by Tony Medley
World War I is the war
Hollywood forgot. But after “Wings” won the first Academy Award as Best
Picture in 1929, followed by “Hell’s Angels” and “The Dawn Patrol” in
1930 (all three of which were directed by experienced pilots), and “All
Quiet on the Western Front” which made a star of Lew Ayres, whose widow
was a long time bridge partner of mine, WWI was basically discarded by
Director Tony Bill, a pilot
himself, has resurrected WWI and made one of the most entertaining war
movies I’ve seen. With an intelligent script played by good actors, a
sweet love story, and the best aerial dogfight sequences ever filmed, it
expertly captures what it must have been like fighting WWI in the deadly
air over France where a pilot’s life expectancy was 17 days.
Bill and screenwriters Phil
Sears and Blake T. Evans & David S. Ward tell the story of the Lafayette
Escadrille, a group of Americans who enthusiastically took to the air to
defend France in the days before America joined the war in 1917. The
characters are composites of real people. Pilot Frank Luke, a
Congressional Medal of Honor winner, was the model for Blaine Rawlings
(James Franco), who is the protagonist of the film. Raoul Lufbery, who
became a legend by his single-minded efforts to avenge the death of his
best friend, was the inspiration for Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson),
who is the paterfamilias for the group of young Americans in the film.
The other characters in the film are similarly based on real life
people, even Skinner (Abdul Salis), whose character is based on Eugene
Bullard, the first black military pilot.
The incidents shown, too, are
based on fact. Rawlings’ rescue of Eddie Beagle (David Ellison) is drawn
from an incident described in Nordhoff & Hall’s “The Lafayette Flying
Rawlings falls in love with
Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), a French girl who can’t speak English. Their
evolving relationship, as neither speaks the other's language, is
touchingly established by accomplished acting.
A combination of real planes
really flying and CGI was used to create the dogfights. The replicas of
vintage aircraft were constructed “rib by rib” on the computer and
modeled to exact dimensions. Careful rigging and controls were devised
for all the aircraft which would replicate exactly how a real plane
would function during various maneuvers. The movements of the real and
model planes were then digitally captured and integrated into new
animation. The result places the audience in the middle of aerial action
that is breathtaking.
One thing this film adds to
the mix of WWI movies is the addition of tracer fire, which has never
before been shown in a WWI film, despite the fact that one of the WWI
diaries described the sky during a dogfight as “a spider web of tracer
The dogfights alone are worth
the price of admission. The only other film I’ve seen solely for the
special effects was “Jurassic Park.” Those dinosaurs, which were
spectacular, have nothing on the aerial special effects in this movie.
But this film is not just
dogfights. The story is interesting, especially when most of the
incidents and people are fact-based; the actors are, without exception,
top rate; and the girlfriend is sweet and beautiful.
Sure, it’s schmaltzy. But
this doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s a 124-minute
old-fashioned, John Wayne-type, feel good war movie. And what’s wrong
with that? I loved it.
September 21, 2006