Wednesday, July 8, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Fighter Squadron (1948)

                “Fighter Squadron” is a Raoul Walsh (“They Died With Their Boots On” / “Objective, Burma!”) film designed to entertain audiences with the dashing heroics of fighter pilots in Europe in WWII.  It is dedicated to the men of Fighter Command and thanks the Air Force for its cooperation.  The cooperation was substantial.  The movie was filmed at Oscoda Army Air Field on Lake Huron in Michigan.  The USAF also provided lots of footage and actual P-47s and P-51s.

                The movie starts with the cliché of the desk jockey commander who inflicts castrating rules on his stallions.  These rules include fighters must stay with the bombers and should not drop their extra fuel tanks early.  These rules really chaff hot shot ace Maj. Hardin (Edmund O’Brien).  He’s a rule breaker.  And a required character in a movie like this.  Ironically, Hardin has a rule of his own – bachelors only!  Women be distracting.  If you drop your tanks, it better be with a prostitute.  Capt. Hamilton (Robert Stack) has a picture of his girl and he plans to marry her.  That means he wants to defy Hardin and die, in that order.

                Guess who gets promoted into a management position?  Suddenly, Hardin is a rule enforcer (like every air combat character placed in this position before) and the men suddenly resent this trogolodyte who one day earlier was their role model (like in every other air combat … oh, never mind).  Hardin does convince the general to allow them to drop their tanks early so the director can use all the cool dog fight footage.  Unfortunately, the general insists that any radio banter conform to 1940s dialogue restrictions.  That REMF! (In this case the F stands for flipper.) 

                There is an extended take-off sequence with music by Max “Pompous” Steiner.  The ensuing dog fight includes so much gun camera footage that a Japanese plane sneaks in.  The cockpit taunting includes gems like:  “Burn ya crumb, burn” and “Hit the silk”.  We get a downed pilot being rescued by a buddy who lands to pick him up.  This was ridiculous the first time it was done in “The Dawn Patrol”.  But wait, later in the movie the squadron is sent by a ground controller to attack a French town.  A German intercepts and tries to send them elsewhere, but he can’t answer the question of what the Brooklyn Dodgers are nicknamed.  (Correct answer:  the bums)  Hilarious!   Eat napalm and rockets, Nazis.  Queue “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

                You would think that with the director and cast “Fighter Squadron” would be a good movie.  You would be wrong!  This movie could have been the fighter version of “12 O'Clock High”, but it goes down in flames.  When it comes to acting, the P-47s are great.  It’s the humans that barely get off the ground.  The actors are too sincere.  Normally I like Edmund O’Brien and Robert Stack, but this is not their best effort.  By the way, don’t blink or you will miss Rock Hudson’s film debut.  (He took 38 takes for his one line.)  Of course, they are not helped by the atrocious dialogue.  The witty pilot talk is lame and not funny.  But the cockpit banter sets the standard for crap.  What these guys say during dog fights makes “Red Tails” sound Shakespearian.  This is dialogue written by someone who did not have a clue about how fighter pilots talk.
This is what happens when the cool teacher
becomes the rule enforcing principal
                The plot is predictable and full of clichés.  In an attempt to throw in a humorous subplot, Sgt. Dolan (Tom D’Andrea) uses black cats to get off base to meet girls.  Funny, not.  Several key scenes rely on plot devices that defy reality.  It helps if you are not an air combat fan, familiar with WWII air warfare, or do not have a brain.  This is a shame because the movie actually covers some interesting themes.  Should fighters stay with the bombers they are escorting?  How long should fighters retain their belly tanks?  Should fighter pilots get married?  I know you think I will say something snarky about that last one, but it is actually based on a true story.  The 4th Fighter Group was known as “Blakeslee’s Bachelors” because Col. Donald Blakeslee would transfer anyone who got married.  (I have to say that I could not find any confirmation for this and I am skeptical.)  By the way, he also had a policy of transferring any pilot who “pranged his kite” which was ironic because he eventually forgot to lower his landing gear

                There is a reason to watch the movie.  If you are a Thunderbolt fan like me, there is plenty of P-47 action in the film.  In that respect, it reminds me of another otherwise terrible movie called “The Hunters” which featured another fav – the F-86.  That movie was set in Korea, but is similar in fumbling serious issues with stock characters and a good cast acting badly.  “Fighter Squadron” takes advantage of plenty of footage and there is a nice variety.  Besides dog fight shoot downs, there is also strafing of German airfields and a montage of bombing raids.  The blending is fine and makes the rest of the film look even more gloriously Technicolor. 

              Forgotten gem?  Forgotten, yes.  Gem, no.    


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