Aces High Review

On this, the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, it’s appropriate to salute the men who braved the inferno in order to liberate Europe and reflect on the axiom that war is hell. In this latter respect, showing the horror of war and death, Aces High, an adaptation of R.C.Sherrif’s 1920s West End hit “Journey’s End”, isn’t too bad. Moving the setting of the play from trenches to the Flying Corps in France during 1916, the film depicts aerial dogfights with a close-up intensity that is always riveting. The heady combination of terror and exhilaration is caught so acutely that it would take a damn good film to make what happens on the ground quite as compelling. Unfortunately, this is where Aces High seriously stumbles, becoming a collection of stereotypes in search of a script.

Croft (Firth), a public school boy turned RFC officer, arrives in France to take over as Second Lieutenant of a British detachment. He has deliberately manoeuvred his way into this particular position in order to be with Gresham (McDowell), an old boy from his school who has becoming something of a flying ace. But he isn’t prepared for what he finds – Gresham is an alcoholic cynic whose brilliance in the air is at least partly due to drunken bravado. The other officers don’t inspire a great deal of confidence either. Crawford (Ward) is a terrified coward who has faked illness in order to avoid combat and Sinclair (Plummer) is an avuncular veteran who tries to make the place as much like home as possible. Over the course of a few days, Croft is introduced into various facts of life; sex, drink, horror and the hell of 20th Century warfare.

There’s nothing very original in this storyline but that’s not necessarily a drawback. In the right hands, this kind of material can gain a kind of mythical purity that has its own truth. It’s not hard to imagine Howard Hawks making something memorable out of this. Indeed, given to Allan Dwan or Wild Bill Wellman, it could have been a fascinating quickie, full of pace and the kind of insight into men and violence which that generation of directors effortlessly provided, simply because of the way they saw the world. Sadly, Jack Gold is not in their league. A talented TV director, as demonstrated by the superb The Naked Civil Servant, Gold never quite found his feet in the cinema. His staging of the drama in this film is static and deadly dull, relying on lengthy two-shots and some random intercutting of reaction shots which have all the visual interest of a dead fish. He can’t seem to get any energy going in the scenes on the ground and the frequent (and predictable) confrontations between the actors lack fire or even any conviction. Gold simply plods through the clichés in a tired manner, getting to the inevitably tragic conclusion with a huge bang that comes across as a sigh of relief. Admittedly, he isn’t helped by the screenplay. Howard Barker is a capable playwright, albeit one who was overrated through his association with the British theatre renaissance of the 1970s, but his dialogue here comes across like a series of position papers delivered by characters who have been carefully defined with one particular attribute which is then explored at tedious length – the coward, the cynic, the nice old chap, the eager virgin, the playful fatalist and so on. This is partly a hangover from the original play. R.C.Sheriff’s writing style is more than a little dated but in the theatre, his dramatics can work if delivered with enough acting style. In the cinema, this kind of writing rarely works because the audience can’t get close enough to feel the energy coming off the actors and the debates between characters – lacking any live electricity – fall apart.

A great burden is placed on the shoulders of the cast in this type of film. Since the plotting is predictable and the characters are wafer-thin, the performers have to take the stereotypes and run with them. Some are more successful here than others. The plaudits go to Christopher Plummer – at his best suggesting the depths of sadness beneath the benevolent ageing officer exterior – and, in some brief but amusing cameos, Trevor Howard and Ray Milland. But in the key central roles, Malcolm McDowell and Simon Ward simply don’t cut it. McDowell preens and glowers as if he thought it was still 1968 and he was appearing in If... but he never successfully evokes the inner life of a man who can’t live up to being a hero to the young men who come along to be massacred. As for Simon Ward, he hams it up with some brio but all the tossing about and shivering in the world can’t make him remotely believable. He looks like he’s just come out of his trailer with immaculate hair and a manicure and the idea that he might be a fear-sodden wreck is laughable. As far as I can recall, the only good performance Simon Ward ever gave was in Young Winston and even then he never for one moment convinced you that he might grow up to be the all-conquering Churchill. In the other pivotal role, Peter Firth does his best but barely registers and looks embarrassed for much of the time. It’s not easy to square this uncharismatic youth with the fireball of energy who enlivened Equus a year or so later.

Mired in cliche, the supporting characters have all the reality of an average episode of “Allo Allo”. The officers spend all their time quaffing tea and singing along at the piano while the underlings say things like “You mean you’ve never been to Leeds ?” and tug their forelocks so hard at their betters that you fear one of them might scalp himself. Poor old David Daker is the one you feel for, trapped in the role of good old company dogsbody and given lines like “I’ve managed to wangle a couple of lambchops sir”. At the beginning, you might just catch John Gielgud in a one minute role as a deliciously smug headmaster. More of his presence and immaculate timing would have been very welcome.

But, and this atones for quite a lot, the film is worth watching for the sheer magnificence of the aerial combat scenes. For these clammy and intense vignettes, we can thank Peter Allwork - the aerial photographer who also worked on Corman’s The Red Baron and Superman. He redeems the movie, along with the fine cinematography by Gerry Fisher. But ultimately, this is a series of excellent action sequences looking for some drama to place them in a context where we might actually care about the people in the planes. The current D-Day remembrance eloquently reminds us that it is people who fight wars and not pieces of equipment – however exciting and glamorous they might seem to be - and it’s in this that Aces High seems at its most inadequate.

The Disc

Very little to say about this ultra-basic Warner/Canal Plus region 2 release. It looks like it was knocked up in about five minutes so I don’t think we need to get into too much detail.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. Sadly, this is about the only good thing to say about it. The colours are initially striking but soon become washed out and give the film a strangely remote appearance. There are numerous artefacts on display However, the main problem is the abundance of distracting print damage. To be honest, even if you love the film, you’d be better off with the BBC showing.

The soundtrack is mono spread over the two front channels. Quite acceptable and the dialogue is very clear.

There are no extras of any kind. The film is divided into 20 chapter stops. No subtitles are provided.

Aces High is an unsatisfying film bolstered up by the incredible aerial scenes. It’s worth a look for these alone but is otherwise indistinguishable from hundreds of other anti-war epics. The DVD is pretty poor stuff and best avoided.

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