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According to history, WW1 pilot William A. Wellman made his entrée into early Hollywood by landing his tiny biplane on the lawn of Mary Pickford's Beverly Hills house during one of her fabled parties, jumping out in full flight regalia. He made a lasting impression on every guest, especially the women. Wellman's best-known silent movie Wings was a WW1 aviation story with glamorous stars and exciting, realistic aerial action. It became the very first Academy Award winner for Best Picture.
Forty years and upwards of 60 films later, "Wild Bill" Wellman returned to the same subject matter for his final feature as director and producer. Lafayette Escadrille is said to be the story of a friend Wellman knew while flying in Europe. Wellman made more than his share of great pictures (The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Wild Boys of the Road, A Star is Born, Nothing Sacred, Beau Geste, Roxie Hart, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground, The High and the Mighty) and even his oddball titles tend to be fascinating: Safe in Hell, Heroes for Sale, Track of the Cat, The Next Voice You Hear... The 1958 Lafayette Escadrille has the earmarks of a personal production that went astray, probably because Wellman could not interest the power brokers and big stars angling for more modern subject matter. Wellman wanted Paul Newman to star but was no longer a top name attracting top stars. Warners ended up assigning teen idol / heartthrob Tab Hunter to the director's very personal production. From the look of the final film, Bill Wellman had to make do with a lean budget as well. The show's main interest now is its supporting cast, several of whom became stars or well-known Hollywood names.
For whatever reason, Wellman's authentic memories do not improve on older WW1 aviation pictures. The "Dawn Patrol" clichés are absent but in their place is an even more generic love story. The picture is fairly realistic about the kind of young Americans that went to France to fly in combat before America came into the war. Teenaged car thief Thad Walker (Tab Hunter) runs away from his well-to-to family. On the boat to France he meets other young adventure seekers: Duke Sinclair (David Janssen), Dave Putnam (Will Hutchins), George Moseley (Clint Eastwood), Frank Baylies (Brett Halsey), Arthur Blumenthal (Tom Laughlin), and William Wellman (William Wellman Jr.). The boys get used to the French barracks, but Thad immediately finds beautiful Renée Beaulieu (Etchika Choreau) in Paris and spends ten days with her. A thin-skinned hothead, Thad eventually strikes an officer and must hide out in Renée's garret. While his friends learn to fly Thad must take a job for a brothel Madam (Viola Vonn). Just the same, earning enough money to escape the gendarmes seems impossible. Can Thad find a way back into the flying corps?
As scripted by A.S. Fleischman (Peckinpah's The Deadly Companions), Lafayette Escadrille never quite decides what kind of movie it is. The recruits are set up as serious aviators but the only flight training we see is in "penguin planes", wingless craft for on-the-ground taxi practice steering with a stick and rudder. Too much unfunny service humor comes in, when the squad purposely confounds their French drill instructor (Marcel Dalio). For a story by a man "who was there", there is a lack of realistic detail. The officers rattle away in French and the Americans and Canadians pretend to understand them. We learn only that the combatants will not have to forego their American citizenship. They are not mercenaries or legionnaires, but what are they exactly? It's assumed that Thad will draw a harsh penalty for decking the drill instructor. This is during a war in which millions of French and English soldiers are losing their lives. Military justice was said to be harsh and swift. Or was there an entirely different rulebook for aviators?
The script cannot accommodate all the interesting faces, so eager talents like Eastwood and Laughlin have little to do and even William Wellman Jr. seems unsure why he's in the movie. David Janssen gets most of the good dialogue. They're all just "background". Director Wellman puts the romantic story up front, and both Tab Hunter and Etchika Choreau come off quite well in their roles. Tab's Thad even gets a nasty scar on his face, which seems to partially heal almost overnight. Thad and Renée live together after an unofficial wedding ceremony for two. Although heartfelt, the lovers and their situation still seem overly familiar, even with the updated sex angle.
Renée is first seen picking up soldiers in a bar, yet in the odd world of American movies is not assumed to be a prostitute. She is shocked when Thad hires on with The Madam, even though the woman has the clout to protect him from the law. From the way the scenes play out we can only assume that Thad is prostituting himself. Then we find that he's working as a tout, merely steering bar patrons to The Madam's establishment. Big deal! A bit of censorship confusion arises when Thad escorts an American General (Paul Fix) back to the brothel. He appeals to the General for a second chance at flying, now that America is in the war. Watching Lafayette Escadrille, I was certain that the U.S. Army's watchdogs would never allow an officer in an American studio film to be shown entering a brothel. Sure enough, the General changes his mind at the last minute. But Wellman certainly shows him headed in that direction. According to the director's biographers, the "real" general was supposed to be Pershing himself.
Lafayette Escadrille doesn't follow through on its interesting opening, which characterizes Wellman's footloose Yankee kids as fugitives from trouble, like his Depression-era Wild Boys of the Road. As the camera cruises down rows of barrack cots the narrator tells us that most of the young flyers-to-be will soon die in combat, one of them on his first mission. This fatalism is not borne out in the movie, where the one dogfight (it seems to be excellent quality stock footage from decades before) simply shows Thad nailing a German flyer. The movie just isn't about aerial combat.
The film's best scene is purely visual. Thad flies along by himself, unaware that he's been spotted by an enemy. The German plane lines up for the kill, only to discover that his guns will not fire. Furious, the enemy flyer is forced to slink away. Thad Walker never sees the German, and never realizes that he was in danger. Nowhere else in the picture does anything so surprising occur. The scene is a little poem about absolutely stupid good luck.
Probably due to the low budget, the movie suffers from dull lighting. Dank bars and tiny rooms are fully lit at all times, as in a TV show. This makes the small sets look exactly like what they are, robbing the movie of any potential Parisian atmosphere. It pales in comparison to Douglas Sirk's lavish color WW1 drama A Time to Love and a Time To Die, made the same year over at Universal.
William Wellman's original ending resulted in tragedy for both Thad Walker and his Parisian bride. Warners rejected that finish and re-shot a happier one. The Hollywood veteran Wellman considered such treatment a personal affront by production head Jack Warner. The director bitterly resented the studio's meddling, and vowed never to make a movie again.
William Wellman Jr. acquits himself well enough, and sharp-eyed fans will also immediately notice Jody McCrea, the likeable son of star Joel McCrea, before he got strait-jacketed into Beach Party movies. Andy Devine's son Denny is also present, but I did not catch a reported brief walk-on by the new Warners star James Garner.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Lafayette Escadrille is a Remastered Edition that looks a million times better than old TV prints. Matted properly to 1:85, the interiors seem better composed and the action scenes are far more exciting. The image is all but perfect. The score by Leonard Rosenman also gets positive mentions among film music fans.
For this final feature, director William Wellman himself performs narration duties. He's got a really good voice. It's easy to imagine the dashing Wild Bill cutting a wide swath through the Hollywood starlets of the 1920s. I suppose some overachieving playboys get all the girls as a civic duty, so the rest of us drones won't have to.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lafayette Escadrille rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.