Thursday, October 24, 2013

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Air Force (1943)

                “Air Force” is an homage to the branch by director Howard Hawks who was a veteran of the Air Corps in WWI.  Hawks had already made “The Dawn Patrol” and “Sergeant York”.  Hawks had the cooperation of the Army Air Force which provided several B-17s and other planes to depict Japanese aircraft.  The movie is essentially a small unit patrol film.  It covers the bleak early days of the war by following a B-17 bomber named “Mary Ann” and its plucky crew.  The bomber makes stops at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, the Philippines, and Australia.  The bomber is meant to be the star of the film.  The movie was a big hit and was critically acclaimed at the time.  It won an Academy Award for Editing and was nominated for Cinematography, Original Screenplay, and Special Effects.  It was one of the first great war movies made during WWII.

                The film opens with an excerpt from the “Gettysburg Address” to make it quite clear this will be a patriotic movie.  The date is Dec. 6. 1941.  The “Mary Ann” is headed for Hawaii with eight other B-17s.  The crew is heterogeneous.  The gallant captain and co-captain, the naïve rookie, the crusty crew chief, the dude with daddy issues, the comic New Yorker, and the bad egg.  This last role is played by the biggest star – John Garfield.  Sgt. Winocki is the malcontent tail gunner who holds a grudge against the pilot Capt. Quincannon (John Ridgely) who washed him out of flight school.  He is going to be a pain in the ass.

                The “Mary Ann” arrives at Hickam Field on a day that will live in infamy.  When they pick up the attack on the radio, one of the crew says “I’ve still got a throwing arm.  I’ll heave a wrench if any of those monkeys comes close.”  There is a cool aerial view of Pearl Harbor in flames.  They are fired on by local Japanese.  When they land at Hickam and see the destroyed P-40s lined up on the field they are told “three vegetable trucks smashed their tails”.  What?  The movie passes on the canard that there were Japanese fifth columnists and saboteurs that participated in the attack.  The Hickam set is appropriately damaged.

                It’s on to Wake Island for a visit with the valiant defenders.  “Send us more Japs” they say.  Since there are no orphans on the island, they pick up a dog named Tripoli.  Its schtick is it barks whenever anyone mentions Mr. Moto (for those less than eighty years old, Mr. Moto was a Japanese detective who appeared in several movies before the war).  How cute and racist is that? 

                They land at Clark Field in the Philippines.  The stress of being at war has changed Wanicki’s attitude and now he is a gung-ho member of the team/family.  The crusty crew chief White (Harry Carey, Sr.) finds out his fighter pilot son has been killed.  He takes it stoically, but the audience doesn’t.  Jap basterds!  When they take off, they fight off a swarm of Zeros until they get hit and the crew has to bail.  Capt. Quincannon is badly wounded so Winocki takes the controls and makes a belly landing.  Redemption accomplished!  The captain dies in the hospital in a scene written by an uncredited William Faulkner.  End of movie, right?  Wrong.  Not happy enough.

                The crew works feverishly to repair the “Mary Ann” with the Japanese just down the block.  Crewmen holding Browning machine guns like Rambo take on a Japanese air attack by Zeros dropping bombs they don’t have.  (Why do filmmakers think fighter planes can drop bombs?)  Meanwhile the rookie is off volunteering as a gunner on a scout plane.  It gets shot down and when he bails out a dastardly Jap strafes him and then finishes him off when he hits the ground.  Revenge would be so sweet.  Request accepted.  They shoot down the Jap and then machine gun him as he gets out of the wreckage.  Sweet!  This is an exciting scene although completely ridiculous.  The sound effects are good and the effects of the crashing Japanese planes are well done.

                With Japanese soldiers closing in (and eating lots of lead), the “Mary Ann” takes off just in the nick of time.  They are headed for Australia when they sight a Japanese fleet and call for reinforcements.  A  montage of all available aircraft (actual footage) arrive at exactly the same time.  I think I saw the “Spirit of St. Louis” in the mix.  Patriotic music swells.  They blow up a battleship.  Japanese fighters attack and they shoot one down which crashes into a ship.  Kharma is a bitch.  Then they sink an aircraft carrier.  These Americans never miss.  Just like the B-17s at the Battle of Midway.  That fleet gets totally f***ed up.  We are so gonna win this war.  Buy war bonds!

"I heard you just fly right above the ship
and drop the bomb - piece of cake!"
                “Air Force” claims to be based on a true story.  Bull shit.  The only thing true about it is B-17s arrived at Pearl Harbor in the middle of the attack.  Everything after that is total fiction.  None of those B-17s went on to Wake Island or the Philippines.  The big naval battle could be based on the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The similarities end with there being water involved.  As far as I know, no B-17s sank any warships during the war in the Pacific (although they tried at Midway).  It is painful to watch the film accuse Japanese in Hawaii of participating in the Pearl Harbor attack.  By the way, the producers of the film publicized the fact that the real “Mary Ann” was lost in the Pacific after the film was finished.  This has been proven to be false.  I’ll stop short of calling this despicable.

the star of the film -
please, no autographs 
                “Air Force” is not bad considering it is overtly patriotic and propagandistic.  There are some exciting action scenes.  The special effects are decent if you keep reminding yourself that it was made in 1942.  The blending of the footage is well-intentioned but far from seamless.  The Editing Oscar was probably deserved.  The use of real bombers helps with authenticity.  This is diluted a bit by the use of AT-6 Texans and P-43 Lancers for Japanese Zeros, but what could you expect?  The interior shots are realistic.  Just as good as a submarine movie.

                The acting is satisfactory.  Nobody makes a fool of themselves, but noone stands out.  This was partly purposeful as Hawks wanted the bomber to be the main star.  The crew may be stereotypical, but they are likeable and the chemistry is there.  The banter is not forced or corny.  Some of their actions are.  Shooting down planes with hand-held Brownings.  Come on!

                You can’t watch the film without being aware of its purpose.  It was meant to fire up American audiences to continue the fight on the battlefields and on the home front.  It appeared in theaters when the war was still up in the air.  The film makes the case that our quality will defeat the Japanese quantity.  I guess in 1943 our quantitative advantage was not so obvious yet.       

                In an earlier post I examined WWII combat movie clichés by looking at “Wake Island” and “Bataan”.  “Air Force” is a companion to those two Old School flicks.  They helped establish the template for Old School WWII movies.  “Air Force” is dedicated to a branch of the armed services.  It has a hero (the bomber) and a mission.  The small unit is heterogeneous and includes a mascot (Tripoli).  The episodes alternate between action and preparation for the next move.  Conflict within the group (Winocki) is resolved by external pressure (the war).  A member of the group gets redemption.

                In conclusion, “Air Force” is a difficult movie to review.  You can go on the Internet to read reviews that were contemporaneous and give a feel of what experts felt about it when it came out.  But this is 2013.  The movie is entertaining, but just that.  It is terrible history, but not terrible cinema history.  It is undoubtedly a classic.  It is a must-see for war movie lovers.  Will it make my 100 Best list?  Possibly.

grade =  B-


  1. I really like this one. Of course it's a propaganda movie, but it's one of the best. In the manner of the director, it's at the same time both emotional and restrained - until the final burst.

    In addition to those you mentioned, Hawks also made Road To Glory.

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  3. True. Part of this was due to overrating the Norden Bombsight. It was tested as being accurate within 23 meters, but in actual combat proved to be accurate only within 370 meters! Not one single capital ship was sunk in the Pacific using high altitude bombing. It is to be expected that a movie made in 1943 would have confirmed the manufacturer's claims. Also, at this time, the actual facts about Coral Sea and Midway would have been withheld. Thus the film would not have seemed so laughable

    I was hoping you would mention the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Thanx, nice catch.

    Do you have any idea about the effectiveness of Japanese level bombers at Pearl Harbor and against the Repulse and Prince of Wales? I seem to recall the USS Arizona was hit from altitude, bu of course it was not moving.

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  6. I wonder why they said it was based on true events. Inspired by them more like. I'm not even sure that would guarantee more viewers.
    They were lucky they could use real bombers. I think by now there are not all that many left.

  7. I agree. So often movie producers rope in audiences by dubious claims of historical accuracy. This movie proves that the practice goes back further than you would think. "Air Force" is one of the worst perpetrators of this canard.

    Today they would just use CGI for the bomber. Like they will do for the new "Dam Busters". Probably the dog will be CGI too. LOL


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