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A half-forgotten corner of France in a wholly-forgotten war. In memory of the heroes of the Lafayette Escadrille, who died in defense of life and of liberty. This monument, this patch of foreign sky, belongs to a handful of Americans who flew for France and died for France in the First World War. They came with an air of adventure or a sense of impatience in the days before America entered the war. The wore French uniforms, they fought in French planes, and they fell in love with ...
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And Introducing Bill Wellman, Jr. Jody McCrae Dennis Devine See more »
A project very close to director William Wellman's heart, this semi-autobiographical account of his escapades in the title organization during WWI only partly succeeds. Hunter is a shiftless and troublesome youth who, after stealing a car and causing an accident, decides to enlist in a French air corp which allows American men to wear French uniforms and fight the war against Germany (the U.S. not having entered the war at this point.) On the sea voyage to France, Hunter meets up with older man Janssen and young, eager enlistees Hover and Wellman Jr (playing his own father.) They've scarcely downed their first glass of beer in a cafe when Hunter falls under the spell of misty-eyed French girl Choureau. He disappears with her for ten days, only resurfacing in time for his adventures in the Escadrille. The men are shown training for their flight careers in a comic, credibility-straining way with a bumbling Drillmaster barely able to communicate with them. Eventually, they take to the air and help the cause, though Hunter (due to his obsessive love for Choreau) runs into more trouble than he was in to begin with! Here the film becomes less about the Lafayette Escadrille and more about the troubled and contrived affairs of the young lovers. The films strengths lie in the cheerful, fraternity-like interactions of the men (even if narrator Wellman dwells on each one in the beginning, denoting their ultimate fate before the viewers have even met them), many of whom are played by actors who were just on the verge of greater things. It's interesting to see men like Halsey, Hutchins, Laughlin and especially Eastwood in these roles, though their lack of screen time ultimately becomes a bit of a frustration because their fame lends their smallish roles more weight than they were probably meant to have. Another big plus is gloriously handsome and beaming Hunter, though his looks are altered part way through the film. His charm is utilized throughout to help smooth over his character's selfish and foolish edges. It's also nice to get a glimpse into this little-known aspect of WWI and Wellman clearly wanted to bring various remembrances and details of his experience to the film. What doesn't work is the unevenness in tone of the film. It sways wildly from slapstick comedy to soapy romance to documentary to action. The title suggests a survey of the air corp along with action and aerial sequences (which do occur), yet the film turns into a "Let's Play House" love story complete with unintelligible murmurings from Choreau and a loopy, boozing, one-armed hotelier. This division of focus does more against the film than for it. Though he did manage to carve out a minor Hollywood career for himself, it should be noted that Wellman Jr, though amiable, gives a very stiff, flat performance as his father (though it couldn't have been easy to step into the role and be directed by Wellman Sr!) Hunter is beautiful and gives a committed performance. Janssen doesn't get to do a lot more than smart off and the rest of the men don't appear all that much (but they do show off their attractive physiques occasionally.) There is a (non-PC by today's standards) hilarious little part played by Nakamura as the men's human alarm clock and coffee pourer. In all, an okay film that could have been much better if the focus had remained where it belonged, which is on the fighting men of the Lafayette Escadrille. Studio tampering led to a happier ending for Hunter's character than was intended, much to Wellman's dismay.
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