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Republic's Flying Tigers played constantly on TV through the 1960s; seemingly in a tight rotation with Back to Bataan and The Fighting Seabees. All were John Wayne films that convinced us kids that The Duke must have won WW2 single-handed. We were all impressed by shots of 'dirty Japs' (sorry, but it was so) being wiped out singly or en masse -- I think the big appeal for these movies was so kids too young to enlist in 1942 could attend Saturday matinees and work up a good old-fashioned communal bloodlust for the enemy.
The Flying Tigers -- aka the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force -- were real, and represented quite an exciting topic for adventurous young men looking for the glory of old fashioned combat in the air. Boys that wouldn't have dreamed of fighting in Spain thought it a fantastic idea to pilot a Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk and serve as a paid mercenary fighting for the Chinese. Did Star Wars and Top Gun inspire aviation enlistment? I should think the answer is a big Yes. Although the few brave souls allowed to join the Flying Tigers had to leave their passports and other U.S. identification behind, the American military, the military aviation industry and President Roosevelt gave their quiet approval. In the late 1930s even isolationists realized that we needed some kind of training ground to keep pace with the Japanese and Germans, who were getting all the war aviation experience they could ask for flying in China and Spain. What the Tigers proved was that we needed much better aircraft as quickly as possible. The Misubishi fighters outclassed the Curtiss P-40s in most categories, which simply meant that we had to train better pilots, too. As it turned out, the Tigers did not officially begin flying combat missions until after Pearl Harbor, and they existed as an independent unit for only about six months before being absorbed into the Army Air Corps. But by then the Tigers' leader Lee Chennault had formulated new strategies for aerial combat. 1
Republic Pictures released their gung-ho morale builder Flying Tigers in October of 1942, making it one of the earlier feature films to directly address the fighting. The movie shows remarkable ingenuity in depicting its numerous aerial combat scenes, but seemingly had little access to anything beyond a rudimentary knowledge of what was really happening on the Southeast Asian front. The feature appears to have been John Wayne's first WW2 war movie. Although he later became known as America's Pacific Theater poster boy, Wayne actually made many more war-themed pictures after hostilities had ceased.
Due to combat losses, Flying Tiger commander Capt. Jim Gordon (John Wayne) needs new pilots, and rounds up a few in Rangoon, including the undisciplined Woody Jason (John Carroll). Woody alienates his fellow fliers and Jim's #1 lieutenant Hap Smith (Paul Kelly) with his selfish attitude. He also cozies up to the squadron's nurse (and Jim's girlfriend) Brooke Elliott (Anna Lee). Not wanting to miss out on a bonus for shooting down an enemy plane, Woody swipes a P-40 with no ammo, and cracks it up. But Jim gives him another chance. Jim also extends a second chance to disgraced flyer Blackie Bales (Edmund MacDonald of Detour), pleasing Blackie's worried wife Verna (Mae Clarke). Other flyers perish and Woody slowly learns what it means to fight with the team instead of for himself. But he's still blamed for the death of one of his fellow airmen. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Jim is ordered to knock out a large bridge and loads a plane with dynamite for what will probably be a suicide mission. But by now Woody is determined to prove that he has the right stuff.
Forget reality -- Flying Tigers is primarily matinee fun material, with a patriotic message and violent thrills. In the absence of information about what the real Volunteer Group might be doing, the writers instead revisit the screenplay for Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings. Jim's base gets bombed every once in a while, but otherwise it's similar to Cary Grant's airmail outpost in the older picture. The subplot about the blackballed pilot who gets a second chance is lifted intact, as is the idea that a vital flyer must be grounded because he can no longer pass the physical. Oddly, the script contradicts its own lessons. Everybody talks about teamwork but we mostly see guys fighting alone. And there's a scary outbreak of 'noble suicides', with pilots either going up to fight when they know they're not in tip-top condition, or volunteering for sure-death jobs to prove that they're Real Men who are Not Afraid To Die. It all now seems very counterproductive. These guys are almost the only American pilots in the world with combat experience against a real enemy. Even if they can no longer fly, one would think they'd be irreplaceable in teaching the next wave of volunteer fliers how not to get shot down on their first mission.
The Flying Tiger airfield is supposed to be somewhere in Burma, so our heroes think nothing of dropping in on Rangoon or the local canteen for some good music and Chinese food (cue joke about Chinese not knowing how to cook Chop Suey). Anna Lee's nurse Elliott always wears a bright white uniform, which is important as otherwise we'd barely know she had medical duties. She and Woody visit and entertain cute Chinese kids (wait a minute, isn't this Burma?) on their off-hours. One clue does come when a place name sounds suspiciously Vietnamese -- are these guys helping Ho Chi Minh too?
I was fortunate to work closely with effects man A.D. Flowers on a movie that used and improved somewhat on Flying Tigers' sensationally effective flying effects. The movie appears to use a functioning P-40 or two along with a couple of additional dummy planes to fill out Jim Gordon's squadron. When they taxi about they look suspiciously light; perhaps the manufacturer sent a bunch of planes to Hollywood that had structural defects, or something of that nature. Then the scene will cut to real P-40s taking off, on a full-on concrete runway in what is obviously the dry-chaparral landscape of Southern California (Burma was having a dry season that year, and a sudden growth of giant eucalyptus trees). Up in the air we get plenty of cruising scenes and cockpit shots with rear projection; the camera cranes and tilts to simulate dives and rolls. I've been in a P-40 airplane and the space is so small that one practically needs help to get out -- those pilots must have been strong to pull themselves up wearing parachutes, etc. I have to believe that the cockpit mockups for the film are grossly oversized, just so John Wayne can fit his shoulders in there ... someone with a build like Frank Sinatra would seem an ideal P-40 pilot. 2
Republic had no way of filming real air-to-air combat, so their ace physical effects experts Howard and Theodore Lydecker flew large airplane models on three wires, one through each wing and one attached to the nose to pull the plane along. Filmed outdoors and sometimes on the top of buildings, the flying setups saw heavy use whenever there was a good cloudy day to provide an interesting backdrop. The planes blur through the shot quite well, sometimes zipping close to the camera. With enough practice they get shots of two planes working together, props spinning and guns firing -- the nose wire could carry an electrical signal, to set off explosions and gun flashes. In a few shots the editors allow a plane to make a less-than aerodynamic move, giving away the illusion, but many shots are all but flawless. The key skill in the system is coordinating with the cameraman to hide the wires. On our film we had smoke and haze, and the Lydeckers must have learned a number of special tricks of their own. The first is obvious -- the bigger the model, the smaller the wire can be proportionally.
Only Howard Lydecker got an Oscar nomination but I'd give equal emphasis to Republic editor Ernest Nims, who somehow organized the disparate shots into exciting flying sequences. Featuring heavily in the fighting sequences are close-ups of flyers being shot. Our heroes gallantly register the pain of a bullet and slump down, perhaps with a little blood showing. In reality, someone shot air-to-air would most likely be thinking, "where did my arm go?" "Or why am I suddenly cut in two?" Meanwhile, the unpleasant-looking Japanese pilots almost unerringly get shot in the head, so they can thrown their hands to their faces while gobs of chocolate syrup blood gush forth. The hostilities of WW2 suddenly relaxed the Production Code "in the interests of morale". The sadistic content of war pictures would soon calm down, but while the outcome of the war remained an open question, audiences were given a gory outlet for their anxieties.
The actors in Flying Tigers are just fine, with John Wayne charismatic and reassuring as a noble warrior with a good heart. John Carroll is okay as the showboat pilot, while Paul Kelly volunteers one of his near-depressive performances as Wayne's quiet best buddy. Among the flyers is Tom Neal, also from Detour. Among the bits, it's nice to see Charles Lane as a good guy instead of an old crab.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Flying Tigers looks fine, although constant reprinting has given it a few more dings and small scratches than less popular Republic titles. The image looks very good, much better than those old 16mm TV prints. Cameraman Jack Marta filmed Raoul Walsh's silent What Price Glory? followed by a zillion westerns and eventually a string of Bert I. Gordon movies before moving into TV work -- it's quite a list of films. Adding a great deal to the film's aura of quality is the music score by the legendary Victor Young, which has no catchy melody but manages to tie things together without a lot of fake "Chinee" music.
Olive offers no extras. The attractive cover art is a big plus, although the propeller spinning on that P-40 looks awfully small... maybe it's just the angle.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flying Tigers Blu-ray rates:
1. The real story of the Flying Tigers would make a great movie. Because she spoke English, Madame Chiang Kai Shek was the liaison between the American Volunteer Group and her Nationalist warlord husband. As with the cargo fliers in the Burma Airlift, the semi-allied Communist Chinese forces could be hostile or friendly, depending on local politics. Land in the wrong place at the wrong time, and one might never be heard from again.
Before he fell sick and died, Steve McQueen was committed to a movie project called Tiger Ten, which never saw the light of day.
2. But that was my first reaction to all the vintage warplanes on 1941. I was 27, and I never before felt claustrophobia until I climbed into a B-25. It's like a cigar sleeve in there! I'm only 5' 9", and I realize that pilots came much bigger than me.
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