“L’Instinct de L’Ange” is a French film that had a remarkable run in my recent tournament to determine the best film about dogfighting. It is set on the Western Front in the early years of the war. It is not your run of the mill air combat movie and has a unique central character.
Henri (Lambert Wilson) is a rich boy who has tuberculosis. His health condition prevents him from volunteering when France goes to war with Germany. Refusing to give up on his dream to serve his country, he gets flying lessons in anticipation of eventually passing an induction physical. He learns to fly in a rickety monoplane and when the hole in his lungs closes, he is allowed to join the French air corps. On arrival at his base, he is counseled by a veteran pilot named Devrines (Francois Cluzet). He gives him practical advice like how you can tell when you are flying over the front because the German anti-aircraft shells are black and the French are white. He also learns the best tactic is to hide high in the sun, get in the enemy’s blind spot, and then close to fifty meters to be sure to hit your target. His initiation is a bit rough as he crashes upon landing twice which gets him put on probation. Eventually he gets to prove himself against the daily German observation plane. He uses his back seat machine gunner to get the kill and becomes an instant hero with the nickname “German Smasher”. This must be early in the war.
It turns out Henri is a born fighter pilot. Unfortunately, as his success grows, so does the resentment from his squadron mates. Part of it is envy and part of it is the belief that his luck is draining their stock of luck. That’s right he is the opposite of a Jonah, to use a nautical equivalent. Even the commander suggests he take it easy, he is putting too much stress on his mess mates! This is not your typical fighter squadron, although it could be a typical French squadron. He does get wounded and crashes after his thirtieth victory, but since he survives he gets no cred from his mates. When Devrines predicts that the experience will cause him to become timid, we get a remarkable scene where he tails an observation plane and allows the machine gunner to expend all his ammunition without fighting back. Things come to a head when his comrades start sabotaging his plane. This results in an aerial duel between Henri and one of his comrades.
|Henri is the only pilot in the French air force|
who wants to shoot down Germans
I did not like “Angel’s Wing” at first. Wilson was a bit wooden as Henri, but he grows on you as does the character. Henri is patriotic, but not obsessed. He is not a glory hound like you see in a lot of dogfighting movies. He just believes the war is about shooting down enemy planes and is perplexed (as was I) over his peers’ lackadaisical attitude toward that simple strategy. They look forward to the reward of two days off if they shoot down one plane. The Devrines character is intriguing as well. He wavers between being Henri’s mentor and his critic. The two actors dominate the film with the supporting cast making little impression.
The strength of the movie is its unusual script and its unique take on WWI air combat. The movie had a limited number of aircraft available, but they are vintage. You get to see a Morane, Farman, Spad, Rumpler, and Fokker Dr. 1. The acrobatics are outstanding. There is no use of CGI so the movie is the opposite of “Fly Boys”. The movie gets some nice touches in. We see a listening post that has four giant hearing aids. It is really neat to see Henri have to stand up in flight to change his machine gun drum. There is not a lot of actual dogfighting and all of it is duels instead of melees. No one shoots down a plane except Henri. The movie could have easily been a play and that’s a compliment.
It’s not the best dogfighting movie, but it is worth the watch. It avoids almost all the standard clichés and is unpredictable. Just be aware that if you watch the subtitled version, the translation sucks.
GRADE = B