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Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Flying Tigers (1942)

Director: David Miller
Stars: John Wayne, John Carroll and Anna Lee

This early John Wayne war film is a very telling marker of the times, in a number of ways. Most obviously it's a John Wayne film with him playing the same heroic figure you've seen him play a number of times in a number of films in a number of wars. This could well be the first time of many for him in the type of role he'd soon become comfortable in and many viewers would become comfortable with, over and over again. This time out he's Captain Jim Gordon (no, not that one).

He's better known as Pappy and he's the leader of a squadron of Flying Tigers, American volunteer pilots who were training in Burma to fight the Japanese before the US ever entered the war. in reality, they saw their first combat twelve days after Pearl Harbor with notable success rates and it didn't take long for them to be immortalised on film, though the film plays fast and loose with the timeframe. Here, Pearl Harbor doesn't happen until almost the end of the film, when the long established and respected squadron listens to it on the radio.

Flying Tigers came out in 1942, so this is a wartime propaganda film, but that's notably less obvious than in many such movies. OK, the first time we see a Jap, he's bombing the United China Relief building which is feeding and providing medical care to an endless stream of Chinese orphans, but we really don't see much of the enemy except inside their cockpits and gun turrets being shot to death by the Flying Tigers. We do get introduced to the Japanese habit of machine gunning flyers hanging under parachutes, after they've bailed out of their planes.

Of course being World War II, the Japs are the bad guys and the Chinese the good guys. Global politics has a habit of turning everything on its head in the shortest time. Less than ten years later this was all reversed: the Japanese were a growing democracy with an Emperor who had relinquished his divinity, and the Chinese were a Communist power under Chairman Mao. There are a couple of telling changes in time from a cinematic standpoint too. One is a surprising use of copious amounts of blood: in the aerial battles, we see the shattering glass and the blood that pours out of the faces of the pilots and gunners. There's more realism in the surprising use of the Chinese language.

The other isn't surprising except in degree. As a flying film that pays a lot of attention to the flying and the fliers, it sits squarely with a string of films made ten to fifteen years earlier. However the pessimism and stark realism of writers like John Monk Saunders (some scenes are stolen directly from The Dawn Patrol, including those after Blackie's death) is generally progressed forward to a more Hollywood outlook, so we get a whole romance angle between Pappy and a nurse called Brooke Elliott that is pure hokum and a whole bunch of less than subtle subplots. Hap's death is overblown: one minute he's grounded after a medical because he's lost his depth perception, but the next he's apparently blind as a bat.

The acting is varied. John Wayne is fine in the lead, playing it a little more subtle than you might expect. He's there very much to portray what Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek describes in the opening quote as the 'intrepid spirit of the Flying Tigers in the face of superior numbers.' Pappy is the leader of the squadron and is intrepid but realistic, and caring about the Chinese people that he's working to keep safe. Some of those following him up into the air aren't quite so realistic though. The largest amount of time is spent in the film showing the difference between Pappy and a young hotshot pilot called Woody Jason.

Jason is an ace flier but he's gung ho for all the wrong reasons: the $500 bounty on the head of every enemy. He's played by John Carroll, who is so trying to be a lively Clark Gable it's unreal, even though he looks more like a cross between William Powell and Victor Mature. He mostly succeeds in being annoying, but then he's supposed to be: he has to learn what it's all about, not the flying but the war. How this all unfolds is not going to be surprising in the slightest but it's carried off pretty well. Anna Lee does her job as the love interest but the role is pointless.

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