Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Air Force is a remarkable WW2 combat film. It's an exemplary Howard Hawks male bonding picture, in which a group of rugged professionals molds itself into a fighting unit capable of extraordinary feats. It's an excellent showcase for the Hollywood technical wizardry that could create entire sea and air battles with miniatures, pyrotechnics and trick photography. Air Force is also the perfect focus film to discuss wartime morale-building propaganda. The heroics in this picture drift rapidly from realism to outright fantasy, taking some questionable political turns along the way.
The Army Air Corps B-17 Mary Ann leaves San Rafael, California on December 6, 1941 for Hickam Field in Hawaii. Likeable pilot "Irish" Quincannon (John Ridgely) and co-pilot Bill Williams (Gig Young) head an interesting crew. Navigator Monk Hauser (Charles Drake) and bombardier Tommy McMartin (Arthur Kennedy) were once pilot candidates. Crew Chief Robbie White (Harry Carey) is concerned for his son, a pilot in the Philippines, while disgruntled gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield) hates the Corps and is due to leave in three weeks. The plane arrives in Hawaii just as the Japanese attack, and is forced to land at an emergency field on Maui. At Hickam Tommy discovers that his sister Susan (Faye Emerson) has been gravely wounded. The Mary Ann is sent on to Clark Field in the Philippines and takes on a passenger, fighter pilot Tex Rader (James Brown). At Wake Island they find a small contingent of Marines barely holding out. Everywhere the Mary Ann goes, the Japanese are giving U.S. forces a terrible beating.
1943 was the hump year for the war, as the Allies and America were just beginning to rack up important victories in both theaters of combat. Throughout 1942, most of the news from the front was not good. Exaggerated tales of combat gallantry gave folks at home something to cheer about, if only for a couple of hours. But as hard facts about combat were released to the general public, some film stories became more realistic. Air Force casts an eye backward for a careful retelling of the Pearl Harbor catastrophe.
Like a military version of his Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks assembles an intensely likeable key group of male comrades, all dedicated to the Mary Ann and all caught off guard by the Japanese sneak attack. With no major star in the lead, the group is the star, as in the equally successful Hawks film The Thing from Another World. The men react to desperate circumstances with resourcefulness and professional efficiency, and writer Dudley Nichols inserts just the right measure of sentiment. A young crewmember asks Quincannon to meet his mother before they take off. Ex- Jersey cab driver Weinberg (George Tobias) takes a cute puppy from some Marines on Wake, and delivers it to another tough Marine on Luzon, J.J. Callaghan (Edward Brophy). Co-pilot Williams worries about his girlfriend, the wounded Susan McMartin. He and Susan's brother get tough with Tex Rader for not protecting her, until they find out that Rader was one of the few P-40 pilots to engage in combat with the Japanese raiders.
Hawks and Nichols want us to invest in these guys, who represent America's past, present and future. Robbie White looks to his son to rise higher in the ranks than he did. The crew takes care of the green kid on the plane, flying his very first mission. And gunner Winocki's rotten attitude is seen as everybody's problem. Washed out of flying school, Winocki has a chip on his shoulder that prevents him from taking his proper place in the fighting unit. In the Howard Hawks universe, he must either shape up or ship out.
Air Force was clearly intended as positive propaganda for the war effort. Joining up is seen as the right thing to do, even if one can't qualify for the more glamorous assignments. Monk Hauser is the son of a WW1 flying ace but humbly accepts his essential role as navigator. The more desperate things get, the better the Army functions -- officers at Hickam and Wake guide the fighting like pro ball coaches, one even from his deathbed. Random personnel who have lost their planes or units volunteer for hazardous duty. When crewmembers fall, other equally determined warriors take their places. Air Force's key image is a cockpit view with three or four heroic airmen staring forward into danger as shells burst around them. The Army Air Corps never looked better.
The movie's first half presents a version of Pearl Harbor tweaked to achieve twin political ends. With the actual details of the attack kept secret, Americans couldn't understand how the sneak attack could have succeeded. Where were our airplanes? Air Force has a dishonest explanation: sabotage by Japanese-American infiltrators. We're told that Japanese fifth columnists drove trucks onto the airfields to smash the planes, and blocked roads with shotguns to prevent flying personnel from getting to them. On the ground in Maui, our crew is attacked by groups of Japanese snipers. This outright fabrication of events exonerates the Army's poor performance in keeping its squadrons on alert. The lies also serve a double duty, to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans back on the mainland. After seeing Air Force, the public could be expected to attack "Japs" on sight. I doubt that very many Japanese-Americans appreciated this poetic license in the name of wartime expediency.
Hawks' film makes an interesting contrast with John Ford's They Were Expendable of only two years later. By 1945 Ford was able to depict the experience of American forces in the Philippines for what it was, a total rout. He's even able to present positive images of the Japanese: when the Pearl Harbor news comes in, an entertainer in a bar interrupts her performance to sing "My Country 'tis of Thee." It's almost an apology for the excesses of the 'morale booster" movies.
Air Force does a fine job of showing Hickam Field reduced to ruins. 1 Wake Island's defenders are eager to fight the enemy even though they know they'll almost certainly be wiped out. From that point on Air Force abandons reality altogether, to give the audience a feel-good series of victorious battles. In the Philippines the Mary Ann is thrashed in air combat, after shooting down an inordinate number of enemy planes. The crew rushes to repair the ship before the field is overrun by Japanese troops.
Screenwriter Nichols then presents a situation that figures in every revenge-oriented propaganda film to come. The crew watches as its youngest member, parachuting from a downed plane, is mercilessly machine-gunned by the enemy. The 'dissident' crewmember Winocki takes the 'dirty Jap trick' personally, shooting down the plane responsible with a hand-held .30 caliber machine gun (don't try that at home, as even Rambo probably couldn't do it). Personal revenge is the catalyst: It's not enough to fight for one's country; one has to HATE the enemy as well.
Air Force then launches into an outrageously elaborate fantasy battle in which the Mary Ann locates an enemy task force and leads the attack to destroy it. This is supposed to be only a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, but the Army Air Corps suddenly has all the planes and personnel it needs to launch an assault so staggering that you'd think that the war in the Pacific would be won on the spot. The Warners special effects department turns out hundreds of feet of exciting combat filmed with miniatures and edited by ace cutter George Amy. Special consideration is given to crowd-pleasing 'hooray!' shots of Japanese planes bursting into flames, and enemy naval officers screaming as they're blown to kingdom come. Air Force is great propaganda that plays as a pitiless assault on both the enemy and common sense; today's pro-war propaganda uses the exact same game plan.
Warners' DVD of Air Force is an excellent transfer of mostly perfect elements; many of the scratched or slightly fuzzy effects shots were always that way. The audio is clear for Franz Waxman's stirring score, which naturally favors the Army Air Corps theme.
The extras are good this time around. The short subject Women at War features Faye Emerson as an ambitious WAC in training (she's only seen in Air Force in a hospital bed). The WACs endure sexual harassment and are patronized by the top brass, but prove themselves. Beloved actress Virginia Christine appears as a WAC officer candidate; potential volunteers are assured that WACs can still wear makeup. The color cartoon Fifth Column Mouse is a wacky operetta about a mouse who sells out his fellow rodents to the evil cat (who at one point sports buck teeth), all to the tune of Blues in the Night. Even more hilarious is the B&W Scrap Happy Daffy, a Frank Tashlin epic in which Daffy defends his pile of scrap metal from a sub commanded by Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini. Tashlin introduces Hitler by literally dissolving between Der Führer and a horse's ass! In addition to a trailer, the disc offers a radio show version of Air Force with George Raft and Harry Carey. I wonder who does the airplane noises.
The disc formatting has chapter stops but no chapter menu, an interesting choice preferable to eliminating other more useful features, like the excellent optional English subtitles. When purchased as a set, the disc is still packaged in a full keep case instead of storage-friendly slim cases; perhaps the studio wants the set to look as substantial as possible. The cover design appears to come from original pressbook art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Air Force rates:
Supplements: Sort subject Women at War, cartoons Fifth Column Mouse and Scrap Happy Daffy; radio adaptation, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 31, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson