Hawks in the Air
Directed by Howard Hawks and released back in 1943 "Air Force" lasts 124 minutes, what do you get in those 124 minutes? 90 minutes of propaganda and 34 minutes of story. Okay the timings maybe a little off but for the majority "Air Force" is a movie all about what it's like being part of the air force, flying a bomber, the job you could be doing, the camaraderie with your fellow crew and at the same time the toughness expected. It's not until the final quarter do we really get a specific story which sees the men of the "Mary-Ann" battle to make her ready to take to the air after being shot down and take on the enemy. As such "Air Force" is both brilliant and troubled, a little bit jingoistic when watched now but with some stunning footage which even now is breath taking.
The crew members of the "Mary Ann" leave San Francisco on a seemingly normal flight unaware that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbour. As it becomes clear what has happened their mission changes as they are forced to take evasive action and stop offs end up resulting in quick turn arounds as they go from one base to another, in and out of danger.
It doesn't take you long to realise that "Air Force" is a propaganda movie because rarely do you get a movie which takes so long to establish the various characters aboard a plane. We meet each of the 9 crew members, get to know their role in the plane, their general nature and in some cases issues which to be honest isn't a bad thing because it means we do feel connected to each and every one of them. Having said that the portrayal of pilot Quincannon as such a nice guy that he would nip across to speak to the mother of a new crew member feels a bit corny. It is not the only moment which feels false but it is one of the first and really sticks out as feeling false.
This element of building up the individual crew members continues for the entire first three quarters as we witness also the danger and non stop life. Forced landings on to tiny airfield, dodging bullets up in the air and down on the ground and quick turn arounds with no sleep "Air Force" does paint a real picture of what life was like. And it also paints the emotional side of things as we have a sister of one of the crew members hurt in an attack and the Crew Chief concerned about his son who is stationed at a base in Manilla. As it paints this emotional side it also paints the reality that for some emotion had to be capped as their was a job to do and again it paints this very real side, the sacrifices made to serve your country. To counter balance this we also see the camaraderie, be it between the crew but also that between fighter pilots and those who man the bombers.
So for around 90 minutes "Air Force" is all about painting a picture of life in the Air Force, mostly very real but full of patriotism and an occasional sense of falseness in making it seem like one big happy family. But then for the final quarter we get a story which sees the "Mary Ann" being shot up and in a bad way with the men rallying around to try and save it despite it being a seemingly impossible mission especially with Japanese soldiers threatening to attack. And this leads to a big action finale, an action finale which even now has some of the most amazing in air fighting you will see.
Now it is sort of ironic because you would think that with Howard Hawks spending plenty of time establishing characters and their issues there would be some sort of stand out performance. But there isn't because it is a collective of good performances all working off of each other without one person being the star. So whilst John Ridgely maybe the pilot and Arthur Kennedy the Bombardier the performances from Charles Drake as the Navigator and Ward Wood as radio operator are just as good.
What this all boils down to is that "Air Force" is a very good movie when you remember that at the time of release it was a propaganda film. Yes certain aspects seem a little contrived now and it doesn't really have a storyline for the first three quarters but it keeps you interested and entertained from start to finish.