Pilot #5 on Turner Classic Movies with no background or knowledge of it, but a WWII flick released right in the middle of the war? I'll give it a try if nothing else.
On the island of Java, an Allied air base has been under almost constant attack and heavy bombardment from the Japanese Navy. The attacks have wreaked havoc though where the new commander has an uncomfortable situation to resolve. The fighter squadron is down to one plane that's flyable with five pilots available. The lucky one that's chosen? George Collins (Franchot Tone), winning out over his compatriots. His mission is basically suicide though, one plane trying to run the gauntlet through Japanese forces to knock out a key Japanese carrier. As the men left behind tell their commander about the man he's chosen, George takes off in a beat-up fighter with a rigged bomb rack to do what he can. Could he somehow get through unscathed?
This World War II movie from director George Sidney popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule this week so I thought I'd give it a try. It clocked in at a brisk-sounding 71 minutes and featured a pretty decent cast so I figured there was little harm in giving it a shot. Even if it was lousy, it's only 71 minutes, right? Right?!? Well, it's a good thing it wasn't any longer because I probably would have bailed. 'Pilot' uses the tried and true storytelling device of...the flashback. When used properly, it can be a gem, helping add layers and background to the story. When not used properly, well, that's the case here. It derails a story I thought had some pretty decent potential.
While the cast is pretty good, no one really stood out from the rest in the end. Franchot Tone as the tortured, redemption-seeking George Collins leaves something to be desired in the old "interesting character" department. The character is just too flat for the movie's sake. We're intrigued with how he ended up in this spot but even when we find out, the payoff isn't worth it. The other pilots include Gene Kelly as the fiery, angry Vito Alessandro, Van Johnson as the jokey Everett Arnold, Alan Baxter as the all-business Winston Davis, and Dick Simmons as Henry Claven, a childhood friend of George's. These characters end up being a means to an end, a way of jumping into the flashbacks and little else. Kelly gets the most screen-time and does pretty well while Van Johnson unfortunately is completely wasted. Also look for a very young Peter Lawford as a British soldier at the base.
Of the 71 minutes, I'd say about 50 were more concerned with the George Collins flashback...unfortunately. We see George growing up, heading off to law school, and trying to make something of his name and with a big old chip on his shoulder. He gets involved with Kelly's Vito -- a fellow lawyer and jack of all trades -- and ultimately a corrupt governor (Howard Freeman) that seems more fitting in All the King's Men than in a WWII propaganda flick. Throw in a love story lacking basically all chemistry with George's girlfriend, Freddie (Marsha Hunt), and you've got those middle flashback portions absolutely dragging along. Not a positive when you find yourself looking at the clock a whole lot in a 71-minute movie.
The beginning and ending portions are pretty decent. Dark, claustrophobic and uncomfortable as George flies into impossible odds while his fellow pilots wait back at base and listen over the radio to the developing mission. The new Dutch commander (Steven Geray) is a little much in the propaganda part, encouraging the audience to fight back against Fascism and wanting to really know the man he's sending on a suicide mission. A disappointing end result, a war movie with some potential that never really adds up.
Pilot #5 (1943): **/****