Saturday, March 28, 2015


                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.

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


  1. Once, when "Flying Tigers" aired on Turner Classic Movies, the host (Ben Mankiewicz) said in the introduction that it borrowed a lot from "Only Angels Have Wings." Personally, I thought it was a lot more similar to "International Squadron," almost to the point of being an unofficial remake. That movie had Ronald Reagan playing basically the same character that John Carroll played in "Tigers." There was also some similarity to "Captains of the Clouds," with James Cagney. Apparently, there were a lot of arrogant hot shot pilots in WWII, carelessly causing fatalities, but then redeeming themselves by flying suicide missions.

    I think John Carroll was the actor they hired when it was a case of, "We can't afford Clark Gable, so get me a Clark Gable type."

    Re: dogfights (air-to-air combat) vs. close air support, I've heard Army men complain that the Air Force is less than enthusiastic about air support missions. Dogfights have a more glamorous image, and may be the fast track to promotion for fighter pilots. I don't know, though, if there are similar attitudes in the Marines.

    1. I had read that Howard Hawks was encouraged to claim that FT copied his Only Angels plot (he decided against it). I have never seen that movie so I immediately looked it up to see if I should consider it for the tournament. Turns out it does not have dogfighting. The plot summary did not sound like FT. Apparently there are some similarities in subplots and characters. I am not familiar with "International Squadron".

      I had also read about that John Carroll reference to Gable. I can see that. He even looks a bit like him.

      That Army complaint was certainly true and probably warranted especially early in the war. Of course, foot soldiers always have a tendency to gripe about the flyboys and one friendly fire incident is remembered longer than one hundred life saving close air support missions. There is no doubt fighter pilots were not interested in ground support. Not just because enemy hills bombed don't count towards ace status, but also they are actually more dangerous than air combat. Speaking of friendly fire, air support missions came with the risk of being fired on by your own infantry and tanks.

      The movie is accurate in its portrayal of the Marine Corps being open to CAS. This was partly attributable to the fact that Marine Aviation was more wedded to the ground forces than the AAF was towards its parent. The first A may have stood for army, but the AAF was already thinking of itself as the USAF. It should also be mentioned that the lack of efficient forward air control was a bigger factor in Europe because German targets were more temporary. Whereas in the Pacific, you could task a mission on a fixed position because of the nature of the fighting.

      Thanks for your input.

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    1. Good stuff, as usual. Thanks. I do not have any problems with the use of Hellcats. What was the alternative? At least they look similar and the Hellcat is the big brother (although younger, of course). It's not the producers fault that none were available. Quite a shame because the F4F was arguably the most important warplane in the Pacific Theater. It does not get its just due. It was a bit disconcerting to see Korean War footage. And Hellcats with bomb bay doors!

      I read where the two technical advisers for FT were ground personnel who had been kicked out of the unit. That explains a lot.

      The 1943 timing of the movie did impact the accuracy. With the FT still operating, the filmmakers had security constraints. For instance, the cockpit interiors could not look like the real thing. This probably also explains the avoidance of any real characters. I did not see a lot of Chennault in Gordon. Chennault would chewed Gordon up and spit him out. Gordon also smiled.

      I have to disagree with your definition of dogfighting. I see where you are coming from, but that qualification would have made determining a legitimate kill very complicated. All is fair in love and war, right. You do what you got to do in air combat or you don't come back. One flaw in FT and a reason why Gordon does not really represent Chennault is there is no discussion of his tactics. Again possibly for security reasons. You would have been a suicidal fool to try to "Hell's Angels" style dogfight in a Warhawk against a Zero.

      As far as the katana scene, I agree that it was hilarious. Kids weren't coddled in the 1940s I guess. I feel sorry for any pets or neighborhood kids. Funnier to me was the kid glowingly referring to the "mud Marines". The screenwriters used the kid to balance the rest of the movie.

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  4. I meant that if you disqualify the dive, shoot, and dive away technique for kills, that would seem to be a vague area that someone would have to make a decision on. It's a lot simpler to say, plane goes down, add a symbol to your plane. I understand what you are saying about the FT tactic resulting in inaccurate claims, but overclaiming is pretty much the norm in WWII air combat. Look at the differences between claims and reality for both sides in the Battle of Britain.

    I agree on the Dauntless. In five minutes at Midway, that plane changed the course of the war.

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    1. Gee, I wonder if the bounties had anything to do with the inflated claims.

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