“Air Force” was released in 1943 with WWII still raging, as the closing credits acknowledge, and it’s always difficult to watch movies like this in hindsight since they were, whether we like it or not, American-styled propaganda, primarily intended to bolster Yankee spirits and pitch new recruits to join the war effort. The movie itself opens on December 6th 1941, just a day, of course, before the day that would live in infamy, and certainly “Air Force” feels like a film commissioned in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, with constant asides about how Japanese pilots are talentless lily livers who lack the skills or chutzpah to take on their American counterparts in one on one aerial dogfights. The only time we really even see the Japanese, in fact, is a late battle scene where a bunch of their officers stand haplessly on an aircraft carrier deck looking up at American planes swirling all around them through binoculars before getting blown to bits, the straight men in a patriotic sketch. You can imagine members of a 1943 audience throwing their caps in the air, which I don’t mean as a disparagement but a sign o’ the times. After all, I lived in an era of “Zoolander’s” post-9/11 NYC skyline edit; in the moment, anything goes.
Still, the focus of “Air Force”, directed by Howard Hawks, is less on running down the enemy than talking up the heroes from the home front, specifically, in this case, the considerable crew of the United States Army Air Corps B-17D bomber Mary-Ann as they fly from the coast of California to Hawaii to the speck that is Wake Island and on to the Philippines and the opening stanza of the Pacific Theatre. In watching these men, all with their varying positions, from pilot on down, we see how the intricate hulking mammoth that were the Flying Fortresses needed a crew working in precise harmony, a team, if you will, which was a sentiment espoused in another war movie, “The Fighting 69th”, that Cinema Romantico reviewed in March and that is espoused again in “Air Force” by the pilot, Michael Aloysius Quincannon Sr. (John Ridgely). “We are all part of a team here; each of us depends on the other; we support and help one another.”
The idea in “The Fighting 69th” was that one lone wolf needed to find a way to fit into his regiment, and briefly it seems as if “Air Force” might go the same route with Aerial Gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield), who shows up to specifically talk the Air Force down. In fact, he’s determined to drop out of the armed forces, until he sees the aftermath of Pearl Harbor from above, a starkly rendered scene, and suddenly changes his tune. This, however, is only a small portion of the film, and he quickly blends into the unit, evoking that need (demand?) for unity in a time of war.
At first, the title “Air Force”, seems sturdy if a little simple. Oh hey, let’s make a movie about the Air Force called “Air Force!” But a strategy behind that moniker gradually emerges. Because even as it centers on this sizable crew, they encounter so many others along the way, crewmen on the ground, commanding officers left injured and others who are hoping for a crack at the enemy. Why, there is even a dog. They pick up Lt. Tex Rader (James Brown) at Hawaii, a fighter pilot who tags along and can't help but express down-home disgust at these flying fortresses in comparison to his beloved single seat fighter planes. It's good natured, though, which defines the whole film, a film that was never better for me than the scene of Tex, Quincannon, co-pilot William Williams (Gig Young) and Bombardier Thomas McMartin (Arthur Kennedy) all crowded around the Mary-Ann's controls and giving each other the WWII-era silver screen version of shit. They don't get along, not exactly, but they're in this together and so they keep it friendly. I wouldn't say it made me want to run out and enlist, but then it's not 1943.