Watching a movie released in 1943 in the U.S., you have to know what you're getting into. Made with the backing of the U.S. Air Force (and most likely the U.S. government), this is a war story dripping with propaganda. It was made to encourage the home front, make sure Americans knew what our armed forces were fighting for. Overall, the movie doesn't overdo it with its message until an unnecessary gruesome finale, but the first 90 minutes is a perfect example of how good a movie can be even with an incredibly one-sided story. Flag-waving in just about every scene and a can't beat the U.S. mentality end up working toward the positive here.
Taking off from a runway in San Francisco, a B-17 bomber named 'Mary Ann' piloted by 'Irish' Quincannon (John Ridgely) and Bill Williams (Gig Young) heads out over the Pacific bound for Hickam Field in Hawaii. With several new members of the nine-man crew, they have little experience working together but quickly find themselves needing to get on the same page. They fly into Hawaii on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941 just hours after the sneak attack by the Japanese Navy that almost cripples the U.S. Pacific fleet. They land and are are quickly given orders to continue flying to the west. Reports of Japanese attacks throughout the Pacific have the High Command on a major alert, and every man, pilot, and plane is needed to hold back the advance if the U.S. has any chance of staying in the conflict.
Director Howard Hawks did a wise thing setting this story in and around the opening days of the U.S. involvement in World War II. Looking at the story as simplistically as possible, we get a tour of the Pacific in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor. We see Battleship Row still in flames, we see the heroic defenders of Wake Island as they await a Japanese attack, we see military bases in Manila falling back under waves of Japanese attackers. It serves two purposes, one being a jumping off point for everything that's going on, and two, it shows these heroic efforts put forth by American soldiers, Marines, sailors, civilians and pilots throughout the Pacific against impossible odds. And make no mistake, many of the people on Wake and throughout the Philippines were either killed or captured by the Japanese.
The propaganda is held in check for the most part with two major exceptions. A machine gunner on the back of a small fighter plane is forced to bail and attempts to parachute to dry land. Floating back to the ground, he is machine-gunned by a Japanese pilot. Then as he lies dying on the ground, the pilot flies over again and finishes him off in brutal fashion. First, there's documented cases of Japanese pilots doing this throughout the war. Subtle it is not, but in terms of portraying the Japanese in as brutal a depiction as possible, this gets the job done. Second exception, 2001's Pearl Harbor syndrome. Instead of just telling the story of Pearl Harbor, the 2001 movie adds on the telling of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo because us Americans, we need our happy endings. Here in Air Force, Hawks depicts a fictional, very one-sided depiction of the American Air Force destroying a Japanese invasion fleet on its way to Australia. It's overdone and just tries too hard, reveling in the defeat of the Japanese. I understand this might have been a necessary ending in 1943, but now in 2010 it just doesn't work.
Those complaints aside, I loved the movie starting with one of Hawks' biggest strengths as a director. He had a knack for working perfectly with predominantly male, ensemble casts, and Air Force has a good one. Ridgely and Young play the pilots of B-17 Mary Ann with the crew including Harry Carey as veteran crew chief Robbie White, John Garfield as new machine gunner Joe Winocki, Arthur Kennedy as bombardier Tommy McMartin, Charles Drake as navigator Monk Hauser, George Tobias as mechanic Weinberg, Ward Wood as radioman Peters, Ray Montgomery as newbie Chester, and James Brown as tag-along fighter pilot Tex Raider. With such a big ensemble, we only get tidbits of info about each man, but they cover a melting pot of the Americans fighting in WWII. They bond through their common goal and will to survive, doing whatever they can to take the war back at the Japanese.
When propaganda works, it is typically because it hits a nerve. I've long been a fan of war movies across the board, and you can't help but root in patriotic fashion for this B-17 crew. For a start, they're very easy to like, all of them. When one of the crew dies following a Japanese attack, you see the others throw caution to the wind in hopes of reassembling the plane so they can rejoin the war effort. Carey and Garfield cradling machine guns in their arms fighting off Japanese Zeroes hits you in the gut. It's over the top and hammy, but it's perfectly portrayed. Obviously now in 2010, we know the Allies won WWII. But in 1943 the war was still up for grabs, and Americans could always use a positive jolt. This certainly qualifies.
Air Force <---trailer (1943): *** 1/2 /****