Thursday, April 2, 2015

#6 Tuskegee Airmen vs. #11 Aces High


THE MATCH-UP:  “The Tuskegee Airmen” was an HBO production about the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron that trained at Tuskegee Institute, then served in North Africa and Italy in WWII.  It is a small unit dynamics movie that focuses on several fictional members of the unit from training through combat missions.  The movie highlights the racism that the unit faced and the battle with a racist Senator.  Another theme is the gaining of respect from the white bomber crews the unit is eventually allowed to escort.

“Aces High” is set at a RAF air base in France during WWI.  The squadron leader is war-worn and alcohol fueled.  He has to deal with difficult missions, loss of veteran pilots, and shepherding of green replacements.  His cynicism is challenged by the arrival of his fiancé's brother who idolizes him.  There are a variety of missions that are depicted.
FIRST QUARTER:  Dogfighting Quantity

                Tuskegee Airmen  =  8 minutes
                Aces High  =  15 minutes

Tuskegee Airmen        6
Aces High                       9


                “Tuskegee Airmen” starts with training under a cartoonishly racist flight instructor. Once that hurdle is cleared, they run into a cartoonishly racist Senator who wants to shut down the “experiment” of colored flyers.  Col. Benjamin Davis has to defend the record of the unit.  This hurdle cleared, the Tuskegee Airmen then have to deal with the cartoonishly racist white bomber crews.  They do this by doggedly staying with their charges.  As you can infer, the plot is simplistic and predictable.  It connects the dots in its historical tutorial of the famous unit and does it in a TV movie sort of way.  Other than the over the top characters, the plot is suitable for the subject and the budget.  B

                “Aces High” is based on the play “Journey’s End”.  The film moves the setting to an air base instead of the trenches.  The plot is pretty standard for WWI, especially if you have seen a lot of WWI movies.  The cynicism is thick, but warranted.  It follows the usual template for a WWI squadron.  The drinking, the singing (the movie has a lot of singalongs), the seeming lack of mourning, the inhuman higher ups.  The movie aims at a lot of targets and I’m not talking about the air combat.  It is also a typical “who will survive?” movie.   B

Aces High                               17
Tuskegee Airmen                                14

THIRD QUARTER:  Realism and Accuracy

                There is no question the Tuskegee Airmen were faced with racism and although Southern racism was seldom subtle, this movie bludgeons you with it.  The flight instructor and Senator characters were Hollywood creations that defy reality.  The unit was never in any danger of being disbanded.  This arc allows Davis to make some of the arguments he undoubtedly made under different circumstances than a Congressional hearing.  The bigger problem is with the unrealistic combat.  The run-ins with the same bomber crew are hard to swallow.  Kudos for the attack on the destroyer which actually occurred.  C

                “Aces High” is not based on a true story, but it gets the pilot life and attitudes right.  You could see all of the main characters existing in a typical squadron in the latter stages of the war.  It is realistic, for instance, for one pilot to be suffering from “neuralgia”.  The combat missions are realistic.  You get a good tutorial on shooting down an observation balloon and doing a photo recon mission.  A

Aces High                              26
Tuskegee Airmen                 21


                “Tuskegee Airmen” leads with a main character seeing a biplane and dreaming of being a pilot.  The crew chief is gruff and considers the planes to belong to him.  One of the pilots breaks formation to rush in and get himself killed.  The main character loses his best buddy.  The movie actually has a refreshing lack of clichés.  B

                “Aces High” spends just a week with a fighter squadron, but manages to get in several classic WWI air combat clichés.  The pilots party hard, especially when they are hosting a downed enemy pilot.  Pilots drive into town in a motorcycle with side-car.  The squadron commander’s best friend dies.  A character dies in a head-on crash.  It does include the uniquely WWI air combat cliché of having the men seemingly uncaring about the deaths of mates.  Only the insane guy questions the feting of a German who had killed one of their members.  C

Aces High                              34
Tuskegee Airmen                 28


                “Tuskegee Airmen” is a noteworthy addition to the air combat subgenre and brings to light a fighter unit that was not particularly well known at the time it was made.  It and its sister “Red Tails” have done wonders for recognition of the 99th Pursuit Squadron.  Unfortunately, TA is not a very good dogfighting movie.  Part is due to the low budget and the rest is due to the movie spending most of its time getting the group to combat and not much on the combat itself.  “Aces High” is an underrated air combat film.  It adds some excellent aerial combat to a solid plot based on a famous play.  It deserved to move on.

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