Friday, April 22, 2016

Air Force (1943)

Director: Howard Hawks


Soon after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1041 there were those in Hollywood that believed it their duty to produce spirit lifting motion pictures with heavy pro-American military themes. A number of those films came reasonable profits for a nation desperate for uplifting pictures about their young men going to war. Air Force would be one of these features that not only served that need of politically incorrect, pro-American stories that also brought in below average box office numbers, yet high praise.

Air Force is a war drama following the crew of a bomber that unexpectedly arrives into Pearl Harbor the morning of the Japanese attacks and is immediately thrusted into war in the Pacific. The crew of the bomber, “Mary-Ann,” takes off from California on December 6th, 1941 for Hawaii only to discover the devastation of the surprise attack on the US naval base upon arriving the next morning. Immediately and unexpectedly they are thrusted into duty to aid in defense of the Pacific from the Empire of Japan. With a collection of various men from different walks of life, the crew of the Mary-Ann come together in duty to fight for their nation as they hold their bomber together through many attacks and air battles. Along their journey the crew alter their prized ship to add firepower aiding themselves to win one of the first battles against the Japanese in retaliation of the attacks. During celebration of the victory the Mary-Anne along with others defending the Philippians from the enemy are given the word on their first mission to bomb Tokyo as the expectant men proudly ready for the task. The film ends with a message to audiences of the ongoing fight to save freedom  with images of proud bombers in flight as victory was the task still ahead for the audiences of the time.

The feature delivers various reactions depending of the context in which the picture was viewed. When initially released it was serious drama with uplifting morals of duty and brotherhood to serve all out during the war. Viewing retrospectively the feature can be viewed as a propaganda motion picture complete with political incorrectness that demonized the Japanese and gave a false sense of what war was like. From a motion picture production standpoint the film drags slowly while also delivering moments of absolute brilliance in the design of aerial battles, special effect, and editing. Touching base on all of these views will give us a better understanding and appreciation for the film as a whole for this rather popular film in 1943 that motivated filmmakers for years to come.

Inspired by actual events where a squadron of B-17 bombers leaving California on the night of December 6, 1941 only to arrive the next morning into Pearl Harbor where war had literally just broken out, Warner Bros. producers were looking to have Air Force completed in time for the first anniversary of the devastating attacks. With less than a year to hit their target date effects shots with miniatures and various aerial stunt performances were being made before a full script was even completed. Howard Hawks, best known for bringing to the screen some the best screwball comedies as well and dramas from the recent years at Warner Bros. would put great care into the picture adding to the ballooning budget and extending of the production schedule.  Shots of stunt flyers performing as Japanese fighters were carefully shot in Texas and Florida as the thought of West Coast civilians spotting their Japanese marked crafts in the air was believed enough to cause panic. In the end the film would miss it target date by about two months as it  premiered in February 1943.

As most of the nation’s young men were being called to duty in the actual war and the bigger, more established movie stars were seen appearing a major war bond rallies and other pubic appearances, the cast of Air Force featured a assemblage of average actors that do admirable work for ensemble picture. For much of the picture we are led by John Ridgely who portrays Captain “Irish” Quincannon, the ever dutiful and caring youthful leader of the crew. Along the plane’s adventures we share in the various other crewmen’s lives as they serve bravely aboard the Mary-Ann. Bringing in the most motion picture experience and legitimacy to this rather young cast was veteran actor Harry Carey who portrays the crew chief on the Mary-Anne who has a great heart while experiencing great loss with news that his son was killed in a Japanese ambush. Presented in supporting characters would be lesser knowns Gig Young and Arthur Kennedy. Kennedy surprisingly enough would actually go on to serve in the real US Army Air Force, but primarily working on training films.
A real B-17 is used as the primary prop for the film.

Featured as the character with probably the most dimensionality was John Garfield as Joe Winocki, a brooding gunner who failed as an aviation cadet. His journey as a crewman with no drive to stay in the Army becomes a point of contention among the crewmen until the attacks and duty becomes his priority. At age 29 Garfield had already experienced his ups and down in Hollywood as youthful, rebellious characters. In a case which paralleled his character Garfield failed to meet the requirements to join the USAAF due to a heart condition which added to his drive in this picture to make a difference and serve his nation. Individually each actor does not give any worthwhile performances, but they work well as a unit to comprise a crew with that eventually come together and fight as one.

As stated before, the film moves rather slowly, especially in the very beginning as the crew simply commences to deliver the Mary-Ann to its next base. As the introductions meander along we learn of the date, December 6, 1941 and the audiences knows what is coming. We experience the tragic attacks on Pearl Harbor along with the crew as radio transmissions go silent and chatter of Japanese begin to be heard on radios. The sudden entry into the Second World War was presented in a way that would have rocked audiences back to the day when they heard of Pearl Harbor.

Action builds later on in the film as the ship becomes tangles in an aerial battle and the gunners must fight off the Japanese fighters. The style of action shots and editing for these scenes would later inspire the likes of a great many filmmakers as it brought viewers into the plane with the crew during the struggle allowing you to see both men and the enemies in the very same shots versus jump cutting between stock airplane footage and poor mixed actors’ reactions. The rear screen projection allows for the actors to perform more realistically and deliver properly timed reactions to keep the energy up.

The film crew and actors would be given a handful of days to actually use a real bomber to film the picture in and around to add to the authenticity of the feature, adding to the authenticity of the motion picture.  However the style of B-17 aircrafts used in the feature would be decommissioned in the early stages of the war. The real life Mary-Ann after production would eventually disappear from Army records, presumed lost in the Pacific, although some believe it traveled on tour to promote the movie and war bond efforts. In either case the Mary-Ann would have been stripped for scrape metal not long after production due to the war effort.

The picture, although inspired by actual events, would be an entirely inaccurate work of fiction to give the appearance Americans were gaining the upper hand in the war rather early. Nothing could be further from the truth as American forces struggled mightily in the Pacific theater from the onset of war, and great numbers were lost in the USAAF due to the overpowering Japanese forces. This is why the picture to many is perceived as propaganda in retrospect as it warpped the minds of audiences and bended the truth to make Americans look like the ultimate group of heroes. At the same time Japanese were demonized in this picture as unseen Japanese-Americans even fire upon crew the Mary-Anne. This type of racism would further the cause to promote the view that even Americans citizens of Japanese descent are looked on as a national threat, possibly to justify the Japanese internment camps that were set up in the United States during the war..

The crew listen to the bombing of Pearl Harbor as it takes place.
The morale boosting nature of the picture would help bring Air Force strong critical acclaim as well as lifted the spirits of many easily impressionable audiences. However the picture would not do well enough to make back the $3,000,000 price tag it took to produce. Furthermore it added to the fear within the minds of white Americans for peoples of Asian descent, leading to more undeserved hatred for people that may have been natural born citizens. The superior air battle sequences did help land the feature four Academy Award nominations while winning one for Best Editing.

Looking back on Air Force the picture does come off as a propaganda film, but that was not necceassarly the intention of the feature. With an exciting story filled with drama this wartime picture captures the devastation of Pearl Harbor if only for a moment before it turns to the up-with-America tale that sugarcoats life in the very dangerous world as a bomber crewman. The film remains a reminder of how war took the nation by surprise and captures the sense for many the call to action further emphasized with recordings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt speeches on a couple of occasions. Today this feature serves as a time capsule of the past that we can look back on for both the good and the bad, as well for its contributions to motion pictures in style when it comes to aerial action scene construction.

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