The brash, fearless aviator Jimmy Doolittle (1896-1993) was, by all accounts, a larger-than-life man. Not only was he a key figure in making planes safer and easier to control (becoming the first to pilot a cross-country flight using only on-board instruments), his courage and derring-do helped shaped the outcome of World War II as the capper for a highly decorated military career. Certainly a life as eventful as his would make for an interesting documentary. The Shelter Island DVD release Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story, unfortunately, is not.
Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story is directed and hosted by Gardner Doolittle, a former stuntman and a distant relative of Jimmy's. His film came out of the laudable need to tell all of Jimmy's story, not just his well-known World War II accomplishments. Although the film is very dry, straightforward and severely lacking in craftsmanship, it does convey some of Doolittle's lust for life - chronologically, and in a relatively thorough way (up through the end of WWII, at least).
As Wings of a Warrior demonstrates, Jimmy's exploits mirrored America's we-can-do-anything spirit during the early 20th century. From his rough-and-tumble childhood in Nome, Alaska to his stunt flying and wing-walking in the freewheeling early days of flight, risk-taking was a constant theme in his life. Several near-death experiences get recounted here, including an incident where a solo flight nearly got derailed due to fumes from a leaking container of ethyl gasoline in Doolittle's cockpit. One example of Doolittle's incredible fortitude came when he became the first pilot to navigate the Andes mountain range, a feat he accomplished with two broken legs. The film also goes into great detail on the Doolittle Raid, the morale-building 1942 mission which Jimmy spearheaded as an Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel. As the first comprehensive American attack on Japanese soil, it helped change the outcome of the war and merited Doolittle the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Wings of a Warrior arrives with the best of intentions. Mind you, it hurts to criticize something that was a labor of love made with limited means. In all honesty, however, this is a terribly made, hard-to-sit-through documentary. Its humble, homemade aesthetic feels like the kind of project a history buff would do in his spare time on a home PC to be uploaded to YouTube. While it's obvious that Gardner Doolittle greatly admires his subject and poured a lot of research into this effort, the shoddy results make it difficult to recommend this to anyone but hardcore aviation history buffs. Even by those modest standards, though, it's totally amateur stuff. Gardner Doolittle doesn't put too much feeling into the narration, reading through the text in a straightforward and unengaging manner. His spiel is accompanied with plenty of imagery - some valuable (photos of Doolittle and his family), most random and unnecessary (pixelated, out-of-context stock photos and footage seemingly downloaded off the internet), and, in a few instances, incorrect (a Douglas Fairbanks anecdote is accompanied by photos of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). The images frequently get distorted, flash by with a disorienting haphazardness, and transition into each other using an annoying blur effect. It's also a squandered opportunity on the younger Doolittle's part. Although this was a low-budget endeavor, Doolittle could have cheaply gotten a WWII historian to speak about Jimmy's wartime achievements - or even a friend or relative to share personal memories of the man (since he passed away in 1993, there are likely a lot of people around with firsthand memories of him). No such luck, however.
Shelter Island's DVD edition of Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story comes in a standard issue snap-case. Unlike the film itself, the package and menu design looks very nice and professional.
The digitally photographed 16:9 widescreen image looks decent (if somewhat bright) on the segments with Garner Doolittle. The film uses a lot of terribly degraded and pixelated archive footage and photography, however. It's definitely not a high quality production.
Dismal. Under normal circumstances, a modest production like this would have resulted in a clean and un-showy stereo mix. This disc's mix sports an incredibly narrow dynamic range and the kind of tinny, metallic sound one usually hears in badly compressed mp3 files. Music is mixed in to barely noticeable effect, and no alternate audio or subtitles are provided.
The sole bonus content is a 10-minute Interview with Gardner Doolittle, in which he discusses coming up with idea for the project and other subjects.
Like a flight permanently grounded on the tarmac, the 2013 documentary Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story takes one of the more colorful figures from 20th century America and turns him into a dull, shoddy history lesson. Skip It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.