Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
"Life flash before your eyes? Cup of tea, cup of tea, almost got a shag, cup of tea."
"Gentlemen, is this a great moment or a small one? I can't tell."
King & Country (1964)
Pour encourager les autres
Despite contentious subject matter - a World War One court martial for desertion - and the melodramatic weaknesses of the source material (John Wilson's radio play Hamp and J.L. Hodson's novel Return to the Wood), Joseph Losey's King and Country admirably avoids most of the clichés and preconceptions of its day in favor of something much more even-handed and unsensationalized, and consequently its matter-of-fact approach is much more powerful: indeed, the final moments almost unbearably so. Tom Courtney is the very simple soldier facing a court martial for desertion, carried out almost as an afterthought and certainly as an inconvenience to the officers who have to try him and would rather just forget the whole thing, with Dirk Bogarde the officer who draws the short straw of defending him in the brief proceedings. Nobody really wants him to be executed and no-one really expects he will be: most death sentences were revoked. It's just his bad luck that his court martial comes before an offensive when an example is needed "pour encourager les autres." The ending is, of course, inevitable - it has to be or there is no story - but it's no less powerful for that. If anything, it's more so.
For a filmed play it is ironically in many ways more overtly stark and cinematic than any of Losey's other films, especially for a production that never moves from the soundstage. And what a soundstage - Peter Mullins' sordid ramshackle behind-the-lines set is quite astonishing, making a real virtue of its limited resources, at once claustrophobic and economical but also practical for the intricate camera movements Losey adopts, Denys Coop's naturalistic black and white cinematography putting the artificiality of more recent films like The Trench to shame. There's also an intriguing use of archive photos, including a memorable shot of a deteriorated corpse in the mud slowly dissolving into a shot of mud and rain that seamlessly suggests the corpse fading away into the mud. The brief inserts of home - a live-action shot of a child as posed for a photo, a friend sitting in bed drinking tea, a shot of an old woman sweeping her step - are interesting, if not always successful. Even the harmonica score by Larry Adler (like the director a blacklist victim who fled to the UK) turns the film's extremely limited budget - there simply wasn't enough money for an orchestral score - to the film's advantage.
All too often Bogarde's performances in Losey's films can seem formal and a little cold around the heart, but no such complaints here. Bogarde had a genuine interest in the period (many of his own paintings were WW1 subjects) and while his character is at a social remove from the man he is expected to defend and ultimately execute, there's a real sense that he's invested in both the part and the picture. Tom Courtney, who also stood court martial in Private Potter, is at his best here as the confused, none-too-bright and painfully inarticulate working boy who only gradually begins to realise the enormity and inevitability of what he's up against. And they're well matched by an excellent supporting cast in the officer's mess - Leo McKern, Barry Foster, James Villiers and Peter Copley.
The only wrong note is the over-stylised stage-chorus nature of the scenes with the enlisted men, which Losey unwisely left rehearsing to Vivian Matelon (who also plays the Padre), who treats them like a bad left-wing theatre workshop production: a shame, because their shifting sympathies and often cruel attitudes ring true even if the performance style doesn't. Yet despite those lapses, there's a level of realism that the low budget affords: even the trench rats that thrived thanks to four years of good eating but are rarely dealt with on screen are present and all too convincingly correct. A genuinely great film, it's a more than worthy companion piece to Paths of Glory, and it's a shame that it's now all but forgotten.
Walter's War (2008)
A trite script, terrible acting and unimaginative direction do its subject a grave disservice
The little-seen BBC4 documentary Walter Tull: The Forgotten Hero was a decent attempt to shed some light on the largely undocumented career of one of the first black premiership football players who went on to become the first black commissioned officer in the British Army (and the last for more than 20 years) despite regulations specifically prohibiting the promotion of those not 'of pure European descent.' The lack of first-hand material was a problem, and it overlooked one of the reasons for his promotion the huge number of casualties among officers meant the army could no longer afford to be so elitist, even if it meant the then unthinkable step of a black man commanding white troops but it did give a sense of how remarkable his forgotten achievements were.
Unfortunately, BBC4's accompanying one-hour dramatization of his wartime career, Walter's War is quite terrible despite its best intentions. Kwame Kwei-Armah's trite script is an assembly of crudely delivered lists of facts or polemic arguments lifted from textbooks masquerading as (exceptionally bad) dialogue, the characters too much of the end of the 20th century rather than its beginning, their ridiculously modern attitudes and means of expression often totally at odds with the reality of the period, as if the writer had never bothered to read any of the thousands of journals, memoirs and diaries of the period. People don't talk, they make points or exchange dogma in the most unconvincing ways, while its tired and underbudgeted combat scenes are the hundredth tired copies of Saving Private Ryan, showing how little imagination director Alrick Riley brought to the material.
Worse, it does Tull a terrible disservice, creating a stereotyped surly and resentful character quite at odds with the more dignified, almost Job-like accounts of the real man himself, with a particularly poor lead performance from O.T. Fagbenle delivering the coup de grace: at times it's almost as if they wanted to turn Tull into a trivial, petty figure. A poor tribute to the man himself, hopefully the forthcoming biography of him (which appears currently to be without a publisher) will rectify the show's many failings.
Der rote Baron (2008)
The Politically Correct Baron
Shot in English with a largely German cast, Nikolai Mullerschon's 2008 German would-be epic The Red Baron is perhaps somewhat better and slightly more ambitious than the recent Flyboys, but it still pales beside earlier films about the first war in the air like Aces High and, in particular, The Blue Max, which it at times strives to emulate. But where John Guillermin's film had a genuinely ruthless anti-hero and stunning aerial sequences shot in real planes, this quickly chips away at its hero's early arrogance to find the New Man underneath and too often limits the dogfights to brief green screen and CGI sequences that are good enough but not particularly convincing (though at least are slightly better photographed than the soft and undetailed scenes on terra firma). But while it spends far too much time on the ground and never offers a single prolonged or outstanding aerial setpiece to energise the film, it's not without redeeming features, offering Von Richthofen as the first superstar air ace, star of a thousand battlefront postcards who even has French prisoners stopping him to ask for autographs he gladly signs. There is even some attempt to look at the psychology behind his tactics and the propaganda machinations behind his rise to fame, Germany's need for a hero combining with his initial arrogance, thrill of the hunt and ideal of fighting a war with grace to create the perfect media-friendly heroic image in an increasingly ugly war, while it acknowledges the incestuous nature of the war in Europe, with relatives fighting on either side in family ties that mirror the old collapsed system of European alliances. Unfortunately it raises issues but only pays them lip service and all too often dumbs down with rushed scenes and on-the-nose dialogue that spells everything out far too specifically - it even adds captions like 'Berlin, capital of the German Empire' for those who flunked their basic geography.
Matthias Schweighofer is adequate in the early scenes where Von Richthofen's arrogance exceeds his actions, but develops little gravitas as the role progresses, underlining the bland predictability of the character's journey from exhilaration to disillusion as he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his role as a propaganda tool. Til Schweiger and Lena Headey fare rather better in their clichéd roles, though Joseph Fiennes is unable to do anything with his painfully trite scenes as Roy Brown, the Canadian air ace credited with shooting down Von Richthofen (the film dodges that controversy by not showing the Baron's demise, giving him a romantic farewell before flying off into legend instead). Rather than offering any alternate perspective to the Red Baron's view of war, he's simply there to help facilitate the German ace's relationship with Headey's nurse, who opens his eyes to the true horrors of war and turns him into a politically correct jaded 21st Century figure who even answers back the Kaiser about the futility of mechanised murder in the hope of making him more acceptable to modern audiences. Unfortunately it tends to make him rather bland and anachronistic instead, something the sporadically inappropriate moments of clichéd world music in Stefan Hansen and Dirk Reichardt's score only amplifies. The end result is a watchable but unconvincingly romanticised potboiler that never does its subject or its setting justice and never offers the kind of thrilling scenes in the air that films made over half a century ago did.
Beware of the US version - cut from 129 minutes (the version available on Bluray and DVD in the UK) to 106.
Sky Bandits (1986)
"Zis iz zee baddlechip oz ze future!!!"
In 1986, Gunbus aka Sky Bandits was the most expensive independent European film production to date (a then-sky high $18m), yet aside from a brief US release to no business didn't even escape to video in most territories and has all but vanished today, becoming one of those huge box-office disasters that nobody even notices. It's not hard to see why - it's a real mess. Its tale of two Wild West bank robbers who get shanghaied into the army in World War One and, through a trail of unlikely misadventures, end up in a suicide squadron of British flyers taking on a giant German airship could have made for an entertaining bit of nonsense, but a clumsy script, poor action scenes and even poorer special effects do it no favors. Director Zoran Perisic may have won an Oscar for making you believe Superman can fly, but you're unlikely to believe that the aircraft on display here can thanks to some poor front-projection work and badly timed effects, not least in a scene in a massive airplane hangar. By the time the unlikely finale unfolds, with a squadron of makeshift planes made out of old cars (yes, really) taking on the flying fortress, it looks like they simply ran out of money without a major studio to underwrite the film. Parts of it don't even make any sense: why exactly one of our heroes disguises himself as a crewman to hang from a guide rope while the airship is in flight is never explained. It just seems someone thought it might make a good stunt. Even worse, after building up its rarely seen and unimpressively designed airship's reputation, they don't even get to blow it up (apparently due to the producer's ongoing obsession with making a sequel), depriving the film of a big finish.
It's certainly a bizarre mishmash, with Perisic more at home in the comparatively well-executed Western scenes than at the front or when dealing with actors or action scenes, although he does do a rather nice line in explosions and there is one fun sight gag with a real full size plane literally dropping out of the sky. The about-as-far-as-you-can-get-from-star casting (the biggest name is probably Nicholas Lyndhurst in a bit part as a mechanic called Chalky) tends to expose rather than paper over the cracks: Scott McGinnis (who to this day must be cursing his decision to turn down a supporting role in Top Gun for the lead in this) and Jeff Osterhage are blandly efficient leads in a TV movie sort of way, but overplaying and cliché are the order of the day for the supporting cast, from Ronald Lacey's German engineer called Fritz who thinks he's part of a German squadron pretending to be British (it's that kind of film), Miles Anderson's Biggles-off-his-meds C.O. to Keith Buckley's dastardly Hun ("Zis iz zee baddlechip oz ze future!!"). It's just about cheesy enough to pass muster if you're in a particularly undemanding mood - how many films have a cowboy in lederhosen cycling through a German airbase casually throwing sticks of dynamite left, right and centre? - and Croatian composer Alfi Kabiljo throws in a rather decent score, but you can't help feeling that American International could have made it all much better for much less back in the 1960s.
More cosy and reassuringly familiar than exciting
Even in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the carnage of World War One always made it a difficult setting for adventure films, but 1971's Zeppelin gets around that by sidestepping the war on the ground for a ripping yarn largely set on one of the elegant but deadly airships. Michael York's the nice-but-bland deskbound half-German half-Scottish British officer with an impeccably British accent and a bad case of vertigo who is recruited by Alexandra Stewart's Mata Hari-like spy to join his German relatives and help with their latest experimental Zeppelin. Of course, he's really working for the Brits all along something designer's wife Elke Sommer guesses right from the start but does nothing about but before he can get down to any serious spying he's whisked off on a test flight that turns out to be cover for a secret mission over Scotland. It's the kind of rather cosy, reasonably well-mounted film that the British film industry was still turning out in the early 70s even though audiences were abandoning them. Short on action and incident until things perk up considerably in the final raid, it relies instead on mystery as to what the devious plan is, not generating much suspense or threat aside from one sequence with a radio operator but floating along effectively enough in its Sunday teatime telly viewing way.
J. Paul Getty Sr.'s company may have made a tidy sum selling oil to the Germans for their airships, but when his son Ronald decided to try his luck as a producer, the old man was reluctant to see much of that money going in the opposite direction, and you do get the impression at times that the script got scaled down to fit the fairly modest budget. Nonetheless, the special effects are mostly pretty decent and there's a good cast of the usual suspects like Anton Diffring in his default charmingly distrustful aristocratic Hun mode, Peter Carsten as his Aryan ubermensch cohort and British movie regulars like Andrew Keir, Marius Goring and Rupert Davies along for the flight. Despite opening with an air raid it's rather short of thrills, never being particularly exciting until its satisfying finale but compensating somewhat with an impressive use of the widescreen frame despite its often-cramped quarters. There's also some guilty fun to be had waiting for some of the Germans to display their heavily telegraphed lemming-like tendencies when the ship needs to lose some weight. While there's little sense of danger in the film, the crew weren't so lucky during the filming famed aerial cinematographer Skeets Kelly (Battle of Britain, The Blue Max, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines) and three others died in a helicopter/plane collision. But for that tragic accident the worst you could say about the film is that it's harmless enough, and that if it's not the action-packed white-knuckle ride some may hope for it does eventually deliver its payload.
Uomini contro (1970)
Impassioned but occasionally heavy-handed and not always convincing
It's not so surprising that there are so few films about the Italian experience of World War One. The government was initially uncertain which side to take until the Allies offered the best deal in 1915 while their conduct of it was a literal bloody farce, with incompetent generals driving their men to mutiny and desertion in a succession of bloody defeats they blamed on those who followed their orders: even Mussolini couldn't spin an uplifting war movie out of that. Francesco Rossi's Many Wars Ago aka Uomini Contro/Against Men catalogues many of the outrages the officers committed on their men, making no bones that they were more of an enemy than the Germans, but its director's outrage only sporadically translates to the viewer. Part of the reason is it's a sometimes-schizophrenic film, shot with considerable resources but not always convincing, especially when the Yugoslavia extras die like schoolboys playing cowboys and Indians or when characters start shouting about class enemies in the middle of battle. Rosi is at his best when he's just observing the humourless absurdity, much of it wrought by Alain Cuny's monolithic general who'll gladly shoot an innocent man to serve as an example and seems more determined to kill his own men than the Germans so much so that the latter even beg the Italians to retreat because they're tired of killing them so easily.
Yet with so few clearly defined characters it's hard to get involved in any human drama, reducing the dead almost to abstract mathematical equations the one in ten of the regimental decimations rather than lives lost. Some of the vignettes work, such as a tribunal deciding which wounded men in hospital to send to courts martial for self-inflicted wounds regardless of evidence, men sent into No Man's Land with useless armour looking like robots as they're picked off or a tense and ironic scene with a loophole and a sniper, but others are laid on with too heavy a hand, be it a mass execution with an overwrought operatic choir on the soundtrack to cajole you into feeling the appropriate outrage or one character being executed explicitly because he doesn't love war. It's a film of occasionally effective and well staged moments amid the misfires, but all too often it seems to have almost as little interest in the men who suffer as Cuny's defiantly indestructible general does.
Fräulein Doktor (1969)
An unusual WW1 movie that lives up to its cult reputation
Barely distributed back in 1969 and promptly vanishing without trace it never even made it to video let alone DVD Alberto Lattuada's Fraulein Doktor is a surprisingly effective adult spy thriller set in the First World War. As befits a film set in the war that industrialised mass carnage it occupies a field of combat where no-one has a moral centre as Kenneth More's British Intelligence officer tries to set untrustworthy German turncoat James Booth against his former masters to track down Suzy Kendall's morphine addicted spy who, having already wormed out the secret of a horrific new poison gas from its lesbian former perfumier creator Capucine, has now set her sights on assassinating Lord Kitchener. Kendall, More and his German counterpart Nigel Green justify their ruthlessness with their patriotism as they play increasingly dirty, even killing their own when expedient, yet there's an undercurrent of awareness that they're held in as much contempt by the people who use their peculiar talents as by their enemies.
It's a fairly lavish production that, while it's more a cynical thriller than an anti-war film, still manages to score a few pertinent points in that direction, whether it's Booth noting that the war has made the bottle of champagne he orders rare because the vines have been destroyed and the ground poisoned so there will never be another vintage or a justly celebrated horrific gas attack sequence that begins with an almost documentary realism and ends with nightmarish images of German cavalry, horse and riders alike wearing gasmasks, swarming over No Man's Land like the four hundred horsemen of the Apocalypse. As a thriller it's never particularly tense, but it is involving and pays attention to many of the details and preparation, whether it's rehearsing a robbery in a skeletal framework representing a military headquarters or testing a poison. While the film never really gets that close to Kendall's character, aside from the Capucine episode it scrupulously avoids turning her into a conventional Mata Hari figure, presenting her instead as an extremely intelligent, resourceful and most of all proactive agent who uses her brains more than her body to outwit men. The ending is a bit problematic with a brief burst of out of character melodrama, but it quickly reverts to its more convincingly cynical worldview in the closing moments.
Dubbed by the voice of a thousand Bond girls, Nikki Van der Zyl, Suzy Kendall is at her best whenever morphine enters the picture in what is a surprisingly thinly drawn role considering she's the centrepiece of the film, never really coming into her own until her final moments when she really earns her close-up. Booth doesn't quite pull off his cynical opportunist working a blasé path around the two sides schemes while remaining only loyal to himself, but he's not quite so miscast that he throws the film off balance. Surprisingly neither does the very unconvincing model work or some very dodgy Scottish accents in the dubbing, though they're more than made up for by convincing production design, good photography and one of (for the most part) Ennio Morricone's more dissonant scores.
It's not a great movie, but it's certainly an often very good and unusual one that lives up to its cult following and deserves to be more widely seen indeed, it's surprising that a label like Blue Underground or Olive Films hasn't picked up the rights long ago. At present the only way to see it is by streaming via Netflix in the US or via a dodgy copy on Youtube that slips out of synch in the last third of the film.
Probably the best drama series ever produced about the First World War
Tracing the development of the Royal Flying Corps through the experiences of a handful of pilots, this is a surprisingly lavish production with an epic scope that takes in both family life at home and the experiences of the infantry on the ground for whom aircraft always spelled trouble.
The first series focuses on the early days of the war when dogfights took place between pilots armed only with rifles and handguns who would wave to each other after each unsuccessful attempt to kill each other, managing to find a fine balance between the genuine romance and limitations of early flight and its dangers. The aerial scenes aren't that plentiful but are well executed, and there's a good sense of the growing escalation of the war, with the series building up from the paltry basic training to standout frontline episodes like Over the Top, when things start to get nastier and early chivalry gives way to pragmatism.
Best of all, it takes its time to develop characters and situations naturally without ever seeming either rushed or padded out. Tim Woodward's country boy who only gets the chance to actually fly once his 'betters' are killed off at such a rate that the RFC is forced to abandon its gentlemen only attitude to pilots, Michael Cochrane's likable upper class pilot, Nicholas Jones charismatic but increasingly bitter flight commander and John Hallam's war wounded uncle back home might seem at first to be stock characters, but the strong writing makes them credible human beings who don't always act the way stereotypes of their respective classes in this kind of drama. Nor does it always opt for easy stereotypes in the passing parade of supporting characters - far from turning out to be a dead loss, one pompous oaf turns out to be an excellent observer and a superb marksman in the air but resolutely remains an obnoxious pompous oaf who never fits in despite his courage rather than suddenly learning the error of his ways and becoming one of the boys. Instead it manages to accurately portray the attitudes of the day without grafting too modern sensibilities or disillusionment onto its characters: they're convincingly of their time and class even as those times and class distinctions are being worn away by the war.
It's also surprisingly good at the emotional confusion caused by the breakdown in the old class system that happened during the was as the rapid turnover in human lives led to the lines between officer class and other ranks becoming blurred as people were regularly promoted 'beyond their station' for the first time: neither side really knows quite how to handle it, so handle it badly. Emotional partings are similarly awkward, with Tim Woodward's hero all-too-convincingly inarticulate when trying to explain to his fiancé why he broke up with her and failing miserably. The result is a drama that's as compelling on the ground as it is in the air, going beyond its small corner of the conflict to convey a real sense of why the First World War was such a world changing event both at the front and at home in a way few dramas have ever managed before.
Series two sees the war in the air escalating, along with the body count and sense of doom, and the scope of the series shifting. Sadly in the process John Hallam's character is written out after a single episode, the emphasis of the side plots shifting from the Home Front to the German aviators. The result is a very mixed bag of a series. The action scenes are considerably better than the first series, and not just the dogfights - an air raid and its aftermath in Dawn Attack is particularly convincing - and it convincingly raises the stages as the war moves into a stage where anyone can die - and one prominent character does, his plane still circling eerily long after he does - and where generals refer to infantry casualties as 'stuff on the ground.' The relationships shift too as friends fall out and nerves shred, but in the process it increasingly flirts with stock melodrama, presumably in an attempt to chase higher ratings.
Unfortunately it also veers into Boys Own cliché with a little too much of the kind of comic-book heroics the first season scrupulously avoided, what with characters landing behind enemy lines to take out machinegun nests and kidnap German generals. And it doesn't take long for this sporadic move into action series territory to take hold - it's only a couple of episodes in the run when Jones falls in love with a beautiful spy, is captured by Germans and sentenced to death and escapes with absurd ease to take his improbable revenge with even more absurd ease. Things do get back on track the next episode as one major character finally cracks under the strain but there's still a tendency towards melodrama in subsequent plot developments.
Intermittent episodes address the social impact of promoting people who didn't go to the right schools and weren't born with a sense of entitlement to authority (far from going for class war clichés, the episode acknowledges that there was more resentment from the 'lower orders' who preferred to be led by well-bred idiots when one of their own stepped out of his place) or
the opposition - not just from generals but pilots as well - to parachutes, then regarded as an 'invitation to cowardice' as well as the problems of developing new aircraft that won't kill inexperienced pilots after being stuck with planes where the only chance of taking down an enemy is a head-on collision, while the penultimate episode does finally deal with troubled relationship with French allies and civilian casualties. But these aren't enough to change the feeling that it's gone from being a consistently excellent series to a series with some excellent episodes.
Lafayette Escadrille (1958)
A shadow of the film it could have been
Starring a young Paul Newman and, in his first major role, Clint Eastwood, director William Wellman returned to the theme of his Oscar-winning Wings and his own experiences as an American pilot flying for the French in World War One with 1958's epic Lafayette Escadrille, a fitting swansong for one of the great directors of the golden age - or at least that's what SHOULD have happened. Instead Jack Warner balked at the budget, insisted on casting Tab Hunter instead of the lesser-known actors (Eastwood's role went to David Janssen, leaving him in a small bit part), added a happier ending and cut the film to ribbons in post-production before changing the title to Hell Bent for Glory, with the bitterly disillusioned director never making another film. The scars are all too visible in the rushed pacing and jarring plot holes left by scenes that never made it to the final cut, the opening of the film in particular looking like someone attempted to crudely shoehorn 20 minutes of plot development from an already badly compromised script into five minutes of surviving footage that looks like it's been edited with a lawnmower.
Some moments do survive, but they're few and far between. The heroes' first night in their barracks moves from a flat comic scene to a quietly mournful one where Wellman's own narration identifies of the real-life pilots sleeping alongside them by name and describes their impending deaths, and its here that you see the kind of no-nonsense tribute to the friends he left behind that he so clearly wanted to make. Wellman himself is actually a supporting character in the film, played by his own son, while Tab Hunter's hero isn't a million miles away from the kind of troubled delinquent 'Wild Bill' was himself, a spoiled brat running away from a hit-and-run accident (it's tempting to see Wellman's original ending that saw him die as a kind of survivor's guilt that so many who survived the Great War when 'better' men died sometimes expressed).
Unfortunately the result is just a flat, Earthbound backlot melodrama with some variably staged service comedy that abandons the fledgling fliers at the halfway point as Hunter deserts to marry Etchika Choureau's hustler-turned-nice-girl. Choureau's a pretty girl and there's a nice sequence with her blowing on the sleeping Hunter's face to wake him up, but they never make a strong or convincing enough couple to make you regard their romance as anything but a distraction from what a film called Lafayette Escadrille should really be about. The film rarely gets off the ground and does little that's interesting when it does, becoming surprisingly dreary in the mid-section with Hunter hiding out in her apartment and making a furtive living trawling bars and persuading servicemen to visit one of the local brothels. Naturally his conscience gets the better of him when the film finally realises there's a war on (something there's very little sense of for most of the running time) and he rejoins the squadron, earns his wings and the film finally gets round to having some aerial footage and a dogfight in the last reel. This footage is often quite good, but it's too little too late, feeling arbitrarily slapped on. Worse, there's no real connection to or affection for the character to get you involved, something that would have been just as big a problem had the original ending where Hunter died and his sweetheart committed suicide been retained. All in all it's a sad swansong for a great director and a poor memorial to the pioneer air aces he flew alongside.
Night Flight (1933)
"Admire them if you want to. Love them even. Just never let them know it."
Billed as the Grand Hotel of the air and out of circulation since 1942, MGM's lavish 1933 production Night Flight oozes prestige but never quite works as either a schlockbuster too classy and low key or as a dramatisation of pioneer aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery's now-forgotten bestseller about the early days of airmail flights over the Andes. As a manly adventure it's ground that Howard Hawks would cover much better in Only Angels Have Wings while as a multi-character melodrama uniting an all-star cast through the running thread of a possible air disaster, Airport would use its template much more effectively (and nab one of its female leads, Helen Hayes). Best known today for his semi-autobiographical fantasy The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery's novel was about the curious relationship between pioneer pilots who put up no resistance to the men on the ground who would push them to risk their lives to prove that commercial mail flights were profitable and reward them by fining them for not taking stupid risks. Mixing the reverie of flying with the succeed-at-any-cost commercial realities, its conflict has been watered down and given the MGM treatment while trying to maintain a more sober tone, leading to a strangely undramatic film that's neither entirely serious highbrow drama or all-out entertaining melodrama.
There are hints at what the novel was getting at in Robert Montgomery's playboy pilot, who comes down to Earth after a turbulent flight with something like a glimpse of the infinite, to which his only response is to go out for dinner with a man he doesn't really like (Lionel Barrymore's middle manager) before retiring upstairs with a prostitute. Yet his revelation doesn't carry as much weight as it could because, like so many of the characters, he's barely introduced and then largely forgotten until his big scene, then all-but forgotten again. While there's something intriguing about a big commercial picture from a major studio in the 30s taking a low-key, almost minimalist approach and showing people going about their work in this case the first dangerous night mail flight and only gradually revealing hints of character as the situation worsens, it doesn't work very well for the first half hour. Too often it feels like we're expected to care just because they're played by the likes of John Barrymore or Clark Gable, and you can't help feeling that former aviators-turned-filmmakers 'Spig' Wead or William Wellman could have brought them more vividly to life without any special pleading from the script. As it is only Myrna Loy's wife really makes an initial impression with her sad confession that her husband's love of flying and need to risk his life to pursue it is a part of him eternally shut off to her, something she can neither understand nor share.
The lack of someone or something to care about is something you suspect the studio were all too aware of once the film previewed. Whereas in the novel the potentially fatal flight was purely commercial "Just so someone in Paris can get a letter on Tuesday instead of Thursday" here it's bookended by Irving Pichel's doctor in Buenos Aires desperately needing a shipment of serum from Chile to save a child's life. It does feel like a post-production addition and doesn't compensate for the lack of drama any more than former pilot Clarence Brown's often striking but only sporadically effective direction does. The special effects are genuinely impressive though not too showy, though curiously the most striking and memorable aspect of the flying scenes are the slow travelling shots of the people along the flightpath below, a unique approach that gives the film a sense of the scale of the unfinished journey, though the final shots of a ghost squadron flying into the sunset seem like a botched attempt to copy the final shots of All Quiet on the Western Front without ever earning the audience's emotional involvement enough to work. It certainly picks up in the second half and there's a lot that's intriguing here, but it never quite makes it to its preferred destination.