Sunday, August 16, 2015

BOOK/MOVIE: The War Lover (1959/1962)

                “The War Lover” is a WWII aviation picture based on the best seller and Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John Hersey.  It was filmed in England and directed by Philip Leacock.  Two RAF bases were used for the exterior shots.  The producers found three B-17s in America.  Famous aviation writer Martin Caidin helped restore them and flew one across the Atlantic to be used in the film.  He wrote a book about the experience entitled Everything But the Flak.  A stuntman died during a stunt when he drowned parachuting into the English Channel.  Warren Beatty was first choice for the lead role but he turned it down because he had recently caused the breakup of Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood.  It would have been awkward if he acted with Wagner.  Steve McQueen got the part and was his usual difficult self.  He did not get along with Shirley Anne Field and once pushed so hard she went over a sofa and cut her lip.  In a subsequent kissing scene, she bit McQueen on his lip in revenge.  Director Leacock was lenient with McQueen’s contractual stipulation that he avoid racing cars during the filming.  McQueen proceeded to get into an accident, so those injuries from his fight with the Bolland character are not the result of make-up.

                The movie is set on an American bomber base in 1943.  “Buzz” Rickson (McQueen) is a hot shot pilot who rooms with his co-pilot “Bo” Bolland (Wagner).  Bo is your typical American airman who is just trying to survive the required 25 missions.  Buzz likes the war.  “The only trouble with this crummy war is it begins too early in the morning.”  Their bomber is nicknamed “The Body” and is on its seventh mission.  Their mission is to bomb submarine pens at Kiel.  By changing the nose art, the movie is able to make the three bombers look like a lot more on takeoff.  Due to cloud cover, the commanding officer aborts the mission, but Buzz goes below the cloud cover to bomb the target anyway.  He has an orgiastic look on his face as the bombs explode.  Back at the base, Buzz does not seem to care that one of the bombers that followed him ended up getting blown up.  The CO calls him on the carpet and accuses him of being insubordinate and irresponsible.  Since this is a war movie, his superiors put up with him because he’s such a crackerjack pilot.  The Air Force (actually Army Air Corps) loves mavericks.

                We have a maverick, how about a love triangle to go with that cliché?  Bo and Buzz meet a British bird at a dance.  Surprisingly, Daphne (Field) does not opt for the stereotypical brash American and instead chooses Buzz.  She realizes she would always be second best to the war in Buzz’s life.  Bo puts her first, but is she just a fling until he finishes his tour?  Although Bo will have to be like a sheep-dog watching out for the wolf, he idolizes Buzz as a pilot and leader.  So does the rest of the crew except the navigator Lynch who despises the amoral Rickson.   Buzz gets him transferred to a lesser pilot and as though that does not doom him enough, he proceeds to show Bo a picture of his wife and kids!  Why does the military give lectures on VD, but not on picture discipline?
"I'll bet you 50 bucks our last
mission is a milk run"

                Buzz continues to be insubordinate.  When a mission requires them to drop leaflets instead of bombs to kill Germans, he buzzes the field several times at very low altitude to show his displeasure.  The Doctor states that “Rickson is a good example of the fine line that separates the hero from the psychopath.”  (I wonder how many Medal of Honor winners this statement would apply to.)   There is no talk of grounding such a loose cannon.

                Before the last mission, the predictable hook up between Buzz and Daphne occurs.  Buzz shows up at her apartment, but she sees right through his macho bull-shit.  He does not attempt to charm his way out of this assessment.  “In war time, you don’t fall in love.  You make love.”  She gives as well as she gets.  “You can’t make love.  You’re twisted.  You can only make hate.”  Ouch!  When he returns to base, he implies that something went on which makes the next mission very awkward.  They don’t have a lot of time to glare at each other as they have to try to avoid the kitchen sink on this mission.  I counted ten problems.  That’s “Memphis Belle” territory.  At least the love triangle problem gets solved by subtraction.
Bert Kwong was not in the
running to get the girl!
That's racist

                “The War Lover” is an underrated war movie.  It is well made with good cinematography and effects.  The sound effects are also well done.  You do feel you are along for the ride.  The interior of the bomber is realistic.  The flight procedures are rendered accurately.  As is usual for an air combat movie, the film takes off when it is in the air.  There is some good stunt work in the buzzing of the field, but the obligatory belly landing was borrowed from “Twelve O’Clock High”.  The plot is a little leaden on the ground. 
the real star of the film

The central theme that some warriors are in it for the thrill is worth exploring and this was a rare theme for a movie from the early 60s.  There aren’t that many war movies that have the hero as a psychopath.  Coincidentally, I also watched “The Hurt Locker” this week and the main characters in both movies have similar personalities and motivations.  McQueen’s performance has been criticized, but I found his style to be perfect for the role.  Who better to play a jerk than a jerk?  He’s the kind of actor who can act with just his eyes, which is helpful when you are wearing an oxygen mask.  Wagner is fine in a role that is not fully fleshed out.  It is never clear why he and Buzz are best friends considering their views on the war are opposite.  Field is the wild card and her performance is hard to analyze.  Daphne is not your usual pilot groupie.  Although she falls in love with Bo, she is realistic about the temporary nature of the relationship.  She is probably the strongest character among the three.  Her reaction to Buzz’ “seduction” is interesting.  The rest of the characters are not really fleshed out.  Lynch should have been more of a foil to Buzz.  The rest of the crew is nondescript.  There is no dysfunction.
It was a tough job, but someone had to play the
  role of the girl caught between McQueen and Wagner
“The War Lover” is probably not going to make my 100 Best War Movies list.  It is still a nicely entertaining war movie mainly because of the theme and the fact that it is not very predictable.  There is one death that you will not see coming (and two that you will see from a mile away).  The last mission, although crammed with “what next?”, is exciting and not head-shaking.  It is certainly a better movie than its closest companion – the pious “Memphis Belle”.  And it stars Steve McQueen.

How does it compare to the novel?  Needless to say, the novel is much more wordy.  Scratch that if you are going to cast McQueen.  For instance, in the book, when Buzz barges in on Daphne he ends up telling his life story.  The book is told from the perspective of Bo and he can be a bit of a whiner.  He also is less likeable because we see so much more of his personality.  The romance is of course fleshed out and the book makes Daphne out to be a more sympathetic girl who is truly in love, but also trying to make the best of the war situation.  Bo’s inability to fully commit to her is frustrating.  Hersey uses the Bo character as his device to make the point that there is nothing good about war and those that buy into it have either drank the propaganda kool-aid or they love war for its own sake.  The main incidents in the movie are from the book with some changes for the better.  Lynch is much more important in the book.  Bo is simpatico with him and is really broken up when he dies.   The movie makes the wise decision to put Lynch on the crew, but downplays his relationship to Bo.  Another good decision was to have Bo imagining the worst about Buzz’ visit to Daphne.  In the book, Daphne tells Bo what happened and he is upset more with finding out just how loathsome his former best friend is rather than seething over his sleeping with his girl.  Most importantly, the movie substantially changes the last mission for the better.  Not giving away the move ending for those of you who have not seen it, but here is what happens in the book.  They get hit in the nose and the bombardier loses a leg and his life.  The tail gunner bails out without telling anyone.  Buzz cracks up and Bo ends up flying the plane for the rest of the time.  They decide to ditch in the Channel, but Junior asks to bail out and does.  When the plane hits the water, Buzz decides to go down with the ship.

BOOK  =  B-

MOVIE  =  B+

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