January 23, 2012 -- This heartfelt tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II could mark George Lucas' farewell to the business of making popular movies with wide appeal, although the Star Wars 3D re-issued films are coming out soon. It is an amazing footnote to “Red Tails” that the major Hollywood studios would not finance this picture. It is being distributed by 20th Century Fox, but Lucas is paying for the film himself. He can afford it. He's a billionaire. But this is a movie the studios have snubbed to their everlasting shame.
So what's wrong with this film? Nothing, really. It is a perfectly fine action film with solid characters, amazing aerial combat scenes and a historically relevant story. It is a far better film than many movies the studios elected to finance recently. The Tuskegee Airmen have never gotten much respect. Tusgegee Airmen won the national “Top Gun” military competition in 1949, but the trophy and the records were buried for some 50 years, as stubborn racists in the military refused the acknowledge the excellence of these pilots. The refusal by the studios to finance this film is just another in a long line of insults to these men.
I did see a made for TV movie about “The Tuskegee Airmen” (1995) a few years ago, but it was mainly focused on the training in the United States. Cuba Gooding Jr. (playing Major Emanuelle Stance) is in both these films. “Red Tails” skips the training and goes right to the war, with the Tuskegee Airmen flying missions in Italy during World War II. Colonel A.J. Bullard (played by Terrence Howard of “Iron Man”) is back in Washington trying to save his unit of black pilots from being disbanded. He manages to get them one chance at real combat to show what they can do. Bullard gets his unit of the Tuskegee Airmen (the 332nd Fighter Group) a mission to fly air cover for a military landing.
The 332nd acquits itself with honor on this mission, shooting down enemy planes and destroying many more planes at an enemy airfield, all this despite flying obsolete aircraft, Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, made famous by the “Flying Tigers” volunteers in China. This strong showing gave the 332nd another chance to show their skill and bravery by flying air escort for bombers over Germany. The Allies were losing too many bombers. The generals needed pilots who would stay close to the bombers and not stray too far away. Too many pilots went off chasing enemy fighter planes, and personal glory, rather than staying close to the bombers.
Now the Tuskegee Airmen at last got the best planes the Americans had, P-51 Mustangs, fast, maneuverable and able to fly very long range missions. It was a plane designed for bomber escort duty (and it was developed fast, 100 days from the drawing board to the first prototype). The tails of their planes were painted bright red, making the planes of the 332nd Fighter Group easily recognizable. Racists among American bomber pilots quickly changed their minds about the Red Tails when they saw how effective they were at protecting the bombers they escorted. They were dubbed “Red-Tailed Angels” by the bomber crews they saved.
The film depicts one of the three missions for which the 332nd received a unit citation. On March 24, 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen successfully completed the longest bomber escort mission undertaken during the entire war. This mission provides the highlight of the film in terms of aerial combat, with the fighters taking on a fighter unit of the legendary German Messerschmidt ME262 jets, aircraft 100 miles per hour faster than the P51 Mustangs.
This film confronts racism head on. It is shown to be at all levels of the military from top to bottom, but it also shows the grudging respect that the Red Tails earned among bomber pilots. The film has a number of subplots, including a romance and a flyer captured and held in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. There is also a continuing argument between two friends, Marty 'Easy' Julian (Nate Parker of “The Secret Life of Bees”) and Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo of “The Help.” Easy deals with the pressure of the war by drinking too much and Lightning takes too many risks in combat. Each man tries to help the other.
These subplots are adequate, but don't work as well as the aerial combat scenes in the film. These combat scenes, done with a heavy dose of computer graphics, are spectacular, and they are a big part of this movie. This film also isn't afraid to wave the American flag, and it even features group prayers, with the words “Jesus Christ” and “God” mentioned. You don't see this sort of thing in war movies made in this century. Some critics are not going to like these things, but they were once a big part of our culture. They still are, just not so much in movies. Every time they appear, their presence is begrudged.
This is a solid action movie with a historically important story which is accurate, according to one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, who saw this movie and was interviewed on Denver's Fox TV station last night. I'll take his word for it. He was there. This film rates a B.
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