Words on the screen tell us it’s 1916. 9 million are dead and the plane has become a weapon with pilots becoming heroes. This movie is “inspired by a true story”. Yeah, sure! This will be a small unit movie. Survivor? #1: a cowboy (James Franco) who has to get the hell out of Dodge. Survivor? #2: clean-cut fiance of an all-American girl. Survivor? #3: black boxer fighting in Paris because the French are not racist. Survivor? #4: fat rich boy who is a disappointment to his father. Survivor? #5: who is this dude? No back-story. Mysterious or cutting room floor? How many of the five will survive? I’m guessing two (Franco plus whoever is black).
They have joined the Lafayette Escadrille – an all-American fighter unit in the French air force. (It really existed!) They are based at Verdun and housed in a chateau. No mud for these “knights of the air”. The seasoned veteran is an ace who is cynical due to seeing all his buddies go down in flames. He is not exactly welcoming to the dead meat newbies. He has a pet lion named “Whiskey”. Cowboy starts typically cocky, but soon turns all sensitive and role modelish. Rich boy doesn’t like blacks. Will he learn to respect Boxer? Seems likely.
First trip to the canteen for our virgins results in your clicheish “get your non-bloodstained asses out of here” moment. Training montage. Mystery Guy crashes and he and Cowboy end up in a brothel where Cowboy meets a whore with a heart of gold. New replacements arrive so more characters can get killed. One is a holy roller. Jesus is his co-pilot. They paint nose art and nick-names. Did they do that in WWI?
First mission. Pep talk from Cynical Vet: here’s a pistol, shoot yourself instead of burning to death. Good CGI flak. Dogfight. Good thing we have that nose art to tell who’s who! One newnewbie gets shot down but lands safely. He is ecstatic and yells “I made it, I’m all right.” Has he ever seen a war movie? Strafe-bait for Evil German (in the only black tri-plane in their air force). Hiss! I hope this guy gets his. Seems likely. CGI dogfighting is okay and boy can they fly close when the computer has the controls. Back at the base, the canteen door is open for our blooded warriors. Everyone is morose about the friends they lost that day. Just kidding. Singing and getting drunk is what the dead would want us to do.
Hey, the whore is not a whore! She’s a country girl. Language barrier doesn’t deter Cowboy. Throw in some cute kids. Franco rides a horse. Is there anything he can’t do? (Don’t say “act” – that would be cruel.)
Attack on a bomber. Holy roller is singing hymns. Good German decides not to kill cowboy when he is a sitting duck. Chivalry is not dead. Will Cowboy get a chance to return the favor? Seems likely. Is Mystery Guy a German spy? It’s obvious to Rich Boy because he has a German name, knows a lot about German planes, and he always misses. Turns out he had no back-story because he’s on the lam from a botched bank robbery. His mates support him because everyone wants to see if he will ever hit anything. Seems likely. Meanwhile, Clean-Cut draws the straw labeled “crack up”. Will he get a chance to redeem himself? Seems likely.
Cool German strafing attack results in our boys riding to the rescue. Cowboy gets the chance to return the favor to Good German, but later has to shoot him down to save Rich Boy. War sucks. No-longer-Mystery-Guy crashes in no man’s land. It would be insane for Cowboy to land nearby (not to mention impossible), but guess what? Cowboy runs a gauntlet of bullets with everyone purposely missing because they recognize it’s James Franco. Cowboy amputates Unsure-Shots (otherwise known as Mystery Guy) trapped arm with an entrenching tool. (James Franco will later use this experience.) Looks like the war’s over for him. Seems unlikely.
An introspective Cynical Vet tells Cowboy the war won’t change anything. He’s fighting to avenge his dead buddies. He won’t rest until he shoots down Evil German. Franco keeps his mouth shut although he clearly knows Evil German is reserved for him.
Some romantic suspense as Cowboy rescues French Girl and cute kids from advancing Germans. Rape is implied. He lands a WWI biplane after dark in a French field – twice! (Hell, anyone who can land in No Man’s Land…) It’s a close call (are there any other types of calls in war movies?) She is wounded and he is given a medal in lieu of a court-martial for disobeying orders. In war movies, it’s okay to disobey orders as long as you’re heroic and successful.
Attack on the Zeppelin. Omenous Zeppelin music. All the German planes are red except you know boo. Man, you can do impossible aerobatics with CGI! Cynical Vet plays machine-gunning chicken with Evil German. Bad guy wins duel, but cynic has the last laugh as he crashes into the blimp. Explosions!! The torch is passed to Cowboy, but he won’t have to tone down his cockiness since he lost it long ago. Last meeting with Frenchette. We’ll meet in Paris and live happily ever after. Seems likely.
Attack on the ammo dump (the same one as in “The Dawn Patrol”?). One-Handed (otherwise known as Mystery Guy or Unsure-shot) is going, but not Clean-Cut. Wait, what about his redemption? Is the movie suddenly going all realistic on us? Seems unlikely. Rich Guy’s plane catches on fire. He remembers the pep talk from cynical. See you in Hell, Dad. Unsure-shot shoots surely to save Black Guy. Lots of bomb explosions on the depot. Hollywood! Suddenly the sky is clear.
Cowboy challenges Bad German. Come up and play, if you dare. Another chicken head-on attack except this time they approach upside down! Cowboy is ambushed by two of EGs henchmen, but who comes to his rescue? None other than the redeemed Clean-Cut! Cowboy gets the two lackeys to run into each other, but EG still swiss- cheeses him and pulls alongside to gloat as Snidely Whiplash would. Remember that pistol Cynical gave him in case of fire? Well, he is a cowboy and does what a cowboy would do. Audience cheers. He is joined by his surviving mates and they fly off into the sunset – I kid you not! For those of you of the intelligentsia that think the movie was predictable – Cowboy does not hook up with French Girl and live happily ever after. This was either a “take that” move by the director or they ran out of film (which seems more likely).
Why do you want to know? It said it was inspired by a true story didn’t it? Being the jerk that I am I decided to check up on it. Here’s the good news: there was a unit of American volunteers in the French air corps called the Lafayette Escadrille and it did have a pet lion named “Whiskey”. Inspirational! End of accuracies.
The movie purports to use real people for its characters, but changes the names. Cynical Vet is based on the famous Raoul Lufbery and Cowboy is obviously meant to be Frank “Balloon Buster” Luke. Problem is that very little in the characters relates to the real person. For instance, the most memorable thing about Lufbery is his death from jumping out of a burning air plane. He didn’t use the pistol. Luke is memorable for shooting down balloons which Cowboy does not even see an observation balloon in the movie. Is CGI not capable rendering a balloon? As far as Mystery Guy and Rich Boy being based on actual persons – balderdash! However, kudos for giving some recognition to Eugene Bullard (the black guy). He was an ex-patriate boxer in France, but joined the Escadrille after fighting in the trenches and being decorated for bravery.
Red triplanes were not the sole aircraft in the German air force. They were not even the most common. Some planes had squadron insignia (like the “Hat in the Ring” Squadron), but I found no evidence that individual pilots had insignia.
The movie did not do well at the box office which is ironic because most of the bull shit was aimed at the core audience of historical morons and to hell with people like me. It’s not a terrible movie, it’s just easy to make fun of. The score is stirring and not bad for a film of its nature. The acting is satisfactory with Martin Henderson as Reed Cassidy (aka Cynical Vet). Franco is merely adequate. There is some chemistry in the romance. The movie is bogged down by clichés and implausibilities. It gets more ridiculous as it goes on. The CGI is okay and makes for exciting action. Technology should make air combat films awesome, but unfortunately it is usually carried too far by depicting aerobatics that are impossible. Pilots must really loathe movies like this.
Grade = C+