Has this script been in a drawer somewhere since 1942?
It sure seems like it. It’s “inspired” by the absorbing true story of Americans who enlisted with the French armed forces in World War I, flying aircraft that were more like orange crates than planes, in a style of combat that was being invented moment by moment. The flying scenes are thrilling but the screenplay stalls.
It was just 13 years after the Wright Brothers flew 120 feet at Kitty Hawk, long before the use of airplanes for mail or commercial transport. Hardly anyone knew how to fly and no one knew how to use this new technology in war. This was before planes were equipped with parachutes or made from steel. Top speeds were about 100 miles per hour. There was no such thing as reconnaissance. And, as one of the characters tells the new recruits, the life expectancy for the pilots is three to six weeks.
A group of Americans arrives for training, each with something to prove. One is a rich kid whose father thinks he can’t do anything. One is a maverick who’s never belonged anywhere. One is a black man who had to leave America to be treated with respect. The guy with the great cheekbones will meet a pretty girl in a brothel and assume she is a prostitute, but it turns out she is a nice girl who just happened to be there that day and even though they don’t speak the same language they fall in love and even though he is ordered not to he takes a plane so he can rescue her. It all plays out as cardboard as the dialogue, as drearily predictable as a quadrille and embarrassingly jingoistic as well.
And that is a shame, because it does evoke the thrill and terror of those early days of inventing a new style of fighting. While below them men were shooting at each other from trenches, in the sky the men looked straight into each other’s eyes and developed the kind of honor and respect that reflected their shared bond as the pioneers of a new era. Like these characters, the movie is at its best in the air.
Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of graphic battle violence. Many characters are killed. Soldiers and civilians, including women and children, are in dire peril. There are some sexual references, including scenes in a brothel. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language. There are references to the racism of the era and racist behavior, though a strength of the movie is the portrayal of a man who will not allow himself to be diminished by racism.
Families who see this film should talk about what led these men to fight for another country. They should also talk about the way that even those who loved flying could not imagine how airplanes would transform the way we live and the possibilities of some of today’s new technologies. They should also talk about the origins and consequences of the first world war (then just called The Great War) and why the hopes that it would be the last war were not realized.
These early air skirmishes so captured the imagination of the Americans that another brand-new technology, the movies, had more hours of dogfight footage than actually occured in the war. One example was the very first film to win an Oscar, Wings. Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy other movies about air combat, including Memphis Belle and Only Angels Have Wings. They can find out more about the era here and at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.