Air Force Review

We’re gonna play ‘em the Star Spangled Banner with two tonne bombs!

Air Force begins on December 6th 1941, the day before one of the most momentous moments of the Second World War. A Flying Fortress named Mary Ann is assigned to a routine flight from San Francisco to Honolulu but the crew soon find themselves involved in a Pacific war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Under the constant threat of attack, Mary Ann makes its way to Manilla and from there to the Coral Sea and Australia.

To modern viewers, the relentless jingoism and macho rhetoric of Air Force might seem a bit much but, as with most American films produced during the war, it’s vital to place it in context. It’s essentially a propaganda film which was made at a time when Allied victory was far from certain. American losses had to be made comprehensible to a potentially critical public and making a simplified version of the first few weeks of the war was an obvious way to do it. The blame for the Pearl Harbour disaster and subsequent massive losses is blamed squarely on ‘the Japs’ and any suggestion of America being asleep at the wheel is completely ignored. The enemy is depicted as evil – sneaks, saboteurs, insanely aggressive monsters – and this racism serves the important purpose of explaining why America had to fight and why fighting continued to be necessary. No-one should make the mistake of taking Air Force as a serious historical document. The portrayal of the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbour is largely fantasy, and the crazy climax, when American air power comes down on the aggressors with approximately the same force as the word of God at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, defies belief. But again, remember the time it was made and the reason. Trying to place a 21st Century Liberal interpretation on a tough, exciting World War Two propaganda movie is ludicrous. Victory had to be made to seem not only possible but certain. Air Force does the job brilliantly.

One suspects that Howard Hawks, a very intelligent man, knew the ridiculousness of what he was doing but also knew how important it was. Like John Ford, he threw himself into the war with gusto but, having already done distinguished service for his country in World War One, made his contributions through three patriotic classics - Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not and Air Force. In typical Hawks style, Air Force centres around a disparate group of men, all of them flawed yet essentially good, who come together to fight for a common cause. Many of them would, in other circumstances , prefer to be individuals but the power of the call to arms is so strong that they cannot resist. ‘Irish’ Quincannon (Ridgely) is the pilot, worried about his wife and son, while his co-pilot Bill Williams (Young) is a calm, measured professional. The other members of the crew have their own problems and resentments – McMartin (Kennedy), Hauser (Drake) and Winocki (Garfield), the gunner, are failed pilots while passenger Rader (Brown) is a fighter pilot prejudiced against bombers. Chief Crewman White (Carey) is an antique from the First World War whose mind is on the fate of his son and Weinberg is a loud-mouthed New York taxi driver. Yet all these men manage to submerge their own concerns in order to pull together, especially after they encounter some particularly nasty – and historically unlikely – Japanese sabotage.

Two elements are noticeably lacking in this Hawks movie however. Firstly, we lack the strong female presence that we might expect from Hawks. That’s understandable considering the subject matter but it would have been pleasing if the character of Quincannon’s wife had been sufficiently developed. Secondly, there is no strong leading man, certainly no-one to take the place of Gary Cooper or Cary Grant. This, for me, leaves the film without the strong centre of identification that we get from Hawks’ great male-bonding movies like Only Angels Have Wings. I’m not suggesting that the cast is inadequate, I hasten to add. Indeed, John Garfield is quite brilliant as Joe Winocki, an awkward bastard who becomes an unlikely hero and there are lovely bits from Harry Carey, Gig Young and the underrated John Ridgely whose career never quite got going and eventually drifted into B-movies and TV. But a strong central presence would have helped ground the film in reality, particularly during the climactic heroics.

But Hawks makes the film a technical marvel and is brilliant at picking out little details – the most memorable being the way that Roosevelt’s declaration of war is accompanied by the little swinging figure of the toy airman donated by Quincannon’s son. He’s more comfortable with these small moments than with the more obvious sentimentality shoehorned into the film by screenwriter Dudley Nichols. The whole subplot of the dog, Tripoli comes over as self-consciously cute comic relief and the sequences where the Sarge, played by the wonderful Harry Carey, is worrying about the fate of his son are grindingly predictable, and probably seemed so in 1943 – we find out his boy is at Clark Field on at least five occasions. There are also a number of hospital scenes which are glided over by Hawks in a bored manner which suggests he’s not remotely interested in them and would rather get back to the B-17. The special effects, on the other hand, are spectacularly good; a combination of newsreel, miniatures and trick photography which still looks remarkably good. The use of a real B-17 is the masterstroke and it’s photographed like the star it is. Indeed, one could say that the plane takes the place of the missing leading man. The camera loves it and James Wong Howe shoots it with all the care that William Daniels used to give to Garbo. The editing, which won an Academy Award, is a triumph for George Amy, one of those Warner Brothers professionals who supplied note-perfect cutting for films ranging from The Letter and Gold Diggers of 1935 and other war epics like Raoul Walsh’s brilliant Objective Burma!. Meanwhile, Franz Waxman’s rich score supplies just the right symphonic note of patriotic vigour.

To some, the ending of Air Force leaves an unsavoury aftertaste. The enthusiastic slaughter of the Japanese seems so designed to wind up audiences into a frenzy that it’s easy to begin shifting around uncomfortably. But against this, one has to place the strong measure of clear-minded realism, almost against everything else in the film. War is seen shown, perhaps inadvertently, as vicious and brutal, death is random, fate is cruel. Our knowledge that the B-17 used in the film was later shot down over the Pacific, resulting in the deaths of the crew, adds to this sense that even the most enthusiastic war movie is serving a double purpose. One might also say that if you’re going to have insanely patriotic propaganda movies, we might as well have ones which are as well made as this one is.

The Disc

Released as part of Warners’ World War Two Volume Two collection, Air Force looks and sounds very nice indeed. The pleasing transfer is enhanced considerably by some excellent extra features.

Considering the age of the film, the 1.37:1 transfer is extremely good. There’s plenty of detail throughout, doing good service to James Wong Howe’s crisp cinematography and his use of shadows. It’s certainly grainy but not to a distracting degree and the levels of sharpness and contrast are just right. I didn’t notice any problems with artifacting. The transfer occasionally looks a little dark but that may be characteristic of the original film. The mono soundtrack is exemplary throughout.

A number of good extras are provided. First up is a Technicolor short called Women At War, directed by Jean Negulesco who later made a successful career at Fox. Despite a patronising narration, it’s a surprisingly clear-eyed view of the position of women during the war when they became WACs. The colour transfer is eye-poppingly crisp, despite a small amount of print damage. We also get a colour Merrie Melodies cartoon called Fifth Column Mouse which is quite inventive and Scrap Happy Daffy a quite brilliant monochrome Looney Tune directed by Frank Tashlin. Daffy is on fine form and there are memorable cameo appearances from Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini.

The Lux Radio Theatre broadcast is, typically, a nostalgic pleasure. Originally broadcast on the second anniversary of Pearl Harbour, it stars Harry Carey and George Raft – the latter hardly an acceptable substitute for John Garfield – and is interrupted by hilarious commercials for Lux Flakes. Finally, the theatrical trailer is present and correct and in fairly good condition.

What does puzzle me a little is Warners’ decision to dispense with a scene selection menu. Not an absolutely vital element of a disc but one which I’m so used to seeing that being without it is like losing an old friend. There are, however, English subtitles provided for the main feature, if not the extras.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
9 out of 10
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out of 10

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