Greetings, all and sundry! There’s been a topic tumbling around my gray matter for awhile that has been seeking surcease and release. Patiently waiting for the right opportunity to make itself known. Something that at first glance may seem archaic, but was a staple for a young man being raised on the many variations of the War Film. Specifically, World War II and Korea.Though Vietnam will also get its due.
When many think of “Air Power” they immediately slide into those films where serious men with oak leaves, eagles and stars on their epaulets discuss the projection of strength into foreign, enemy lands. Where ‘Command Decision’ and ’12 o’clock High’ would rightly lead the charge.
But I’m going to take a step down the chain of command and focus on a few films where the onus to hack the mission lies with those behind the joystick or yoke of assorted fighters and bombers. While offering superb aerial cinematography and occasional model work to enhance tension and add authenticity.
To that end. Allow me a few moments of your time to wax meticulous and nostalgic about my own personal.
Air Power Triple Play:
#1: The Battle of Britain (1969)
Perhaps, one the last and greatest “star-studded” odes to the months long battle in the skies that would determine England fate in the first and failed step of Hitler’s “Operation Sea Lion”. The upper chain of RAF’s fledgling Fighter Command is nailed down quite nicely with British stiff upper lip unknown and quiet desperation by Sir Lawrence Olivier ad Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. Calling the shots and selecting which squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricane fighters will joust with the Heinkels and Junkers twin-engine light bombers of the Luftwaffe.
Fighters scattered all over the English countryside. With pilots like Michael Caine and Robert Shaw waiting to get the call to “Scramble!”. Forewarned by the heaviest hitting secret weapon of the day. Radar.
It is when the pilots climb into their aircraft that the film comes into its own. with unimaginable detail work. Down to the fleece boots of flight suits. And the smooth tires of their assigned plane (Grassy meadows vs. Asphalt or concrete). Climbing and waiting for information and direction from assorted command centers. Diving. Attacking and getting away without dog fighting, if possible. Knocking down as many German bombers as possible before their raining destruction down on farms, cities, aerodromes and docks along the Channel.
An all British show at first. Until the bombers decide to hit London and other major population and industrial centers. Holding their own against equally determined and detailed Luftwaffe bomber, Messerschmitt and Focke Wolfe pilots. Once the focus of attention is shifted away from the RAF squadrons. New planes and pilots with little stick time show up. Along with aid from the Polish Air Force. To learn quick or die trying.
Very likely the crème de la crème of aerial combat films. With many restored Spitfires and Hurricanes utilized on the ground and in the air. When not being substituted with Jasper Maskelyne like sleight of hand with scaled down Remote Control model planes for its several up close and personal encounters with enemy aircraft being supplied by the Spanish Air Force.
Are there mistakes? A few, but negligible. Like four bladed propellers on the Luftwaffe fighters and Junkers bombers, but that is due to surplus sales and time. Allow your disbelief to easily be suspended in a classic under the deft touch of Guy Hamilton at the reins. Backed up by superb cinematography by Freddie Young. Editing by Bert Bates. Original Music by Ron Goodwin. Worn and battered costumes for the pilots by Brenda Dabbs. And Special and Visual Effects crews too long to list here!
Which leaves my second offering open for dissertation. One of the best blending of near documentary attention to history. A very worthwhile and detailed back story. And a final, very tense and intense half hour that would supply grist for the first film of a franchise dealing with a galaxy long ago and far, far away!
#2 The Dam Busters (1955)
The 1955 B&W silver standard gem directed by Michael Anderson that tells the tale of WWII Ministry of Aircraft and Vickers Aviation Section engineer and whiz kid, Barnes Wallis. Overwhelming production of German war materials coming out of an area powered hydroelectrically by three dams. And the RAF’s desire to destroy those dams in something that would later be called “Operation Chastise”.
As with any major problem, the British approach it logically. Having learned that torpedo attacks do not work on the thick, resistive seaward wall of the dams. Due to strung torpedo nets. Something else is needed. That can be dropped by a four engined Avro Lancaster bomber. To sink and explode and cause ruptures. That will allow nature and millions of tons of water to take their course into neighboring industrial valleys.
Vertical bombing is out of the question, due to fusing and questionable results. So, Wallis (Magnificently and underplayed with a quiet, bookish demeanor by Michael Redgrave!) comes up with the idea of a “skipping” or “bouncing” bomb. Based on the childhood principle of applying spin to a stone and skipping it over ponds and still streams. Only on a much larger scale as Wallis and his crew of Boffins start working on smaller models along pools with graduated markers. First indoors and later, out around Brighton.
Progress is slow as launch speeds and heights are toyed with. From start as the round and drum shaped models are spun and ejected. Then stop and sink. As an optimum depth is sought and determined for maximum effect. Results and numbers are crunched. As Chief Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris (Wondrously staunch and skeptical, incredibly hard to persuade, Basil Sydney) is directed to gather a squadron of heavy bombers and crews, should anything Wallis comes up with proves worthwhile.
Twin engine Wellington bombers are kept around for up-scaled models. Sufficient enough, with their speed, maneuverability and payload. But Lancasters are sought. Though Harris has them all assigned to night bombing missions. Until he discovers that Wallis had a large hand in the up-engined, longer range, wider wingspan and newly designed modifications of the Wellington into the superior Lancaster. And 617 Squadron is tasked. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson (A solid “Been there. Done that” veteran with many missions under his belt brought to life by Richard Todd). who understands that the mission could shorten the war by seriously curtailing enemy production.
The pieces start falling into place as the models that don’t shatter on impact skip well and straight well enough. When dropped at a uniform height and speed that is hit and miss during tests. And needs to be better. Aircraft altimeters are not reliable and a new hand-held gauge shows promise. Overwhelmed and feeling the need for some relaxation, Guy takes in a stage play and notices the spotlights used to focus on the dancers. And an idea is born.
Spotlights are mounted and angled and tested on lakes around Scotland and Wales and progress is made. Sixty feet of altitude becomes the norm. Over still, placid waters. To target a slightly taller dam with tall, bracketing towers full of German Ack-Ack guns (Visions of a much more popular film around two decades later leap to mind!). More intelligence and information is gathered on the three dams, Eder, Mohn and Sorpe. And a mission night is set.
Another film whose meat is in the air and not on the ground. Though the Boffin-ish, scientific trials, tests and travails led by Mr. Redgrave’s Barnes Wallis provide a solid, often suspenseful foundation of trial and error that leads the way.
Aerial cinematography by Erwin Hiller is superb. Both inside and outside the bombers. Whose enormous size dwarfs their crews of five. And the Lancaster’s one piece of armor behind the pilot’s head. Kudos also to Richard Todd and his portrayal of a level-headed commander. Who has a fair idea of the odds of mission completion versus mission success.
The decision to use B&W is inspired. Reinforcing the film’s near documentary feel. While editing in the capable hands of Richard Best is more that can be asked for. Increasing tension throughout the film. Though smoothly and elegantly paying off, visually and aurally with clipped chatter between the attacking Lancasters. Backed up by an enriching and emotional original score and later March by Leighton Lucas.
Opening the door for my third selection. A supposed “Bread and Butter” film from Twentieth Century Fox from 1958. And based on the very popular novel of the same name by James Salter, who aided in the screenplay.
#3 The Hunters (1958)
Focusing on one of many squadrons of F-86 Saber fighters operating out of Yokota Air Base, Japan. Enjoying a well earned 15-1 advantage in kills over Russian designed and gifted MiG 15s. With hopes of increasing that edge with the introduction of Robert Mitchum as Major Cleaver “Cleve” Saville. An Ace from as an assortment of piston powered fighters of WWII. Transitioned and very comfortable with jet power. Very much like Colonel Robin Olds, a generation later.
Saville is tasked by Squadron Commander, contemporary and peer, Colonel “Dutch” Imil (An equally good Richard Egan) to take his latest cache of young jocks and make them smarter, more aggressive, and hopefully, wiser at the end of the day.
Amongst them, 1st Lt. Corona (John Gabriel). Calm, level-headed. Well versed in his calling. 1st. Lt. Ed Pell (Robert Wagner channeling Edd “Kookie” Byrnes). A natural. First in his class in everything. And very, very anxious to claim his first “kill”. Along with 1st. Lt. Carl Abbott. Who hides his fears with alcohol. And whose wife, Kristina “Kris” (May Britt) has moved from the states. And lives off base to be close to her husband.
An introductory and familiarization flight goes very well the next day. Especially when having it crashed by Col. Moncavage (Stacey Harris). Who has his tail waxed by Saville. Saville’s initial mission the following day begins well. With Saville ‘s four plane element looking for “Casey Jones”(Leon Lontoc). Yokota’s Air Base’s nickname for the pilot of a MiG-15 with dice and “7-11” on the nose of his fighter. Casey takes out Saville’s wing man. External fuel tanks are punched off. Corona’s stay put. Pell breaks off and joins in the melee as another MiG damages Corona’s Saber. The MiGs escape and Pell returns to find Corona wounded as his plane pinwheels in and crashes.
Imil wants Pell to be Saville’s new wing man. Saville balks, but Imil over rules. An intervention is required with the young pilot. In the form of a hay maker behind the deuce and a halves. Pell will not stray and will grow up. Right now! Period. And the two become a team. Collecting kills as Abbott is reluctant to join in.
In the interim, Saville acclimates himself with the cities around Yokota and crosses paths with Kris. Who worries about her husband, who prefers the base to her company. Saville and Kris run into each other often enough for Abbott to expect the worse. Earning a slap from Saville when Abbott drunkenly suggests they compare notes. Then ups the ante with the offer of giving Saville his wife for a shot at Casey Jones.
Baffled and angry, Saville orders Abbott to sleep it off for tomorrow’s mission. Luring MiGs south of the Yalu River and interdicting them for a B-29 bomber mission somewhere else. This is where all the elements come together. Abbott has a kill under his belt, but is frightened silly every time he takes off. Saville and Pell are working well together. And Casey Jones just might take the bait of the trolling F-86s.
Casey and four MiGs head in. The F-86s punch off their external tanks and separate dog fights begin. With Pell claiming one. Abbot getting a piece of another. Only to be shot up by another MiG as Saville takes after Casey Jones.
And it is when the superior aerial cinematography comes out to play. With Republic F-84s Thunderstreaks filling in well for enemy North Korean MiG-15s. As Immelmann loops, snap and barrel rolls are executed over Nellis and other air bases in Nevada and California.
Abbot ejects over a rugged, arid no man’s land. While Saville takes care of Casey Jones. Sees Abbot’s crashed F-86 and his parachute strung up in a tree. Saville does a few gun runs on North Korean ground troops. Catches some hits. Blows his canopy and searches for a place to dead stick and pancake in.
Pell follows what’s happening and does several gun runs on a small convoy of trucks. Takes some serious hits and ejects. Makes it down. Dumps his chute and joins Saville and a shaken, broken legged Abbott.
I’ll leave it right here for Spoliers sake.
One of the last and best “Eyeball Kill” type of dogfight films. Where you can see the pursuing MiG or F-86 in the “six o’ clock” position. Twisting and occasionally firing. Then turned around with the clever use of forward projection. Cementing that Dick Powell is a surprisingly good director by adding some new twists on the cinematic technology of the day. While revealing the real advantage of the F-86 at supersonic range. With its unique “Flying Tail” (An idea pioneered by Colonel Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1) during the film’s opening five minutes.
He also tells a story quite well. With the interaction and problems amongst the squadron’s assigned pilots. But it is in the air where the film grabs attention and advances its plot. Cleverly using F-84s to fill in for the more stubby and barrel-shaped Mig 15s. And stays true to the fact that there were a lot of them. Though, piloted by Russian “Honcho” advisers with multiple kills. MiGs also had two 23mm cannons and a machine gun mounted forward of the cockpit. While the F-86 has six .50 caliber machine guns. The distinctions between the different armaments, their reach and destructive power also made known.
Cinematography and the use of CinemaScope by Charles G. Clarke works well all way the around. Heightening the romantic as well as the action. While original music by Paul Satwell is a bit martial, but works with suspense.
And for the true aficionado of this genre of fighter film. Do not be the least bit shocked when John Millius hijacks major segments of the film’s final shootout and aftermath as the finale of his Navy/Vietnam film, The Flight of the Intruder a few decades later. Though Milius does tack on what an Air Force Para-Rescue, CH-53 “Jolly Green Giant” heavy lift helicopter and a clutch of prop driven, loaded for bear A1-E “Sandys” and “Spads” can do to intervening ground troops.