January 24, 2007 -- This old movie made during World War II (1942) is a good example of Hollywood's successful attempts to drum up support for the war, using one of its biggest stars. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of the American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers, flying combat missions against the Japanese in China during the war. Wayne, playing Capt. Jim Gordon, is the leader of one of the three squadrons operating at that time. His nickname of “pappy” in the film is a probable reference to one of the best known Flying Tigers, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. He was dishonorably discharged from the group, but went on to command the “Black Sheep” Squadron in the Solomon Islands and was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. A TV series starring Robert Conrad was built around Boyington's exploits. Yet another movie, “God is My Co-Pilot,” (1945) based on a book of the same name, was made about the Flying Tigers.
In the movie, the Flying Tigers are shown flying combat missions against the Japanese well before December, 1941. In fact, they did not see action until Dec. 20, 1941, nearly two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. In the film, the pilots are shown listening to Franklin Roosevelt's famous radio address following the Pearl Harbor attack. The film includes more of this “day of infamy” speech than the brief snippet usually presented. Some of the pilots were also described as mercenaries, although they were being paid unofficially by the U.S. Government through a corporation, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which paid them $600 per month. They were also reportedly earned cash bonuses for enemy planes destroyed. In the film, there is some friction between pilots flying for more idealistic reasons and those more concerned with making bonus money. This conflict centers around Woody Jason (played by John Carroll) a hotshot pilot who is considered reckless and selfish. There is a romantic triangle between Woody, Gordon (Wayne) and Gordon's girlfriend, Brooke Elliott (played by Anna Lee, who went on to star in “The Sound of Music” and decades on soap operas).
In the movie it turns out that Woody isn't the unprincipled hound he appears to be, and he achieves a heroic redemption of sorts. The movie is all about the virtues of losing one's individuality for the sake of the group. This is also a common theme in sports movies. It is also about the nobility of the cause they are fighting for (there are frequent images of grateful Chinese peasants gazing heavenward). This is the sort of wartime message you would expect to see when you are trying to persuade people to fight. It was typical of war movies in the pre-Vietnam era. John Wayne made lots of these kinds of films, including “The Fighting Seabees,” “Back to Bataan,” “Flying Leathernecks,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “The Longest Day” and “In Harm's Way.” He is considered a veteran by some, although he did not fight in any war.
The combat scenes are taken from stock combat footage spliced together with cockpit shots taken in the studio. There are also some ground shots of pilots getting ready to take off. I would not have noticed it but for a comment on the Internet Movie Database by some retired pilot from Texas, but the planes shown on the ground are not the same as those in the air. The ones on the ground are replicas, without control surfaces. They could not have flown. There are also several large bumps in front of the cockpit of the replicas that don't appear in the aerial shots, and would certainly interfered with the pilot's forward vision.
The planes in the air are Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, one of the first modern fighter planes made in America before World War II. Versions of this plane appeared in most theaters of World War II, including Russia and Africa, flown by American, British, French and Russian pilots. They were generally slow, but had good range, heavy armor and armament, and could dive faster than the Japanese planes they were up against in China. The leader of the Flying Tigers, Claire Chennault, devised unconventional tactics to take advantage of the P40s strengths. One of his tricks was devising, with the aid of the Chinese civilians, an early warning system, so that the P-40s could get in the air early. That way, they could gain altitude, and attack the enemy from above, where their fast diving speed could be used to good effect. Chennault also instructed his pilots to fly in pairs for safety and not to engage the enemy in dogfights, where the Japanese planes' superior maneuvering capabilities would put the American pilots at a deadly disadvantage. The real planes, as those in the film, were painted with the familiar shark's mouth insignia.
In the movie, there is some talk of Chennault's ingenious tactics, but often the fighter pairs are shown split up and engaging in dogfights. Chennault's emphasis on teamwork fits well into the movie's basic theme of submerging one's ego in favor of group goals. While the plot is a clunky and the message heavyhanded, the acting is generally good. Wayne is under appreciated as an actor and is capable of some subtlety, which is on display in this film. There is a poignant scene when Gordon and his girlfriend, Brooke, talk about Gordon's upcoming flight which they both know is a probable suicide mission. Much of the underlying feeling is conveyed only through gestures, facial expressions and tonal inflections. The acting by both Wayne and Anna Lee is solid.
I saw this film on DVD ($5.50 at Wal-Mart). The disc doesn't have many extras, but does have cast and crew profiles, biographies and filmographies. The image transfer is good for the most part. There is an interesting Chinese character introductory frame at the beginning of the film, followed by a translation. It is a thank you from the former Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek thanking the American Volunteer Group for their efforts on China's behalf. The uniforms worn by the actors in the film feature the distinctive patch on the back of their flight jackets marked in Chinese characters which translate to, “This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue, protect, and provide him medical care.” This film rates a C. Thanks to Wikipedia and that unknown Texas pilot for background information used in this review.
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