Saturday, March 28, 2015

2015 WAR MOVIE SUBGENRE TOURNAMENT: Best Dogfighting Film




                I have decided to change the name of my annual tournament to “War Movie Subgenre Tournament” instead of “March Madness”.   That’s not because I was contacted by a lawyer from the NCAA.  I just have decided it is unoriginal and I do not want to be limited to getting it in during March. 

                This year’s tournament will determine the best war movie that includes dogfight scenes.  My father was a fighter pilot so this tournament is personal for me.  He flew F-105s in Vietnam.  I dreamed of being a pilot myself, but faulty genes gave me bad eyesight.  I ended up following in my father’s  post pilot shoes by becoming a teacher/coach.  When I was growing up, I devoured everything I could read on WWII air combat.  Unfortunately, the books I read and still read are vastly superior to most movies on the subject of air combat.  The great dogfighting movie is yet  to be made and unless CGI becomes much better in this area, may never be made.  However, I have assembled an interesting field that spans several wars going back to WWI.  I have seeded the movies based on Rotten Tomatoes and my own gut feelings about the movies. 

                As usual, the format will be that the movies compete in four different categories each round.  I have chosen categories appropriate for a dogfighting film.  One of those categories will be clichés.  Having seen eighteen dogfighting films in the last two weeks, I have compiled a list of the most common.

                Here they are:
1.       A boy sees a plane and dreams of becoming a pilot. 
2.       There is a gruff crew chief.
3.       A pilot breaks formation to go after the enemy.
4.       The main character loses his best friend.
5.       Fighter pilots party hard.
6.       There is an evil foe.
7.       A pilot is obsessed with glory.
8.       One pilot is a ladies’ man.
9.       There is a mid-air collision.
10.    An airfield is attacked by the opposing squadron.  (Often followed by a retaliatory raid.)
11.    One pilot courts a local girl.

12.    A fighter jock drives a motorcycle.

THE PLAY-IN GAME: 
Flying Tigers (1943) vs. Flying Leathernecks (1951)

                 When I proposed the tournament to my compadres on Armchair General Forums, I had several mention these two movies as potential participants.  I decided to have them compete for a spot in the tournament.  I found this intriguing because they are similar movies and both starred John Wayne.

                “Flying Tigers” was John Wayne’s first war film.  As is well known, Wayne did not serve in the military in WWII.  This movie is part of the argument that he better served his country by making “flagwaving” films like this one.  Since it is unlikely that the uniformed Wayne would have killed as many Japanese in reality as compared to the celluloid hero, let’s concede the argument.  The fact that the movie was made in 1943 means that there were technical constraints on the effects.  The movie is meant to be a tribute to the American Volunteer Group (popularly known as the “Flying Tigers”) and leads off with a testimonial by Chiang Kai-shek  and blathering narration.  The plot is basically the story of the leader of the unit (Wayne as Jim Gordon) and a hot shot jerk named Woody (John Carroll).  Gordon is the empathetic head pilot who takes in black sheep pilots to shoot down Japanese planes for the saintly (but hickish) Chinese people.  Woody is a wolf who makes no secret that he is in it just for the bounty money given for each kill.  He says “get out your checkbook, General” when he shoots down a Zero.  There is a love triangle involving a nurse named Brooke (Anna Lee).  Woody wears out his charming roguishness when he contributes to the downing and subsequent strafing while parachuting death of the beloved exec “Hap” (Phil Kelly).  He does get a chance to redeem himself at the end and the love triangle conundrum is solved via subtraction.

                “Flying Tigers” was a big hit in a country that was craving Japanese ass-kicking.  People had heard of the famous unit already, but if they were hoping for a history lesson they were disappointed.  None of the characters were based on real people.  The only thing the movie gets right is the fact that the pilots were paid a bounty for each kill.  The biggest boner is having the unit earning those bounties before Pearl Harbor.  In reality, the AVG did not go into action until after Pearl Harbor.  The other departure from reality is in the air combat depicted in the movie.  That can partly be blamed on the available technology.  The effects make heavy use of models (P-40 Warhawks) and footage (including Japanese newsreels to show the effects of bombings).  Although the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Effects, it looks decidedly quaint.  There are three ways to go in dogfight movies:  the use of models, the use of actual planes to reenact, and the use of CGI.  The use of models can be pulled off if you are making “Star Wars”, but in this case it just looks like models.  Plus models pre-Star Wars often defy the realities of physics and look foolish doing so.  “Flying Tigers” also falls into the Old School of showing dogfights via cockpit shots and machine guns blazing.  Any plane shot at goes down and usually with the bullet ridden body of the pilot on board (unless you want to reenact the dastardly strafing of an American pilot early in the war).

                “Flying Tigers” is patriotic bull shit, but it is not painful to watch.  The acting is good.  Wayne is Wayne, as usual.  We get to see the unique sight of Wayne acting peevish because his girl jilted him.  Carroll gets the meaty role and digs his teeth into it.  The character is not two-dimensional and although quite a cad, he has some redeeming qualities.  Anna Lee is lovely and can actually act a bit (usually not a requirement in movies like this).  The plot is very predictable, but what do you expect from a 1943 movie?  I could say the same for the dogfighting scenes, but they were done much better by movies pre-1940s.

                “Flying Leathernecks” was made eight years later which means the air combat cinematography is better, but time does not necessarily improve plot.  It was directed by Nicholas Ray (his only war film).  It got substantial cooperation from the USMC.  The Marines gave a lot of cooperation including providing several F6Fs (unfortunately they had not kept some F4Fs for Guadalcanal movies).  The Marines provided gun camera footage for the first time for a war film.

                The plot is straight out of a submarine movie.  Wayne plays Maj. Kirby who has arrived as the new CO for a squadron scheduled for Guadalcanal.  He is promoted over the head of the popular exec Capt. Griffin (Robert Ryan) and there is dysfunction written all over their relationship.  Kirby is the hard-ass who forces men to fly missions while they may be unhealthy and Griff is the empathetic peer who thinks Kirby is driving the men too hard.  The men also think Kirby is unreasonable.  They are fighter jocks who signed up to shoot down Japs and he has this radical idea that the unit should provide close air support to the “mud Marines” on Guadalcanal.  Kirby is strict with anyone who strays from this mission.  He and Griff disagree on his treatment of the men and they are due for a reconciliation by the end of the film.  It is just a matter of time before Griff  realizes that command makes you a horse's ass who sheds tears in private.  He has to get tougher and if it takes the death of his brother-in-law, so be it.   Thankfully there is no love triangle.  The movie takes us through a series of dogfights, strafing enemy positions, and an attack on a convoy.  Mixed in are the confrontations between the two leads and a trip back to the home front for the ladies (in the audience).  The home front scenes separate the Guadalcanal and Okinawa segments of the film.

                “Flying Leathernecks” is well-acted.  Wayne is basically playing Sgt. Stryker as squadron leader.  Ryan has a thankless role, but he is solid.  He was cast for his ability to stand toe to toe with Wayne.  Interestingly, the two actors’ political philosophies are reflected in their characters, but did not cause trouble on the set.  The supporting cast is fine with Jay Flippen providing unsubtle comic relief as the scrounger/crew chief and Don Taylor as the aw-shucks fighter jock named “Cowboy” (of course).  Mrs. Griffin (Janis Carter) is okay as an actress, but has no hubba-hubba factor.    

                The problem with the film is the lame plot.  The command clash is a hybrid of the earlier “Twelve O’Clock High” and the upcoming “Run Silent, Run Deep”.  It is very predictable.  I wonder if the Marines liked the idea of a film showing their aviators supporting their ground troops.  Hey Congress, keep that funding coming!  The dialogue is terrible, but it could have been worse as the film has a puzzling dearth of cockpit chatter.  I guess the Marines were Spartan when it came to that.  (We do get the laughable use of “pancake” to refer to having to land due to lack of fuel instead of for a crash landing without wheels.)  The score is also cringe-inducing.  It matches the hokey dialogue.  There are parts of the movie that are hard to watch, especially the home front stuff.  There is a letters home montage early in the movie that manages to empty your stomach.  You’ll just have to dry heave when Kirby returns home to his wife and son.

                As far as the combat, one big plus is the use of the F6Fs and F4Us supplied by the Marines.  I won’t quibble too much about the fact that F4Fs were used on Guadalcanal.  The movie is more historically accurate than “Flying Tigers”.  Kirby was based on Maj. John L. Smith who was awarded the Medal of Honor and shot down 19 Japanese planes while commanding the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal.  The debate over air combat versus close air support is summarized here in a simplistic way.  Hellcats and Corsairs did perform close air support.  It is a dangerous and unglamorous task that fighter jocks would have been less than thrilled with.  The movie uses a lot of footage (mostly gun camera film) which means no one ever misses.  There are no swirling dog fights like you see in some WWI movies.  It is similar to “Flying Tigers” in that we see a lot of pilot faces and machine guns firing.  The blending of the footage is pretty seamless.  It certainly works better cinematically than the use of models.  Some of the footage is from the Korean War where Marine aviation did a lot more close air support percentage-wise.

                Which one make it into the tournament?  This is a tough call.  Tigers has a less silly plot, but the dogfighting is primitively depicted.  Leathernecks has good dogfighting, but a laughable plot.  Since this tournament is mainly about dogfighting, I’m going to move “Flying Leathernecks” on.  But I have a feeling it will pancake early.

Here is the field:

1 – Battle of Britain
16 -  Flying Leathernecks

8 -  Dark Blue World
9 -  Red Tails

5 -  The Blue Max
12 -  The Red Baron

4 -  Hell’s Angels
13 -  Top Gun

6 -  Tuskegee Airmen
11-  Aces High

3 -  Dawn Patrol
14 – Von Richthofen and Brown

7 -  The Hunters
10 -  Flyboys

2 -  Wings
15 -  Angel’s Wing

Monday, March 23, 2015

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: Reach for the Sky (1956)



            I am about ready to begin my annual War Genre Tournament.  This year's competition is to determine the best dogfighting  film.  Because of the parameters of the contest, some air combat movies did not make the field.  I got some great suggestions and "Reach for the Sky" was one of them.  It did not make the cut because it does not have much dogfighting and it is more of a biopic.  I have decided to give it its due by reviewing it to lead into the tournament. 

                “Reach for the Sky” is a biopic about the legendary Battle of Britain hero Douglas Bader.  It was based on the book by Paul Brickhill.  The director was Lewis Gilbert (“Sink the Bismarck”).  The movie was a huge hit in Great Britain.  It won the BAFTA for Best British Film and was the biggest box office hit of 1956.  Ut was the biggest hit in the U.K. since “Gone with the Wind” in 1939.  It did not do well in the States.  The producers were well aware of the iconic status of Bader so they went out of their way to preempt criticism of the historical accuracy of the movie.  The movie begins with a disclaimer:  “For dramatic purposes, it has been necessary…to transpose in time certain events…and also to re-shape some of the characters….  The Producers apologize to those who may have been affected by these changes or omissions.”  It turns out that they were being overly cautious.

                The film opens in 1928 with Bader (Kenneth More) volunteering for the Royal Air Force.  He trains in an AVRO 504K biplane.  Bader is not a model student.  He does poorly on exams and is disobedient.  He does excel in aerobatics, however.  He continues that talent in the subsequent years.  Eleven years after joining the RAF, he is taunted into showing off and ends up in a horrific crash.  Both of his legs are amputated.  He is fitted with prosthetic legs and determines to return to flying.  Rehab montage.  He meets a girl named Thelma (Muriel Pavlow).  Romance for the ladies.  The RAF turns him down because there is nothing in the regulations that cover his disability.  Boring office job.  Can’t a guy get a war up in this place?  World War II was not just a second chance for Hitler. 

                Not only does Bader get back into the service (because the British were so desperate they put legless men in cockpits), but he is given a squadron of surly Canadians to whip into shape.  That’s right, the war was going so badly that Canadians were being dicks about it.  When the Canadians complain about their lack of success, Bader is like “hello, no legs here!”  Bader cracks the whip, shows his aeroability, and earns their respect.  He becomes an ace during the Battle of Britain, but later is forced to parachute over France and taken captive.  He ends up in Colditz Castle.
Bader in front of his plane nicknamed
"Prosthetic Hitler Ass-Kicker"

                I was a bit surprised that unlike many biopics, “Reach for the Sky” sticks to the basic facts of Bader’s military career.  The screenwriters did not take any major liberties with his life story.  The movie hits the highlights, but is not interested in digging deep.  Bader’s support for Leigh-Mallory’s “Big Wing” philosophy is not covered.  Bader believed the best way to defend England from Luftwaffe raids was to intercept them with large fighter formations.  Speaking of not being covered, the movie certainly does not linger on the Battle of Britain.    We get one good dogfight and then it’s over.  For a movie about a famous fighter ace, the movie does not have much air combat.  On the plus side, we get to see a lot of vintage aircraft.  Making appearances are the Avro 504K, Avro Tutor, Bristol F.2b, and the Bristol Bulldog.  There are Hurricanes and Spitfires aplenty.  The movie also blends footage well.  There is not much on his years of captivity either.
Christ, can a legless man catch a break?!

                The authenticity of the movie may be part of the reason why it left me unimpressed.  I commend the historical accuracy and certainly would never encourage screenwriters to make things up, but sometimes the facts are boring.  It did not have to be this way since Bader had a fascinating military career.  If the movie was not Old School, it could have been more dynamic.  (For instance, a remake would certainly reenact the current belief that Bader was apparently shot down by friendly fire.)  As it is, it is typical of 1950s war movies.  The plot is simplistic.  There is little action.  Meant for a mass audience, the producers spent most of the running time on the disability and the romance.  That leaves little time for the war movie buff stuff like the Battle of Britain and the captivity (and the numerous escape attempts).  To get women into the theaters, we get a sappy romance and melodramatic hospital scenes.  The movie also is burdened by schmaltzy narration and pompous music.  The acting is strong with Kenneth More ennobling Bader (who could be a prickly personality with a potty mouth).  By the way, Richard Burton was the first choice for the role.

real Spitfires and a real actor in a fake Spitfire
                Classic or Antique?  I am afraid I will have to say antique.  When I finished watching it I had it rated as a D.  My research verified its accuracy and this bumped it up to a C.  I can’t go any higher than that due to the fact that the movie bored me.


GRADE  =  C     

Thursday, March 19, 2015

ANTIQUE or CLASSIC? Malta Story (1953)





                “Malta Story” is a British stiff upper lip film released in 1953 to laud the defense of Malta in WWII.  It was directed by Brian Hurst (“Their’s is the Glory”).   It was a hit in Great Britain.  The main character was loosely based on a legendary British recon pilot named Adrian Warburton.  The movie made extensive use of archival footage.

                The movie opens on the island of Malta in 1942.  The island is besieged by Axis forces in an attempt to either starve it into surrender or soften it up for a Crete style invasion.  A narrator calls it a “thorn in the side” of the Axis campaign to control the Mediterranean.  Flight Lieutenant Ross (Alec Guinness) arrives on the thorn on his way to some archeological work in Egypt and is “recruited” for reconnaissance work.  He arrives during one of the numerous bombing raids.  A map tutorial explains the strategic situation for us Yanks who have no idea of the significance of Malta in WWII.  Ross’ first mission establishes the personality trait of lone wolf / rule breaker.  He goes off the flight plan to photograph a railway and discovers a buildup of gliders for a potential invasion.  He gets chewed out by his typical war movie superior played by Jack Hawkins, of course.

                There is romance in the air as Ross meets the comely Maria during an air raid.  This gives the ladies something to pay attention to and allows coverage of civilian life on Malta.  It also opens the door to intrigue as Maria’s brother turns out to be a patriot or spy – depending on your perspective.  I think the British audience was expected to choose the second option. 
this is what a recon jock looks like
                The island relies on convoys for supplies.  Unfortunately, the Germans and Italians are not keen on letting them get through.  There is a good scene involving the S.S. Ohio pluckily withstanding a storm of steel.  Later, the tables are turned as the Brits go on the offensive against German convoys to succor the Afrika Korps.  The movie insists on using both defensive and offensive footage.  Meanwhile, Ross and Maria are planning their blissful future life in England after they both survive the war.  As though this is not ominous enough, Ross wants to have kids.  How do you say “dead meat” in Maltese?  Someone needs to track a crucial German convoy and radio coordinates in a suicidal way.  Will it be Maria or Ross that flies the mission?

                “Malta Story” seemed like a movie you would expect to find on one of the 50 WWII movies DVDs.  I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is.  It is definitely underrated.  This is mainly due to the cast and the footage.  Alec Guinness is his usual solid self and the rest of the cast is recognizably Brit war movie.  No one overacts.  The musical score is fitting and sets the moods well.  The romance is predictable, but not schmaltzy.  Throwing in the traitor brother was a nice touch and the mother’s reaction is interesting.  The movie eschews propaganda, although it certainly does not show any British warts.
"Ross, the screenwriter promises that if you recant
our conversation about marriage and kids, you can
survive this mission". 
                The real strength of the movie is the well done blending of the footage.  It is about as seamless as you could hope for.  You get to see a variety of classic WWII aircraft like Spitfires, Beaufighters, Beauforts, and Swordfish.  The Germans are represented by Me-109s and Ju-88s.  The movie is a must see for WWII aviation buffs.  The movie also makes good use of real aircraft for reenactments.  Three later model Spitfires were dusted off for this.

                “Malta Story”, although fictional, gets the basic facts across in an entertaining way.  Malta was under constant attack from 1940-1942.  The movie covers the latter stages of the assault.  The island became one of the most bombed places on Earth.  The movie gives a good taste of this.  Life was very rough on the islanders and the entire island was awarded the George Cross by King George VI.  By the close of the movie, the plot has transitioned to the period when the island was in the clear and going on the offensive against German convoys.  From December, 1942 through May, 1943 the islands forces sank an incredible 230 Axis ships.

                I love when war movie characters are based on real historical figures (provided they don’t deflower the person – I’m looking at you, “Braveheart”).  Often my subsequent research introduces me to some fascinating individuals.  I suppose many Brits are familiar with Adrian Warburton, but I had never heard of him.  This dude needs to have a mini-series made about him.  The Ross character only hints at his stellar career.  He actually was transferred to Malta because he offended his superiors in England with his criticism of the obsolete aircraft his unit was stuck with.  He flew a Martin Maryland recon/light bomber for the early part of his tour on Malta.  He was prone to unauthorized missions and defiance of authority.  One of his biggest coups was discovery of the Italian fleet at Taranto which led to its destruction.    He had a reputation as the best reconnaissance pilot in the RAF.  He spotted many of the Rommel convoys so the British could counterattack.  He went on to scout the Sicilian invasion beaches.  He survived well beyond the movie.  He was shot down over Germany in 1944 in a mission approved by Eliot Roosevelt (like he would have been able to stop him anyway).  Before his death he had flown almost 400 missions and downed up to nine Axis warplanes.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, and the American DFC.  The dude was a beast.  Thank you, “Malta Story”.

                Antique or Classic? Definitely a classic.  It’s not a great movie, but it holds up well and tells an important story.  Malta and Warburton deserved it.  Americans war movie lovers should see it.

GRADE  =  B

Thursday, March 12, 2015

LIVE: Beachhead! (1954)



                cool cold opening with some Marines blending into the environment / a Marine is killed by a random explosion or mine and the title comes exploding onto the screen – his mate reacts with a shrug / Sarge orders his men to put away their cigarettes – can they do that in a war movie?  reason- “They can smell those all the war to Japan!” no farting either, guys / Sarge scolds a Marine for calling him Sarge, the Japs might hear and target him ->> the Japs have two super senses (hearing and smell)  / Sarge has a history – he screwed up on Guadalcanal (redemption coming) / mission:  rescue a plantation owner who know about minefields – it’s a suicide mission movie / put on your Chuck Taylors – they literally do this / Sarge takes Tony Curtis and two other guys who are not Tony Curtis /  the Sarge decides not to ambush some sitting duck Japs (is he a coward?), but then decides to order one of the men to drop a grenade into a tank (is he reckless?); the guy gets pulled into the tank before the grenade goes off killing him and the Japs --> that’s a new one at least / they are being chased so they get three Japanese bodies to fake out the pursuers / Tony goes out at night with a knife between his teeth – “This is where I was born.” huh? / the plantation owner has a daughter and she is hot – not!  is there some sexual tension between Tony and Nina, even though he doesn’t like dames on a mission? / they reach a radio station, but it’s booby-trapped;  Sarge lures the chasing Japs into the station and they are blown up by their own explosion – ironic / on the run again, now the enemy has a sniper with them / Tony asks Nina to be his girl, but she jilts him / a love triangle develops as Sarge’s tale of Guadalcanal engenders sympathy from Nina / they capture a sad sack Jap, but trade him to some vengeance-minded natives for a boat! torture noises in the background / Nina manages to fall out of the boat and breaks her ankle / Tony duels with the sniper and it ends up in a hilarious fight that starts outside and ends up inside of a cave / unfortunately Tony survives to snuggle with Nina – yuck! / they reach the rendezvous, but a Japanese destroyer opens fire and destroys one of the PT-boats sent to pick them up; this is actually a lucky break because Tony swims out and uses a grenade to ignite the oil and blow up the destroyer!  very poor special effects / here comes another Jap warship – that sucks, but wait –it’s American! God bless America!

"Take my career with you, Tony"
                “Beachhead!” was directed by Stuart Heisler from the novel “I’ve Got Mine” by Richard Hubler.  It was filmed in Hawaii which must have been nice for the people involved.  The Marines refused to cooperate with the production because of the 50% casualty rate for the mission.  That was bad for recruiting.  Tony Curtis was a big get for the otherwise B-movie pretensions.  Curtis was coming off “Houdini” and probably wished he could have made “Beachhead!” disappear from his resume.  Curtis was a veteran of the war in the Pacific.  He served on a submarine tender which is where he must have learned how to blow up a destroyer with a grenade and an oil slick.

                The movie is surprisingly not terrible.  The acting is tolerable with the exception of Mary Murphy as Nina.  She is atrocious and not good enough looking to overcome it.  The story is unusual and has some elements that you rarely if ever see in a war movie.  There’s probably a reason for that.  Cliches are clichés because they work as entertainment.  The twist of turning over the Japanese captive is a nice one and fits a 1960s war film better than an Old School 1950s flick.  On the other hand, the romance is very predictable and lame.  The music is better than you could expect, but the cinematography does not stand out.  This is odd because I have read that the movie is an early example of cinema verite.  I did not catch that Heisler was trying to achieve observational cinema.  I have a feeling he did not realize the style he was using until the critics lauded him for it.  “Yeah, that’s what I was going for.”

"Your gun is so big.  What are you going to do with it?"


P.S. Check out that tag line "an untamed (nope) captive (nope) beauty (nope)".


GRADE =  C