Appellate Judge James A. Stewart was the first man to pilot a paper airplane into a fiery crash.
"Although the airplane had only recently been invented, it was quickly adopted as a war machine. The young men who flew them became the first fighter pilots and a new breed of hero was born."
It was just over a decade after Orville Wright's famed flight at Kitty Hawk when war broke out in Europe. The United States didn't enter the fray until 1917, but that didn't stop Americans from heading over to France to help the Allied cause. April 1916 saw the start of the Escadrille Américaine, later to become the Escadrille Lafayette, according to Ace Pilots. Flight was still a romantic idea—and dangerous, since oil was everywhere and a single spark meant certain death—when these brave men took to the skies.
It's only natural that their heroism would inspire a few movies: the Academy Award-winning movie Wings in 1927 was one of the first to bring the heroism of World War I flying aces to the big screen, and Lafayette Escadrille appeared in 1958.
The latest movie to take to the skies to tell a story of World War I heroism is 2006's Flyboys. Producer Dean Devlin was one of the investors who put up the $60 million to make this aerial epic, as was David Ellison, a real-life pilot who appears in the movie. Their film got lost in the box-office shuffle last fall, but it's getting a second chance on DVD.
How accurately did it tell the story of the Escadrille Lafayette? I'll tell you this much now: it's not true that the squadron kept a lion at its base as a mascot, as shown in Flyboys. The real Escadrille had two lions.
Facts of the Case
Blaine Rawlings (James Franco, Spider-Man) is watching a newsreel about the war in Europe, appropriately enough, when the sheriff arrives to give him a half-hour head start out of town. It seems that Rawlings busted up the bank that had foreclosed on the family ranch. You just know Rawlings will end up in France, ready to train for the Lafayette Escadrille.
You also just know that the next three men you're introduced to will join him: William Jensen (Philip Winchester, Thunderbirds), whom we see receiving a touching farewell from his parents as he boards the train; Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis, Love Actually), an African-American who boxes as an expat in Marseilles, and Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine, Invasion), a rich kid whose father wants him to "do something worthy of your name" after his dismissal from Harvard.
These are just the main characters. You'll meet a couple of other future flying aces later, including one named Eddie Beagle, an apparent nod to a famous Sopwith Camel jockey from the funny pages.
The future World War I flying aces meet up at the Lafayette Escadrille's airdrome, where they gradually become friends and, for the most part, the lords of the skies. They bunk in a beautiful French chateau, and Rawlings's stay in France is made more interesting by a budding relationship with a French woman (Jennifer Decker).
Flyboys is a by-the-book wartime adventure, with fliers from different backgrounds bonding into a unit, learning the fine art of aerial warfare, and heading out on dangerous missions. To show the horrors of war, someone in this group of heroes won't come back. These common elements are well-acted and not badly written, but dispatched rather quickly. After all, you have to make room for lots of flying sequences.
What Flyboys excels in is those flying sequences: the gracefulness of the rickety WWI planes as they swoop through the sky, birds' eye views of the verdant French countryside contrasted with the bleakness of the battlefields, the sun glistening off the faces of our flying aces, and the gunfire and explosions. When the movie takes to the air, it's mesmerizingly beautiful—until the first squadron member is hit to bring the audience back down to earth. These scenes of aerial battle that form the core of the movie will grab you at a gut level for the most part, although the last couple of dogfights almost seem tacked on to stretch the movie's length.
I actually was surprised to learn that much of the aerial footage was CGI animation. There were real planes and real landscapes—the producers took the time to motion-capture vintage airplanes for a library of realistic movements—but what you see on screen combines ordinary footage with miniatures and a lot of computer work, as Producer Dean Devlin and Director Tony Bill indicate in their commentary. It's how you make a $60 million movie look like it cost twice as much. As they pointed out the cinematic sleight-of-hand that created these scenes, you'll see that they made a better-than-usual job of it.
James Franco as Rawlings serves as the eyes through which we see the grandeur that was aerial warfare. He becomes a de facto leader of the group of young fliers, sharing their secrets as well as their friendship. His romantic scenes with Jennifer Decker, though brief, are among the highlights, showing tenderness as the couple slowly bridges a language gap. The rest of the strong cast of up-and-coming actors gets moments to shine in vignettes that show the horrors of war—one flier even becomes shell-shocked, unable to fly because of what he's experienced; these small scenes are handled well, but don't reach the heights of the movie's visual storytelling.
Getting back to the commentary, Director Tony Bill shows a genuine enthusiasm for his material. In addition to those CGI tricks, he also points out the period details you'll probably miss as you first watch the movie. Those scenes in which the pilots train by spinning around in a chair and following toy planes with their eyes were historically accurate, believe it or not. If you're at all interested in World War I era history, you'll want to hear what he has to say.
Flyboys arrived here at DVD Verdict as a screener disc. While the digital picture was superb and I had no problems with the sound, the commentary was the only extra which arrived on my copy; I didn't get to screen the shorts on the Escadrille's history and the making of the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The enthusiasm that Tony Bill shows for his story has a drawback: it often seems like too much is shoehorned in. Then again, having a movie that tops the two-hour mark and seems rushed isn't the worst cinematic problem you can have. Bill's vision isn't realized perfectly, but a lot of it does come across.
If you're looking for action in the sky, you should enjoy Flyboys. While Tony Bill's style of revealing the war experience through vignettes and de-emphasizing what might have passed for a larger plot—either the romantic story or the unit's grudge against a ruthless German flier known as the Black Falcon—makes the film more interesting, it leaves a sense that it only scratched the surface of the fliers' lives.
The merging of Point Break-style adrenaline rushes with the small grace notes of an indie film (and enough stuff going on for two of those little indies) might not make for the ultimate war film, but it does provide crackling entertainment for an evening. Two, if you go back and check out the historical details.
Not guilty. Historical detail and great action scenes make this movie fly, although trying to squeeze too much in does give it some rickety moments.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Tony Bill and Producer Dean Devlin
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