|Directed by||Howard Hawks|
The crew of an Air Force bomber arrives in Pearl Harbor in the aftermath of the Japanese attack and is sent on to Manila to help with the defense of the Philippines.
An Air power picture that fits the mood of the time it was made..
One of the great things about motion pictures in this country is how they change with the times. Take this picture for example which came out in 1943. The U.S. was in the thick of the war and this was a film like many made during that time to stir patriotic fever and make Americans “hate the evil yellow enemy” (and the Nazis too!). It’s full of everything to make the viewer feel good about our boys who are doing the fighting. A B-17 bomber crew where there seems to be no problems, only the desire to “Shoot down Japs” Now go forward about six years to 1949 and “Twelve O’Clock High” and watch that film about B-17 Bomber Crews. Could “Air Force” have cut it with movie goers any time after 1946? Could “Twelve O’Clock High” have made it with a 1943 audience? Probably not. So watch this picture and remember when it came out and what the mood in this country was and you’ll truly enjoy it. Also don’t forget to see “Twelve O’Clock High” as well, maybe right after seeing this one.
Author: Robert J. Maxwell (email@example.com) from Deming, New Mexico, USA
24 March 2005
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An exciting, touching, and funny movie, one of Hawks’ best.
It’s a richly textured work, with several sub-narratives weaved into one another.
The most important is the voyage of the new B-17, the “Mary Ann”, from California to Honolulu to Wake Island to Clark Field in the Phillipines. Movies about journeys can be exciting, if they’re well done, as this one is. There is the change of scenery, the dramas large and small at the stopovers, and above all the living that goes on within the vehicle. There is a lot of model work involved, out of necessity, but it has a reassuring cartoonish quality. I loved those wooden miniature airplanes taking off without lifting their noses, as if levitating rather than flying. And the tiny papier-mache palms, and the fake studio jungles. Within the limits of the available technology, it’s pretty well done. As the model B-17 taxis its way across the tarmac, we can even hear the squealing of its brakes as the pilot applies them.
The voyage is fascinating not just because we are following the Mary Ann, but because we get to know what it’s like to live inside the fuselage, to fly and defend the airplane, to work on its engines and to feed it gasoline by using a bucket brigade. Most of all we get to know the tiny social system of the men and how they are knitted together by circumstances into a solidary group.
This is true Hawks territory. Here we have John Garfield as the cynical flight-school washout Winocki. (Cf., Christopher Walken’s monologue in “Pulp Fiction.”) Garfield sneers at the others and hates the skipper, the good-natured, efficient, and highly respected James Ridgely as “Irish” Quincannon. Ridgely tries to explain to Garfield that it doesn’t matter what any single person’s feelings are. We are all part of a team here; each of us depends on the other; we support and help one another; we’d give each other our last pair of socks; in fact, two of the crew are married to each other. (Well — not that.)
Garfield is finally won over after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Kids, that was the beginning of World War II for us. PS: We won.) The way the crew learns the news is just plain fine. What craftsmanship. The radioman is sitting at his console and loses contact with Honolulu before picking up some gunshots and Japanese chatter. It’s a sign of the care that was taken in this film that we get to appreciate the job that the RADIOMAN is doing! In almost every other film involving a bombers we get to know only the pilots and the gunners — sometimes the bombardier. But in this case we get to see the kind of job everyone does, including the crew chief, and, in a suspenseful miniepisode, the navigator. The NAVIGATOR! Usually if he’s included at all, it’s only to get his head blown off.
Hawks is fond of the gradual integration of an outsider into the group, the willing penetration of social borders. Sometimes it’s a “girl,” as in, “Only Angels Have Wings.” (When Jean Arthur sits down to play the guys’ piano, Cary Grant advises her, “You’d better be good.”) Here it’s Garfield, who begins by hating the Air Corps and ends by being a fully functioning team member, and an innovative leader. If that’s not enough, we have yet another playful rivalry between the Mary Ann’s crew and a passenger they pick up — a pursuit pilot who jokes about the furniture vans that bomber crews have to fly around in. Does he turn into a fully functioning team member at the end too? Yes, he does, although as far as we know he’s had to multi-engine time at all. No matter.
The essence of Hawks’ fascination with male solidarity is probably best expressed in the scene in which the Mary Ann is being attacked over a (fictional) Japanese fleet. As a Zero homes in on the B-17 from a given position, the gunner on that side yells out to the captain, “Swing her a little to the left!”, and Ridgely makes the airplane yaw slightly to give the gunner a better shot at the Zero. Let me put this another way — an enlisted gunner is telling the captain of the airplane what to do. And the officer happily complies. That is teamwork. The crew transcend their individuality. They’re like a single organism.
“Irish” dies towards the end in a scene that could have been so much cornier than it is. (Faulkner is said to have written part of it.) Everyone of importance is in the death scene and plays a part.
The movie practically falls apart at the end, unfortunately. Our airplanes seem to blow the entire Imperial Japanese Navy out of the water in a battle that resembles nothing of historical value. And yet even the final scene, of the Mary Ann crash landing in the rolling surf, is exciting enough to help us forget the obvious propaganda of the previous scene. The problem, though, is that the racism runs all the way through the film. Okay, let’s accept dialog like, “Fried Jap going’ down!”, when a Zero explodes. But the Japanese in Hawaii are treated as treacherous cowards, which, by the time of this movie’s release, should have been a myth long dispelled. Of course there was never any sabotage. They were American citizens before they were Japanese.
Anyway, an outstanding adventure movie. Nothing arty or pretentious, simply a nicely executed work. One of the best films to be made during the war.
Standard WWII Morale Booster
Author: dglink from Alexandria, VA
12 January 2005
Howard Hawk’s “Air Force” is another in a long list of patriotic films about America’s fighting men during World War II that were made to raise the spirits of audiences back home. Stereotypes abound, clichés come hard and fast, and the hokum flies faster than the planes as a flying fortress on a routine reconnaissance flight from California in early December 1941 is enmeshed in the Japanese attacks on U.S. Pacific bases. However, despite the requisite sentiment that includes cloying death bed scenes, teary-eyed mothers, and even a stowaway dog, “Air Force” stays on course under Hawk’s steady direction and is fairly entertaining fare.
The strong cast, which includes John Garfield, Gig Young, and Arthur Kennedy, is excellent and delivers the uninspired dialog with credibility. Although the considerable talents of these actors are not taxed, Garfield plays to type as the cynic who rises to handle the unfolding events, and a mustached Young provides solid support as the co-pilot. In addition to the cast, James Wong Howe’s dramatic black and white cinematography is another major asset, and viewers have much time to admire his work with light and shadow during the talky episodes that take place within the claustrophobic plane. While there are too many stretches of dialog during the early part of the movie, a climactic air/sea battle brings the film to an exciting conclusion. A fine cast, outstanding photography, and a few good action sequences outweigh the overused plot devices and deliver an entertaining film that will quickly become blurred in memory with dozens of other similar war films made during the mid-1940’s.