Sunday, November 6, 2011

Saturday at the Movies

Dad has quite the collection of videos. All the Lonesome Dove Series, 310 to Yuma, John Wayne and Steve Mcqueen, Bridge on the River Kwai, The African Queen, Dirty Dancing???? (Dad, we need to have a Father Daughter chat)

I usually share one he hasn't seen when I visit. This trip I suggested Flyboys.

First the planes. Only someone with absolutely no aviation soul wouldn't be moved, all canva s and wood and held together by spit and a prayer, taxiing out of the early morning fog as the music soars and the eager young men jumping to get up in the air and get themselves killed defending the honor of themselves, of a nation, the reasons for their flights were as varied as their backgrounds.

Just the idea of the Great War, the build-in tragedy and pathos of too many young lives chewed up by the sudden and unexpected new horrors of mechanized warfare -- No one does WWI any more, and I would bet most of my generation doesn't even remember that 9 million people died in this war.

I didn't see the movie when it hit the theaters because many of the reviews were pretty bad. But I knew my Dad would like it if it was available to rent. It took me about half an hour (which is way too long to have a movie about airplanes not have any flying in it) to realize I was going to enjoy it. It was in that moment in the film when the American squadron of the Lafayette Escadrilles took part in their first aerial conflict that I knew I'd love this sometimes silly movie. So what if it's CGI enhanced and half of the aerobatic maneuvers I saw could not be done in a WW1 plane without defying physics or the countenance of wood. All I saw was beautiful planes, soaring and falling and crashing in a blended symphony of wood and fire and courage. In that moment I sat up in my seat and watched. According to the Lafaette Flying Corps Memorial Foundation, 180 American volunteers flew combat missions in French Uniform. Fifty-one pilots were killed in action, six in training accidents and six from illness in the field.

These fresh-faced boys arrive all enthusiastic into the middle of what would be the most horrible war ever without the benefit of our hindsight, and they learn to fly -- become among the first people ever to learn to fly, actually, in those tiny pathetic machines with no instruments -- and learn to live with their own shocked selves as the realities of this new way of waging war hit them in the face, pilots dying in heroic and sometimes stupid ways. Because planes were slow and turned sharply, a dogfight could be contained over a large pasture, just above the treetops. The only modern way to really describe a WWI dogfight is to picture a knife fight in a phone booth.

The characters come from all all over. There'sa former rancher from Texas who lost his farm to the bank, there's the selfish and oh so rich kid sent to Europe by his father to grow up. There's an African American expatriate boxer and the cocksure son of a famed Calvary officer, looking to uphold the family name. There leader is old amonst their ranks 28 years old with more than 20 kills under his belt and the last American left flying. The rest of his squadron are dead, and although he knows the French could use the assistance of this new group of pilots he doesn’t want to waste his time getting to know of them as friends knowing the majority won’t live past their very first combat flight.

Sure, they add in the obligatory romance with a beautiful French local and an ongoing bit about a rogue German of dobuious honor trolling the skies in a big black biplane. But the movie, when all is said and done, it about young men learning to fly, fight and die in a brand new war machine that was not much more than a flyig wicker basket.

It's not Memphis Bell, it's not Saving Private Ryan, and it may not do a single thing we don't see coming, but in the end, this movie somehow movie wrapped itself around my heart, simmering up emotion that was affecting and stayed with me for a long time after I clicked off the TV.

The plot, from a warfare standpoint is simple, the short careers of the world’s first fighter pilots in the skies over France told in a style that brings to mind old fashioned Hollywood.. And I use the phrase “old-fashioned Hollywood” in the very best way, like the feeling you'd get if you'd been surfing across the channels late at night and come across some great old classic black and white film you had never seen and instantly loved..

Sure, from an aviaiton standpoint there were some factual errors in the movie. The Fokker triplane in the film didn't appear until September 1917 which is a few months after the time the film depicted. Likewise, the Bristol Fighter and SE5a weren't available until after the time period depicted in the movie. Also, the paint schemes shown on the triplanes are wrong. The crosses weren't painted on the upper surfaces of the lower wing and the all-red paint scheme was only used on Manfred von Richtofen's (the Red Baron's) plane; however many of the planes in his unit were partly red. Correct German fighter planes for the time frame of the movie would have been the Albatros DI,DII,and DIII, and the Halberstadt DII.

The anti aircraft artillery shown in use by the Germans was not of any type used by any side in the First World War, nor was anti aircraft fire nearly as effective or accurate as shown. Were any of the portrayed shell bursts as close as they appeared in the film, they would have instantly destroyed the aircraft with the combination of the explosive power, fire, and shrapnel.

When Cassidy is in a head-on attack against the black triplane during the Zeppelin battle he is firing both a Lewis, mounted on top of the top wing, and a Vickers machine gun. A real Lewis gun has a drum magazine which rotates as the gun fires and the bullets advance against an internal spiral guide. When Cassidy's Lewis fires the drum is motionless. Little things, but certaily no less than the errors most of us pick out of movies involving firearms.

When the movie finished I was surprised that the sky had grown dark, the movie was well over two hours, yet the time passed like a moment as I was caught up in the grand yarn of adventure and catastrophe, in these men's optimistic dreams settling into shattered certainly.

The life expectancy of these pilots was about 3 weeks. And they knew it going into it yet still embraced the aircraft, hugged the battle in close. I can only imagine the courage that took, courage, that even in the most daring flight adventures I've had, I've never even touched upon.


  1. Another WWI movie worth seeing is based on Pat Barker's outstanding novel Regeneration, and is called Regeneration (in UK) or Behind the Lines (in US). It tells the story of "shell-shocked" soldiers recovering in a Scottish hospital, among them the famous "War Poets" Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Jonathan Pryce gives a magnificent performance as the psychiatrist charged with "curing" the men of shell-shock (which was just another name for PTSD) so they could be sent back to the front lines. Fine performances, a few scenes of gruesome battle, and a wonderful soundtrack by Mychael Danna. I recommend it without reservation.

    Worth searching out is the 1979 version of All Quiet On the Western Front, featuring Richard "John-Boy" Thomas and Ernest Borgnine. It was made for TV, so isn't as gruesome as we have grown to expect here in the 21st century, but it's still worthwhile.

  2. Sounds a little formulaic, but I'll rent it anyway. As long as the explosions to kissy-face ratio is high anyway.


  3. It was nice to watch a movie where the main characters aren't full of tortured doubt regarding the morality of the cause and nation. Loved the effects in it.

  4. I saw the full-length version a while back and enjoyed it enough that I watched it when it was aired on a broadcast network. They totally butchered the story to fit it into the "time allotted". I spent the whole two hours cussing about what they edited out. Therefore I recommend renting. Great movie to suspend disbelief and just enjoy. Brigid's right on the manuevers and the AA fire.

    Brigid - What was the size and resolution of the screen you were viewing? That was a good catch on the Lewis gun.

  5. Can you imagine the props department trying to gather all the stuff needed to make that movie? It must have been tough to find anything looking even close to new, and most of the stuff actually used in the war was probably used up.

  6. I was always amazed... in the days before they synchronized the machine gun and the propellers, that they just put a metal deflector piece on the prop to deflect the bullets that would have torn up those old wood props in an instant... I always wondered.. what ingenious idiot thought this up...

    Hope all is well with your dad...

    Dann in Ohio

  7. Flyboy's is a very good film, I enjoyed it, if my Dad was still with us he'd have liked it as well. I fully agree with Brigid on the plane's and such...a sidebit is most of the plane's were replica's with VW engine's and a belt re-drive for the prop.

  8. Try "The Blue Max" with George Peppard. The German town in the film was actually Ballinasloe Galway, and the picture was filmed in western Ireland because it was the only place in Europe without smokestacks and powerlines, giving the appearance of 1917 Bavaria.

    Also, the Irish Air Force rented out it's entire Pilot Corps, all of whom put in several hundred hours each in the various biplanes.

    I gather it got quite frantic at times, as the boyoes each wanted to be the "hottest stick", and the near mid-air collisions in the dogfights were constant and hair-raising.

    Also, the beautifully filmed "High Road To China". Gypsy Moths over the Himalayas, pilots who really know their stuff, Lewis guns all over the place, and an elegant chandelle as the credits close. What's not to like?

  9. Deadliest tailgunner of all -

    Artist view of same tailguner -

    PS, so much for the myth that guns were first used sometime after the start of WWI -

  10. I still haven't see that one... Guess I'll have to add it to the list.

  11. A copy of "Dirty Dancing" by itself isn't cause for alarm, but it is the gateway flick leading to hardcore Swayze fixes like "Ghost" and "Road House". And then he'll start writing songs like the one in this MST3k classic -- oh, the horror!

    "Unstoppable" is a recent "formula" movie, but the film worked IMHO. If you need something for the next visit, it is a good adult story without violence, nudity, or naughty words beyond the PG-13 rating level.

  12. "Dirty dancing"

    This just proves your dad still has it. 27 year old Jennifer Grey in those tight white pants, or shorts, or tights? I still watch it if I see it.

    We had a local guy who hand built a Jenny. it was a marvel, I saw it complete but just before it was skinned. The owner died of cancer before he could complete it. I don't know what became of it, I hope someone put it up before it deteriorated too much.

  13. I am regularly amazed that such movies get so many things wrong despite having so many people employed getting it right. Not just the historical and military consultants, but prop designers themselves should be experts on some of that stuff just from long association.

  14. The look like electrical insulators to me.

  15. I really need to expand my viewing parameters. Some of these sound like really neat movies. I saw part of High Road to China a long, long time ago, and always intended to watch it. Dang. Just checked, the local library doesn't have it. Now I gotta find a rental outfit that has it. Mutter, mutter, mutter.

  16. Yeah, for a pure entertainment movie, it was pretty darn good. I had to laugh when (spoiler) the older guy takes out the top wing of a triplane (which subsequently crashes), yet still manages to land with no problems. There were a lot of inconsistencies in the movie, but I've come to expect that out of 99% of Bollockswood crap (with the minor exceptions of Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood...they do their homework. Kudos, gentlemen!). I just recently finished reading a book about the Lafayette Escadrille, and was surprised to find that the majority of the pilots were "old" men in their late 20's, 30's, and even several in their 40's, and that when the time came to fold the Escadrille in to the USAAC, every single one of these pilots with decorations, countless hours stick-time, and multiple kills each, were disqualified from service by the fledgling Army Air Corps standards. It took direct intervention by higher powers (both French and US) to provide waivers for these guys, and the end of the war arrived before a lot of them were worked through the red tape and sent to an active American unit. Kinda sad to read that.

  17. PPPP, you can see the entire movie (in 7 segments) at YouTube. Punch it up to full screen size and it doesn't look to bad on a good sized monitor, although a 51 inch screen wouldn't do the photography justice.

    It was glorious from the third row at the theater.


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..