Friday, October 09, 2015

Movie review - "Air Force" (1943) **1/2

Disappointing Howard Hawks film - I was looking forward to seeing it because I loved the radio adaptation version done by Lux and it has this great story: a bomber flies from San Francisco to Hawaii only to arrive slap bang into the attack on Pearl Harbour, then goes on to Wake Island and Clarke Field. And the central idea seems to intrinsically Hawksian i.e. a tight knit group of professionals being graceful under pressure and talking great slangy dialogue.

But what made a tight action-packed hour is dragged out over two hours, with the action time padded out by lots of unconvincing model work (I'm happy to tolerate some 1940s model work, I get that it wasn't easy to make films around this time, but they pour it on), not particularly interesting action sequences (especially at the end with the bombers dropping bombs on the Japanese fleet), and endless scenes of Americans talking about Japanese treachery, and Japanese traitors, and if only it had been a fair fight we would have won.

On a sociological/historical level this is fascinating - I've seen a few American films about the early months of the Pacific War (They Were Expendable, Bataan, Wake Island), which form their own sub-genre, the Cinema of American Defeat... The Allies basically got their butts kicked for six months, there were no victories, so Hollywood was forced to make inspirational war films about Americans losing - something it did not like to do. (And still doesn't. Once the Allies started regularly winning, Hollywood focused on those battles instead and you rarely see that initial period looked at anymore... even Pearl Harbour ended with the Doolittle Raid).

I don't recall any movie though with so many characters making excuses for America's performance in the first few months of the Pacific War - there are Japanese American quislings on Hawaii taking pot shots at the plane while it lands, claims that we could easily beat the Japanese when outnumbered a bit but not this much, more teachery, even more teachery. After a while it's like "alright, already, there's no shame with getting beaten by Asians, you just needed six months or so for America's superior military might to kick in and that's what happened".

Historically speaking I wasn't wild either about ending the plane flight participating in a big American naval victory, since none was happening around this time. I recognise the need for some sort of triumph, I just wish they'd limited themselves to say sinking one Japanese ship.

There are some effective moments - John Garfield's transformation from reluctant soldier to committed hero is hokey but works; there's a moving scene where Harry Carey discovers his son has died at Clarke Field and when the pilot dies; a scene where a fighter pilot banters with bomber pilots about bombers vs fighters is classic Hawks and very entertaining. No women - I felt for sure a nurse could have been brought on board.

There's a great film inside this, and part of me wondered if it wasn't ripe for remake, just trimmed down and with the whingeing and excuse making cut out.

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