Sunday 5 July 2009

Air Force (1943)

Directory: Howard Hawks
Stars: Gig Young, Harry Carey and John Garfield

Howard Hawks served in the First Great War in the Signal Corps and the Army Air Corps, and there are a number of notable air related movies in his filmography. I haven't yet caught Ceiling Zero, which is a notable gap in my James Cagney filmography, but I've seen the others, at least those that still exist. The Dawn Patrol, written by aviation film mainstay John Monk Saunders, was a definitive picture that everything else copied for quite some time. Only Angels Have Wings is one of the most underrated aviation pictures out there, possibly because it got lost in the mix in Hollywood's greatest year.

This one was made during the war, late on when the Americans had decided to turn up, and in fact it focuses on the reason why they chose to do so. The star isn't Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, or John Garfield, or Harry Carey, Moroni Olsen or Edward Brophy. It's a plane, a B-17 called Mary Ann, so important here that we even get treated to her number: she's plane no 05664. She's part of a training flight with a pretty green crew but it's 6 Dec 1941 and this training flight is taking her to Honolulu.

That's only a day away from a date that lives on in infamy and sure enough, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor while they're en route. They pick up the enemy's attack on the radio as it's happening, so divert to an emergency field in Maui, damaging their landing gear in the process on a field that wasn't designed for a B-17. Before long though she's back in the air though because they're being sniped at and they all get a great view of the wreckage of Pearl Harbor from the air before they head off for Manila. As this was released in late March 1943, the history we're watching was less than a year and a half old at the time it hit theatres, making it even more poignant than it is today. This is so close that they had to shoot the scenes with Japanese planes in Texas and Florida because the west coast was so wary of invasion.

The story isn't really the point here. It's a morale booster aimed at reinforcing why the Americans were fighting and why they needed to keep on doing so. The cinemas were filled with them in 1943 as Hollywood did its bit for the war effort, giving us the sort of examples we see here. This one has a bomber crew doing what everyone else thinks is impossible and throws out patriotic lines like 'Uncle Sam is a pretty tough old gentleman. Wait till he gets mad.' It has gun battles and explosions, and all of them mean something. What else this film has that most its fellows didn't is the reality of life on a B-17, which is what shines out in and amongst the melodrama. The down side is that there's plenty of that too.

There's a girl in Honolulu injured in the attack who is of particular interest to three members of the crew of the Mary Ann. One's her brother, another her boyfriend; the third is an officer who was driving the car she was shot in. The other two berate him for it, but he's the only who's actually been up shooting down Zeros, and naturally he's the passenger they end up taking . The crew chief, played by Harry Carey, has a son who's working up the ranks in Manila. He knows he's going to stay a sergeant but he has hopes for his son to end up a brigadier. Most obviously there's John Garfield's character who is bitter about being drummed out of flight school. Now he's an aerial gunner, but only till he leaves the forces. It takes Pearl Harbor to get rid of his bitterness and bring him back to being one of the team.

The quality of the actors involved, especially Harry Carey, makes these scenes better than they should be, but most of them are full of throwaway stuff. The real value is in the details of the day to day running of the Mary Ann, watching rookies learn the ropes and become veterans in the hardest of situations. There's a slow but sure transition from training flight to war footing. Some of the best scenes are in the perspectives of these characters, especially the pursuit pilot that they transport to Manila. There's a lot of friendly banter between the pursuit pilot and the guys running the bomber that's a joy to hear.

And there are those explosions, lots of explosions. For a while this feels like a Michael Bay movie, merely shot in black and white with some real actors and no CGI. It comes through as an action film but it has real power too and there's one further impact that it has that should be mentioned. Sadly while many of the actors in this film had long careers, the Mary Ann was lost in the Pacific after completing this film and returning to combat duty.


Ed Howard said...

I was surprised by how much I loved this movie -- I was expecting the typical cheesy and overbearing propaganda, and there's some of that for sure, but mostly it's about the bomber, and the way everyone on the plane has to work together as part of this tightly knit team. As conservative as Hawks was, it's interesting that so many of his best films are about collective action, men working together in tough situations, where the community matters more than the individual. The only part of the film that doesn't work, for me, is the big Bay-esque explosion-fest when they attack the Japanese at the end -- after so much sensitivity to the terrible cost of war throughout, it feels incongruous to revel in the destruction and death so much at the end.

As for Hawks' other flying pictures, Only Angels Have Wings is one of his best films and probably one of the best films classic Hollywood produced as well. I also appreciate the rough-edged Dawn Patrol and the great Ceiling Zero, which is very much a transitional work for Hawks, a template for Only Angels and also, in its rapid patter, a prototype in his exploration of the screwball comedy genre. It's one of his great early works, despite the ending problem that marred some of his early films. There are also some workable wartime aviation scenes (mostly recycled from other films) in the melodramatic Today We Live.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks for your comment, Ed.

Yeah, the ending was way over the top compared to the rest of the film, but that's definitely the propaganda portion. This was still wartime and the aim was obviously to say not only that we're happily hammering the Japanese at every turn but Tokyo itself is almost in our grasp. Nowadays we could probably stop just before the explosions begin at sea and still have a solid 1h 45m war film.

I loved Only Angels Have Wings, which was unfortunately lost in the greatest year Hollywood ever had. It's interesting to see the difference in the stature of Richard Barthelmess between that and The Dawn Patrol, made less than a decade before. I see The Dawn Patrol far more as a John Monk Saunders story than a Howard Hawks one though, given that there are so many little detail that are peppered so consistently through the various films based on his stories.

That's an interesting observation about Hawks and collective action. I'll keep that in mind when I watch some of his other films again, some of the westerns especially. I'd forgotten Today We Live too, probably because I was underwhelmed by it. My review is here:

Anonymous said...

Actually the plane used as Mary Ann never was used in combat. Recently identified as B-17B s/n 38-584 ("05564" was a fictitious number), after it toured air bases promoting the movie, it ended its days grounded as a mechanics' training aid in New Mexico.
Source info: