Lafayette Escadrille was created as a fighter squadron of American volunteers who wanted to help turn back the Axis forces. The famous squadron has been in three film adaptations of their exploits, including a silent film, recently with 2006's Flyboys, and a real dud of a flick on basically all levels, 1958's Lafayette Escadrille.
Having gotten in trouble with the law and subsequently with his father, Thad Walker (Tab Hunter) flees and sneaks onto a ship out of New York heading for Europe. His plan? Join the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of flyers in the French army created for American volunteers looking to join the fighting in World War I. He's worried about his trouble with the law stopping him from the squadron, but he's accepted and arrives with three other Americans. They begin training under French commanders, learning to work as a team -- mostly on the ground with very little actual training in a plane. Thad's mind is elsewhere though. He's constantly thinking about Renee (Etchika Choureau), a beautiful young French woman he met in Paris before shipping out to training camp. Can he focus enough on the training and flying to become a flyer?
How do I put those delicately? From director William A. Wellman, this movie just ain't good. It's almost painful at times to actually get a movie that runs an endless 93 minutes. For starters, it isn't really much of a story about the American flyers flying with the French. That must have been a ploy by Wellman. Point to you, Wellman! It's a bizarre mix of a forced love story, out of place physical humor, and broadly written dull characters. How many scenes do we need of a French drill sergeant (Marcel Dalio) who can't speak English trying to get his volunteers to march in formation? Oh, but one of the Americans speaks French and is just messing with the sergeant?!? That's hilarious. The actual training scenes are embarrassing, rickety wooden planes crashing into each other, even running into a bakery and a bakery thief. It doesn't have to be a consistently dark tone, but a Keystone Cops tone is exactly what shouldn't have been done.
Much like 2006's Flyboys -- which I liked a lot -- 'Lafayette' devotes far too much time to an unnecessary love story that is criminally boring to watch develop. I've never been a huge fan of Hunter as an actor, and here the 27-year old just doesn't bring the character to life. First off, it's hard to root for him. As we meet him, he's stealing a car and actually crashes at high speeds into a kid on a bike (the kid's only injured thankfully). His Thad comes from a tough house where his rich dad was very tough on him. Boo-hoo, I don't feel for you, buddy. It's not just that I didn't like the character, I was actively rooting against him. That's always a good jumping off point for any movie. His relationship with Choureau's Renee brings an already slow-moving story to a grinding halt. At the 45-minute mark, the story focuses almost exclusively on the love story away from the airfield. I felt like I'd stumbled into a different movie, a far more boring movie.
But wait, there's hope! Right? Eh, maybe not. I was intrigued by the supporting cast here so I held out hope. Thad's fellow pilots he arrives with include David Janssen as the smooth-talking, pencil mustache pilot, Duke, William Wellman Jr. playing a variation on his dad who actually flew as a WWI pilot Jody McCrea as Tom. As for the rest of the pilots, look for a pre-Rawhide Clint Eastwood, pre-Billy Jack Tom Laughlin, and Will Hutchins. The problem becomes that many more pilots are introduced, but they're a faceless bunch of characters that never amount to anything. We're actually introduced to them as they're sleeping -- so we don't actually see most of their faces -- as Wellman Sr. narrates what will happen to them. We don't actually see any of that happen, but we learn that most of them will die. It would have had at least some emotional impact if we actually got to know them. Also look for Paul Fix briefly as an American general.
It's a film that wasn't intended to be a classic but is still highly disappointing. The actual aerial footage of the WWI-era planes is pretty cool, but there's very little of it. We don't even see a dogfight until the last 10 minutes of the movie, and by then I had long since checked out. A cool cast makes it almost worth watching as a sort of guilty pleasure, a way to check off an actor like Eastwood's filmography, but it has little else to recommend. It's Rebel Without a Cause in planes, but they forgot to bring the planes. Pass.
Lafayette Escadrille (1958): */****