Judge Daniel MacDonald says that you can be his wingman anytime.
The name of their love was Mary Ann.
Released in the midst of World War II, Air Force was undoubtedly intended to drive recruitment in the war effort. But is it simply a piece of outdated propaganda, or is Air Force still relevant and entertaining today?
Facts of the Case
The B-17 bomber Mary Ann and its nine-man crew depart San Francisco for Hawaii on a routine flight, unaware that while the plane is airborne, Japan will attack Pearl Harbor and prompt the United States to join the war. Sleep and personal concerns take a backseat to duty as oddly named pilot Irish Quincannon (John Ridgely, The Big Sleep) leads his men into battle against Japanese "Zeroes" and battleships. From seasoned Crew Chief Robbie White (Harry Carey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to green rookie Chester (Ray Montgomery, Task Force) to rebellious short-timer Winocki (John Garfield, The Sea Wolf), this varied crew becomes as close as family, held together by patriotism and their love for the Mary Ann.
Air Force is an exciting and moving war film, directed with confidence by Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo). While clearly intended to promote enlistment, Air Force remains surprisingly engaging, thanks to solid performances and dynamic battle sequences.
Air Force takes its time establishing its archetypal main characters, showing us who each man is, why he's in the Air Force, and giving us an idea of what makes him tick. This is especially helpful once the bullets start flying, as we know a bit about each man's job on the plane and can follow the action quite clearly. Of course, we know the one crew member (Winocki) who can't wait to leave the service will have his attitude turned around before the credits roll, just as we can probably pick out likely candidates for a dramatic death scene, but the actors elevate what could've been one-dimensional caricatures into fleshed-out beings we can care about. John Ridgely, in particular, stands out as a charismatic leader who cares deeply for the fate of his men, and knows when to bend the rules for the sake of morale.
The battle sequences are top-notch, and seem to have inspired similar scenes in Star Wars, with gunners in the huge Flying Fortress trying to take out the fast and maneuverable tie fighters, er, I mean, Zeroes. Air Force won an Academy Award for film editing, and its no surprise given how involved in the fight we become, easily tracking several similarly attired characters doing their part to ensure success. Take-offs and landings are clearly model work, but of high enough quality that we're not taken out of the film, and the rear-screen projection methods used to show attack planes strafing the Mary Ann are pretty successful.
Despite the satisfying action, Air Force's most memorable scene is that when the crew learns Pearl Harbor is under attack. Radio Operator Peterson (Ward Wood, Shotgun) is scanning the frequencies for a little entertainment to help the crew pass the time when he stumbles upon the chilling sound of Japanese voice traffic and explosions. Winocki thinks it's an Orson Welles play, but the dark realization that the attack is real quickly sinks in, and what had been an upbeat mood turns somber. We know it's coming soon, thanks to a close-up shot of the date December 7, 1941, being written in a logbook, but the scene is so well dramatized that I was completely caught up in the moment.
The portrayal of the Japanese in Air Force finds the enemy to be ruthless and uniform, with no real characters or sympathetic scenes. When an American character is forced to bail out, a Japanese pilot strafes the helpless man as he parachutes to the ground and continues to attack once he's landed. Despite this incident, the enemy is rarely seen or spoken about in the picture, and, on balance, is not treated as unfairly as in other films of the era. Throughout the movie, the focus remains on the crew of the Mary Ann and no one else, American or Japanese.
As is usually the case with classic Warner Bros. releases, this DVD features a very good transfer given its age. Air Force is marked by crisp black-and-white photography with few blemishes, save for the stock footage of the Mary Ann in the air, and no edge enhancement. There is significant shadow detail and the blacks are rock solid. Audio is presented in its original mono, the explosions showing off a reasonable dynamic range, and dialogue always remaining intelligible and well-balanced.
The included special features do well to educate the audience of the mindset of the time period, starting with the rather condescending short film, Women at War, which follows the key contributions made by enlisted women (far away from the front lines, it's pointed out). Next up is an overtly racist piece called The Fifth-Column Mouse, referencing the assumption that Japanese-Americans betrayed their country and helped to orchestrate the attack on Pearl Harbor. While no longer entertaining, it's an important historical document precisely for its outrageousness. Then we get Scrap Happy Daffy, featuring Daffy Duck extolling the virtues of saving tin for the war effort and showing Hitler himself targeting American scrap piles, as their recycling ways are threatening the German forces. Finally, a crackly hour-long radio drama version of Air Force, starring George Raft (Some Like It Hot) and Harry Carey, and introduced by none other than Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments) offers a quite different take on the same material, and the theatrical trailer rounds out the feature set.
A minor work in Hawks's career, this is a valuable American war film, allowing us entry into the shock of the Pearl Harbor attack through the limited perspective of a single flight crew. A product of a bygone era, Air Force deserves to be seen by anyone who likes classic genre films, and has been given an impressive amount of TLC by Warner Bros. Recommended.
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