Considering the timing of the release of the movie -- August 1941 -- just a few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor makes this war flick a fascinating look into a pre-war United States armed forces. Made with the full backing of the U.S. Navy, the film almost seems like a dare to any possible enemies. "Come and get us, we're ready for you." And above all else, the planes are the reason to see this movie, and there are lots of them, but more on that later. Because remember, you can always have too much of a good thing.
Working as a flight surgeon in Hawaii, Dr./Lt. Doug Lee (Errol Flynn) loses a patient in surgery who blacked out during a dive bombing exercise and almost severed his spinal cord in the crash. Lee notices that this problem is facing pilots through the armed forces and starts to work on solving the issue. He goes through flight training and teams with Dr. Lance Rogers (Ralph Bellamy) as they begin to explore options on preventing dive bomber pilots from blacking out mid-dive. With help from a test pilot, Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray), the trio push the limits of how far and how high pilots can go, realizing a pressurized suit might be the best option in solving the problem.
In a movie centered around pilots and aviation, a certain amount of flying sequences are to be expected, but director Michael Curtiz doesn't know when to stop. I'm assuming to a certain point that with their full backing the Navy insisted on a set number of these sequences to show how skilled and talented their pilots were. And honestly, these flying scenes are something else as we see all sorts of formations and aerial tricks performed in the skies. But by the 10th or 12th time we see these long, uncut shots it all gets a little tedious. And with a movie that is far too long at 132 minutes, these scenes become more and more obvious as something worth cutting.
The flight sequences if nothing else balance the good and the bad, but I realized something about midway through the movie. You know what isn't that exciting to watch? Scientific experiments, even those dealing with flight and highly-trained pilots. The first hour is interesting as Lee, Rogers and Blake put aside their differences and work together. They make a big breakthrough that should help prevent pilots blacking out, and everything seems peachy. Then you realize there's another 70 minutes to go of more pressurized experiments and tedious aerial shots. Somebody should have snuck into the editing room with a pair of scissors and helped the movie out.
But as is so often the case with movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, producers and studios insisted on fleshing out so many things that are completely unnecessary to the essential story. Alexis Smith plays the cutest stalker around who keeps following Flynn's doctor/pilot wherever he's stationed. She's just so darn cute he doesn't seem bothered by her stalkerish tendencies. Then there's the comedic segments where Lee's assistant, Lucky (Allen Jenkins), has to avoid his recently divorced wife who is trying to get his money. He avoids her by hiding in an isolation ward not once, not twice, but three times in scenes that go on far too long. Oh, that 1940s humor, it is a humdinger!
Even with all those complaints, the movie has some interesting elements, most of them related to the casting. Playing a Navy doctor is a bit of a change of pace for ladies man Flynn, but it's a good change of pace. Bellamy is a good counter to the charming Flynn, and MacMurray is the arrogant a-hole who ends up coming around in the end because 'aw shucks, let's all be friends!' The three do have a good chemistry together and help move the slower parts along. My recommendation is watch the first hour, and then stop. You're going to see the same thing over and over again.
Dive Bomber <---trailer (1941): **/****