pathfinder squadron,” he said. “I stayed out of the air until 1942, when they wanted to find out whether somebody could take cine films over Germany at night, after bomber raids. I volunteered to do that. I did, altogether, four operations.”
How Taylor captured these images is a harrowing tale in and of itself. After the bomb loads were dropped, the squadron returned to base, except for the plane carrying Taylor, who was positioned in the mid-upper gunner. He then climbed down from the mid-upper turret to the bomb bay. The bomb-bay doors were opened and Taylor hung out with his camera—not on a static line, just his body alone—and the plane went round once over the target so he could film it. The film was then delivered to Winston Churchill so he could see exactly how much damage had been inflicted. The images now reside in the Imperial War Museum in London.
“How the hell he ever survived, he must’ve had a guardian angel sitting on his shoulder,” Dee said, commandeering the conversation. “By everybody’s reckoning, he should never have come back in one piece. Can you imagine? Going back ’round after they dropped the bomb loads? It’s like putting a stick in a beehive. The big doors opened and he hung out with his cameras. The Pathé newsreel company said, ‘Oh, can’t you take a camera for us, as well?’ Can you take a camera for us? Just unbelievable.”
There was a certain poignancy to Dee’s facilitation of this phone call. When Gil was unable to sustain the conversation, primarily due to his hearing impairment, Dee spoke boisterously on his behalf—a fitting tribute, given her career as a script supervisor. It’s long been her expertise to assure continuity.
Below are portions of Dee’s recollections on that February afternoon.
ON DR. STRANGELOVE
Gil and I did 28,000 miles with a French aircrew. We went right across the Arctic to shoot the background plates for Stanley Kubrick. Stanley couldn’t fly. He was absolutely petrified—he wouldn’t get into the plane. So we did all the stuff. I did the continuity for all eight cameras onboard. Gil and I were in the nose cone of a B-57, which is underneath the pilot, and Gil was directing on Stanley’s behalf. They had a French pilot and a French navigator—an absolutely brilliant aircrew. We were doing incredible things.
When we left the Eskimo outpost, we flew over an Eskimo with his dog team who was fishing in a hole in the ice. Because the plane was so low, the shadow of the plane frightened the dog team away and they went roaring off into the distance. There was a lot of laughter on the plane. Then we thought, “Oh, Christ, he’s going to be stumped, isn’t he?” So we lifted the plane up and overtook the dog team and were able to chase the dogs back, because otherwise, this Eskimo would never have gotten home.