Air Force (1943)
Directed by Howard Hawks
"Air Force" is the true story of the B-17 Mary Ann and her crew. The action is contemporaneous with the events it depicts. After the film was released, the Mary Ann was shot down over the Pacific, and all her crew was lost.
The movie starts off with a teletype message coming through ordering the B-17 group to proceed from Hamilton Field California to Hickam Field Hawaii for two weeks of annual training .
In one of film's most heralded -- and blatant -- uses of propaganda during World War II, Howard Hawks' Air Force (1943) attempts to convince American viewers (as well as any other sympathetic group who might watch the film) of the elements of a strong army. Though the film never calls for recruits like Hawk's previous film, Sergeant York (1941), Air Force does emphasize the importance of being a team player. As Hawk's film makes clear, a successful war abroad cannot be won without collective responsibilities. As viewers watched the film in 1943, they were meant to see the altruism in the America war machine and, hopefully, find a way to sacrifice their own individualism in the name of their all-American community.
Most of the characters in Air Force come as direct examples of team players. At the heart of the group is Captain Mike Quincannon (Ridgely), the pilot of the Mary Ann. While he cherishes the lives of his men -- and dies trying to save them -- his true devotion is to the completion of his order: Quincannon and his men are to ensure that the Japanese cannot use their plane against American soldiers. When the plane takes off, Hawks includes a montage of each crew member checking in with Quincannon to show that they are ready and, more importantly, that they are integral to the operations within the Mary Ann. "It takes all of us to make this ship function," Quincannon says. After being heralded by superiors for making it through 3 days of nonstop flying, Quincannon states that the effort was much more on the shoulders of his crew than solely on him.
There are only two characters who come in direct opposition with the collectivism found within the Mary Ann. First is Sergeant Joe Winocki (Garfield), who proudly reminds the rest of the group that he has only three months left of service. While they are happy for their time fighting for the sanctity of their nation, Winocki remains a voice of dissent. He has no real connection to the fraternal order he is now stuck in -- blaming Quincannon for his failure to become a pilot, Winocki seems more interested in finishing his army stint than he is in making the slightest relationship with the rest of the crew. Quincannon's worry over this dissident even brings his paternal element out (Hawks has already established Quincannon's picture perfect family in San Francisco) by giving words of advice to Winocki in a heart-to-heart way: "You played football, Winocki, you know how one man can gum up the whole works."
Hawks, however, does not let Winocki remain the rebellious voice throughout. When caught in the throes of real warfare after seeing the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Winocki becomes just as integral a member of the group as anyone else on the plane. Before long, his disagreeing time is completely forgotten. Earlier, as the rest of the crew sat anxious over what was wrong with Hickham Air Base's radio, Winocki was laughing; by the end, though, he is saving the Mary Ann and Quincannon from destruction. Even when siding with the well being of his crew, Winocki is still prone to the occasional fit of individualism, as is the case when he turns during an escape to shoot at oncoming Japanese soldiers, finally stopped after being punched by Sergeant Robby White (Carey). Whether he is selflessly hiding in a bombshell to shoot at enemy planes or simply taking the blame for another crewman's mistake, Winocki has finally proven himself as a team player.
The other character outside of the initial group is Lieutenant Tex Rader (Brown), a pursuit pilot traveling to the front on the Mary Ann. Unlike Winocki, though, Rader isn't angry in his dismissal of the fighting in a huge bomber, but instead more genial. Rader isn't necessarily disdainful over the way the Mary Ann crew works together, but simply prefers the sole responsibility of being a solo pilot. As he tells the rest of the crew, "I just don't want to fight in any aeroplane that more than one man can ride in. I don't want to be responsible for 8 to 10 other guys, or depend on them either."
He is the butt of constant jokes from the crew because they see him as over-confident and unwilling to join in on their little family, even when they are fighting a similar battle in the air. In a pivotal action sequence, as Hawks cuts from each of the men in the Mary Ann doing their job to stop a Japanese attack, Rader is the only person onboard who is never seen. Of course, he too comes to see the attributes of the team in the climactic battle of the crippled Mary Ann. He has learned that he can depend on everyone else.
In the final showdown, Hawks makes it clear that the military successes of the U.S. Army Air Force in the days after Pearl Harbour were not based on the prowess of the pursuit pilots like Rader, however, but instead through the initiative of many men working together. Earlier, the single bomber plane, with the communal work of its crew, defeats a barrage of solo-piloted Japanese planes; now, the bomber pilots serve as informants for the pursuit planes, helping to bring the rest of the Australia-based forces into an air attack that would cripple the Japanese fleet before they make it to their target. Not only is there a constant flow of information between the Mary Ann and the solo pilots, but also a collection of shots showing the men on the ground helping to get the information from one base to another. Hawks is essentially showing that the war could not be won without everyone pitching in. He almost creates the impression that America could have won World War II in a matter of weeks if they only had a few more troops.
By pushing the ideals of group over individual, Hawks creates some detachment to emotional scenes. When White learns that his son is dead, the time of mourning is cut short by his need to return to the crew and ensure the safety of the Mary Ann. The most grief found in the film is for Quincannon, but it similarly doesn't take terribly long for the crew to diligently get back to work under the command of a new leader. While they adored Quincannon as a man, their real responsibility is to the U.S. Army. Victorious in this battle and ready for their next, they all convene to ride alongside a dozen other planes.
All this makes sense considering the propagandist intents of the film. Air Force -- almost to a fault -- constantly presses its agenda, hoping to create an upsurge in nationalism and community work. The central idea is that these men are all integral to the success of the American war effort. Their success in carrying out the impromptu American plan in the Pacific Ocean after Pearl Harbor is because each man worked together, beyond their social, economic, and geographic differences to build a mighty fleet in a single bomber.
The biggest weakness in the film was the totally fictitious battle in the last 30 minutes of the movie. It never happened. The only sea battle in that area during that time frame was the battle of the Java Sea, which was a disaster for the U.S. and Dutch forces. Rather it seemed to be an enhanced composite of the attacks on Japanese convoys in the New Guinea/Solomon Islands area, and the battles of Coral Sea and Midway. The Americans had nothing like the forces portrayed available at that time. The fighters shown at Clark Field were Bell P-39s. They were very pretty little planes, but were such a disappointment they earned the nickname Iron Dogs (all metal and "dogs"). But they still would have been far superior to what was actually available there. Sharp-eyed viewers would see that they were also used to stand in for radial-engined Zeros (P-39s had liquid-cooled engines), along with radial-engined American trainers in the battle scenes. Also, I am practically certain B-17s didn't have the range to fly from Hickam to Clark with only one refueling stop, but that is justified by the necessity for dramatic flow. One more note - the dramatic picture of the capsizing battleship near the end of the movie was not a model, but rather a film of the Austro-Hungarian Szent Istvan sunk in 1918 during WWI.
On a lighter note I especially loved watching George Tobias ('Pusher' Ross in the 1941 classic Sergeant York & Abner Kravitz on the hit TV show "Bewitched") providing some much needed humour in this film. His character utters the classic line, "Until I joined the air force I never knew there was nuttin west of the Hudson except maybe Joysey". Also great acting from guys like Harry Carey. The 1940's American English is music to the ears. When Captain Quincannon tells Sgt. White one of the Mary Ann's engines is running a bit rough White replies, " I'll have it hitting Home Runs in no time". Eat your heart out Shakespeare.
The action scenes are also well done. My personal favourite is the scene where the "Mary Anne" is being refuelled by hand with long lines of men forming a chain & passing large cans of aviation fuel from one man to the next. The refuelling is interrupted when the Japanese attack & the ship takes off just one step ahead of invading Japanese troops. They just don't make them like this anymore.
The characters in this film become the basis for a subplot in Quentin Tarentinos "Pulp Fiction" fifty one years later.
In Pulp Fiction, Christopher Walken's character tells the young "Butch" about his grandfather on Wake Island giving his watch to a passing bomber crew before the Japanese came. The bomber crewman he gave it to was called "Winocki". In "Air Force" John Garfield plays that crewman.
Avaition buffs will notice that the Flying Fortresses in the film are mostly C models including the Mary Ann.
Like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo the black & white cinematography in this film is outstanding thanks to the work of Elmer Dyer, Charles A. Marshall & the legendary James Wong Howe.
Howard Hawks who directed Air Force would go on to direct two of the best examples of 40's film noir- To Have and Have Not (1944) & The Big Sleep (1946). In 1948 he directed the western classic Red River.
Air Force Trivia:
"The sun shines, nuttin' ever happens, and before you know it you're 60 years old." --a crew member, on living in Los Angeles.
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