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One of the 'premieres' of 2013's 3-D Expo at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater was Dragonfly Squadron, a 1954 Allied Artists war film. The reason it could be called a premiere is because although the film was filmed and finished in 3-D, it was only released in a flat version. Bringing it to home video an even sixty years later has just been done by the 3-D Film Archive. More information on that below.
Dragonfly Squadron is a decent lower-key war drama with good performances, that adheres closely to the Cold War movie playbook. Screenwriter-producer John C. Champion started by making westerns with Blake Edwards and director Lesley Selander. He later produced the TV series Laramie and couple of cheap UK war movies for the Mirisch Corporation. He's probably most noted as the producer and co-writer of the air disaster thriller Zero Hour! which later became the basis for the breakout comedy Airplane! Knowing that connection, one scene in Dragonfly Squadron takes on a new complexion: the aviator hero sadly explains why he was blamed for the death of a buddy in a WW2 flying mission. But the dead guy's name wasn't George Zip.
It's Korea in 1950, a couple of days before hostilities break out. The U.S. Air Force is already on the job. Major Matt Brady (John Hodiak) is rushed to a forward air base -- just some shacks in a desert-like area -- to whip a newly formed squadron of South Korean pilots into shape. They're flying P-51 Mustangs, still the top propeller driven fighters. Matt is given support by his number two, the womanizing Capt. MacIntyre (Gerald Mohr). He finds that his Korean airmen led by Captain Liehtse (Benson Fong) are brave and capable. Matt regrets that he can't transfer out Capt. Taylor (John Lupton), even though the airman's wife Anne (Pamela Duncan of Attack of the Crab Monsters) is pregnant. Not only that, the sullen Capt. Vedders (Harry Lauter) takes every opportunity to bad-mouth Brady, while the sleazy journalist Dixon (Jess Barker) tries to blackmail army secrets from Matt by threatening to blab about his supposedly questionable past. The brass has full faith in Brady, but not Army doctor Stephen Cottrell (Bruce Bennett), who was thought dead while serving in Vietnam (!!). While he was presumed dead, Stephen's beautiful wife Donna (Barbara Britton) fell in love with Matt. Now they're all together in enemy country just as war is ready to break out.
Dragonfly Squadron's advertising promise is more than a little misleading, as most of the training we see occurs on the ground, and as soon as the fighting breaks out, Matt Brady's South Korean planes and pilots leave to fight on another front. The bulk of the action concerns Brady's attempts to evacuate his personnel to safety -- a problem complicated by the presence of a Red spy in their midst.
Most of the character details are believable except for the presence of military dependents on what is a forward battle station. The idea that a Captain's pregnant wife would be with him in an unsecured zone in Korea doesn't add up, and neither does the presence of the doctor's wife, Donna. The Doc identifies himself as Army but also seems to be independent of Brady's orders. To the credit of the writing and the actors, the relationships are halfway believable. Donna doesn't flaunt her preference for the C.O. in front of the neighbors. The depiction of the pregnant Anne Taylor is very reasonable. When told that she and her husband are not going to be sent back to Tokyo, Anne stifles her grave disappointment.
Allied Artists was no longer a Poverty Row outfit in 1953 but Dragonfly Squadron is still a Monogram Picture in some respects. Lesley Selander is no cinema artist and the actors seem to be trying hard to make the show hang together. The always-likeable John Hodiak is a fine leading man for this kind of show. His Matt Brady shows strength of character when wrongly accused, and neither does he make a big deal out of his eventual exoneration. Barbara Britton does well with the completely undeveloped love story; her character is given little opportunity to look glamorous. She may have gotten the job because she'd starred in Arch Oboler's breakout 3-D feature Bwana Devil. Third-billed Bruce Bennett never gets a chance to decide if he still trusts his wife or not. The often hammy Gerald Mohr is restrained and effective as Brady's best buddy, while Chuck Connors provides the picture's best tough talk, as an Army officer leading the remnants of a defeated battalion.
There seems to have been an effort around this time to make character Adam Williams a star. His featured role here is as the Major's aide who leads a convoy to evacuate the base staff, including a nervous Donna Cottrell. Williams' character starts speaking about things back home, and his future ambitions --- which in war movie terms is a certain death sentence. It's the most consistent cliché in war movies, and screenwriter Champion plays it straight.
Don't look for alternative viewpoints in the film's politics. As far as the script is concerned, the Russians are behind North Korea's aggression. "Uncle Joe" is mentioned and much of the Reds' fighting hardware is from you-know-where. Our free press might as well be working for the other side. Reporter Dixon says he wants to "let the people know what's happening", but in truth has an unreasonable 'personal' grudge against the Army. The Good Doctor Cottrell lost his ability to perform surgery when the nasty Viet Commies pulled out all his fingernails, a detail which begs the question of what he was doing in Indochina in the late '40s. It's hinted that he may have been a missionary volunteer -- he was called the "Bible Doctor", but that idea isn't developed. We see the enemy only in a couple of cutaways to the pilots of planes bombing Brady's airfield.
One scene communicates the idea that Commie-fighting requires a new brutality. Brady gives permission to Chuck Connors' soldier to let the "good" Koreans execute a North Korean spy, a middle-aged woman. A disturbing lesson of '50s movies about wars in Asia is the admonition that we "civilized" Americans need to stop being so fussy about the wholesale killing of civilians. It can be presented for their own political good (One Minute to Zero) or even just strategic expediency (The Mountain Road). 1
The movie's action sequences are all ground-based; the only aerial action is seen in stock shots that use images from WW2. Russian planes are 'played' by random footage of American aircraft. Six P-51s do look good on the ground, but we never see more than one or two taxiing. The biggest action scene takes place when Major Brady has his crew lift the tail of his parked plane so he can fire a rocket at a ground target. Dragonfly Squadron is a good drama about a fighting command, but it's not really a combat epic. I can add that it's much more interesting than the other 3-D Korea-combat film from the same era, Cease Fire! Instead of nervously waiting for the war to start, its soldiers sit around waiting in tents for it to end. 2
Olive Films' 3-D Blu-ray of Dragonfly Squadron is a solid B&W transfer of this one-of-a-kind 3-D oddity from the tail end of the original 1950s 3-D craze. Although Olive is the distributor, the 3-D work for the disc was done by the experts at the 3-D Film Archive. They've performed the same function uncredited on earlier disc releases, and appear to have the process nailed down. It isn't just a matter of running the left & right eye negatives of a feature through a scanner. The informed use of the digital tools allows the Archive experts to individually finesse the alignment of every shot -- something that can't be done for 35mm projection. Bob Furmanek has written a separate article about the work done on Dragonfly Squadron, Preserving a Lost 3-D Film.
Technically, the Archive's 3-D is the equal of that provided by the big studios. As filmed, the show doesn't push the Z Axis in most scenes and instead allows action to play out in depth behind the plane of the screen. Some missiles firing and the barrel of a tank's cannon are notable exceptions. The older stock shots here and there are of course flat. With the exception of a few light scratches the film source is in fine shape; it even has an "Intermission" card. Any bits of dirt seem to float in space, creating an unusual effect. The setup has been finessed to make the 3-D look as natural as possible, but not change the "stereo window" or level of depth in any way.. The show is also playable as a flat Blu-ray, if you're not yet 3-D enabled (like me, and thanks to my friends for letting me 'borrow' their living room).
The mono sound has been nicely cleaned up, and Allied Artists' amusing over-hyped trailer is included as an extra. Now that 3-D is popular again and so many consumers have the playback capability, there's a thirst for the '50s craze titles that the studios have only begun to address. We'd all like to see the studios exploit their 3-D libraries on disc more aggressively.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dragonfly Squadron Blu-ray rates:
1. Dragonfly Squadron's technical advisor was Colonel Dean Hess, who was the focus of a lot of publicity surrounding his efforts to save Korean orphans while commanding a small air base similar to the one in this movie. A "flying minister" ordained at the outset of WW2, Hess was te perfect public relations material for our military overseas: "Look, how can you call us aggressors when we have God flying our fighter missions?" The orphan evacuation project credited to him was promoted as the "Kiddy Car Airlift". Although his central role in the evacuations has been contested, Hess reportedly did donate all the proceeds from his subsequent book Battle Hymn to more Korean mission work. The fact that Hess served as a movie technical advisor smacks of a Pentagon 'public relations' campaign. Colonel Hess may have been completely idealistic, but the facts make him seem more like a Bible-toting version of Kevin Spacey's opportunistic detective / Hollywood 'technical advisor' in L.A.Confidential.
The book was then made into one of the most hateful Cold War movies ever, by the celebrated auteur Douglas Sirk. Played by Rock Hudson, the heaven-inspired Hess suffers a crisis of conscience when he bombs a German orphanage, so he goes all out to save Korean orphans in the next war. The message is that it's all God's plan, that those German orphans had to die so Hess could undergo a Magnificent Obsession- like conversion to holy warrior-savior. Forget about real politics, because the Commies hate God and want to kill children. They're not really people, so no action against them is too harsh.
Dragonfly Squadron has no orphans and doesn't become outrageous like Battle Hymn. But it advocates the same Cold War imperative to throw away the rules when fighting Reds. Nobody talks about these propaganda pictures anymore. If the German Nazis had won the war, one can imagine that their movies might play exactly the same, with different uniforms and language choices.
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