Flying Tigers (1942) is an impressive, still exciting example of early wartime propaganda. John Wayne, in his first war movie, stars as the leader of a squadron of mercenary pilots fighting the Japanese in the days before (and, late in the film, after) the attack on Pearl Harbor in a picture brimming with war movie clichés. But they weren't all clichés back then, and the film expertly edits together a mixture of miniature special effects (by Howard and Theodore Lydecker), seized Japanese newsreel footage (apparently), footage of real Flying Tigers aircraft, and full-size mock-ups. Although only barely based on the real, stationed-in-China 1st American Volunteer Group, the film was powerful and popular entertainment at the time and impressively avoids the kind of obvious flag-waving and negative racial stereotypes soon to become commonplace in wartime movies about the Japanese menace.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of this Republic Picture production, now owned by Paramount, is generally impressive. There are some negative scratches and other damage probably owing to its great popularity at the time and possible over-printing. But mostly it's a clean, crisp presentation that looks very good even on big screens.
The Japanese invasion of mainland China well underway, Jim Gordon (Wayne) leads the Flying Tigers unit, flying Curtiss P-40 fighters (with their signature shark teeth noses) against Japanese fighters and bombers decimating innocent Chinese villages. In the opening scenes, filmed on the Republic backlot, one such bombing raid destroys a children's hospital, with specific shots copied after famous Life magazine photographs of the bombing of Shanghai.
Unlike the real Flying Tigers, whose pilots were recruited from the U.S. military with the full knowledge of the White House, and who trained but didn't actually engage the enemy until after Pearl Harbor, in the movie the unit is portrayed as a unit of unsanctioned mercenaries flying combat missions before America's entry into the war, and initially motivated by the financial rewards and/or glory. Of course, once the men interact with the orphaned Chinese children in Nurse Brooke Elliott's (Anna Lee) hospital, their aims are transformed into pure selflessness, even with an awareness that, probably, they'll all likely eventually be shot down.
The movie's plot hinges on a theme common to many wartime Hollywood films, the hotshot pilot/soldier who stubbornly refuses to become a team player for the greater good. He shows off, takes unnecessary changes, and refuses to follow orders until, inevitably, some innocent sap dies needlessly. This finally converts the colorful heel to the great cause, and his penance is to slip off in some bravura act of self-sacrifice.
In this case the character is Jim's old pal, Woody Jason (John Carroll), a commercial pilot who signs up looking to get rich and have some fun. The middle part of the film is like the later The Blue Max (1966), with Woody becoming a pariah within the unit, his comrades disgusted by behavior real and imagined. Only Jim will stand by his friend and even he's sorely tested. Physically similar to Preston Foster, Carroll worked steadily, in films including the Marx Bros.' Go West, Abbott & Costello's Rio Rita (1942), and Howard Hawks's similar Only Angels Have Wings (1939), but he never really clicked with the public. His slight Cajun (?) accent (he was born Julian Lafaye, in New Orleans) may have been a hindrance. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz adds, "Despite Wayne's top billing - and in much larger letters, no less - you should mention that he's really playing Pat O'Brien to Carroll's Cagney. Carroll has the flashy role, and he really does make the picture his. He didn't go on to be a major star, but I've always found Carroll to be likable, here especially.")
The others in Jim's unit are stock military types: Paul Kelly as the pilot determined to fly even after being grounded for health reasons, Gordon Jones as the dumb best friend, Tom Neal as the pilot with a chip on his shoulder, Jimmy Dodd as the red-haired hick, etc.
Wayne's is another stock character, the grim-faced leader trying to hold it all together, but who lets off steam away from his men and in the arms of his girl (Lee, whose affections Woody also seeks). Wayne himself actively avoided military service (to mentor John Ford's great annoyance) while Carroll in fact became a pilot in the Army Air Corps soon after this, earning a Purple Heart after breaking his back in a crash.
The most memorable thing about Flying Tigers, predictably, are its combat scenes. Those planes seen on the ground were mockups, probably only two of which could even taxi (never more than that are seen in motion with the actors). Footage of real P-40Es, aircraft repainted for use in the film, is mostly limited to when the planes are taking off and, occasionally, landing. But the majority of the shots of the planes in flight are actually detailed models gliding along wires, filmed outdoors against real clouds. Except for a few close-ups, the model work seamlessly matches the real aircraft, so much so that in a few individual shots I wasn't entirely certain what I was looking at. Perhaps for this reason the picture was nominated but lost in the Special Effects category. The effects were just a little too good.
Also integrated into the combat footage is what seems to be Japanese-made newsreel or documentary-propaganda footage. Japanese companies produced such propaganda films for exhibition in Japan and China during the late-1930s especially, some of which may have been shown in Japanese-American theaters in Hawaii and along the west coast, though its exact origins is speculative. Interestingly though, some of the supposedly Japanese troops shooting at Wayne & Co. is actually footage of Chinese soldiers. And in some of the combat footage the same Japanese pilots are shown being killed more than once. Also amusingly, throughout the film and featured in the prologue are posters and quotes from the heroic "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-Shek.
Surprisingly, the Japanese pilots are not depicted as bloodthirsty half-human monsters but simply as "the enemy," despite many such films of the period that worked overtime (and without much scientific basis) to distinguish "good" Chinese and Filipino Asians from the "evil" Japanese. Conversely, the film for its time is extraordinarily bloody, with numerous enemy pilots shot in the face, eyes, and neck, always gurgling up large quantities of blood. At first I thought this unusual graphicness would be limited to the Japanese pilots, but in an early scene a young American pilot expires immediately after landing. Wayne's Jim peers inside only to find the instrument panel awash in blood.
Flying Tigers was, atypically, a big-budget, A-level feature for B-studio Republic, costing just under $400,000. At 102 minutes it was destined for the top of the bill, though it's not clear whether this was sold as a package with another Republic title or a something else. In any case the picture grossed in excess of $4 million, making it extraordinarily successful, one of the studio's all-time biggest hits.
Video & Audio
The black-and-white, 1.37:1 video transfer of Flying Tigers shows some wear, including deep negative scratches in a few places, but mostly is sharp and bright. (Yet the miniature effects still hold up.) The mono audio, with no accompanying English or other subtitles, is also fine. No Extra Features.
Wartime propaganda at its best, Flying Tigers is Highly Recommend.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.