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A naive young officer straight from school arrives on the Western front to fight the air war against the Germans. However, the life expectancy of green pilots is not very good. Written by
Orde Saunders <ODS101@York.ac.uk>
Written from the English point of view, this film seems to have it's tongue in it's cheek at times, but it's not at all funny. There are several flashes of humor in the early scenes, at the expense of the British upper class, but those quickly give way to the special horrors of the first war fought in the air.
Patriotic young pilots straight out of college lost their lives in literally a few days time, due to their inexperience and the stress of this new kind of battle. Malcolm McDowell has the unwelcome task of leading the 76th Squadron and also visiting colleges to drum up recruits, all the while knowing he's inviting them to an almost certain death. He keeps these new recruits at arms length to soften the blow to his mental health when they invariably get shot down. When he shows up at his own alma mater, an idealistic young man, played by Peter Firth, signs up for McDowell's squadron. On his arrival at the airfield, Firth sees the evidence of the turnover in pilots but fails to see the connection to his own longevity; a family photo and personal effects are whisked out of the room he's been assigned, right in front of his eyes. He is introduced to Simon Ward, a stony-faced pilot who by the end of the movie is finally driven insane by the awful, daily anticipation of his own death in battle.
The young pilots experience the respect that their station in the Air Corps elicits from the locals and from women, but at the same time they see how they are more likely to be killed than the average filthy foot soldier. Firth is taken with a local cabaret girl, who invites him to her room one night. The next night, when he expects her to be glad to see him, she ignores him and pays attention to an older, richer officer. The very next day the pilots are given the task of destroying German spotter balloons, which always have heavy gun and air protection, and the older pilots know this is almost a death warrant. Six planes go out, with McDowell and Firth in two of them, but you'll have to watch the film to find out how many come back.
A very good, but depressing, film, McDowell is subdued in his performance and seems to come out of his cocoon only at the end. This is necessary, I think, for his character to survive in the surroundings of constant tragedy. Firth is naive in the extreme, and this probably a correct portrayal of a green recruit in WWI, where there was no frame of reference for how dangerous those early airplanes were. The film shows us just how little the commanders valued the lives of their men by sending them out unprepared and inexperienced, and that they know after one group of fliers is decimated, there is always a fresh batch of innocent boys to take their place. I recommend the film highly, since it has a firm anti-war message.
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