The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) A US WWI Air Combat Movie

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I’d never heard of  The Eagle and the Hawk before seeing it included in a war movie collection box that I ordered from the US. I’m happy to say that it was a real surprise. At one hour and eight minutes, it’s rather on the short side but it still packs a punch. Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives, A Star is Born) and Cary Grant (North by Northwest, Notorious, To Catch a Thief)  star in this unjustly overlooked black and white WWI anti-war, air combat drama. And there’s even a short scene with the stunning Carole Lombard (To Be or Not to Be, Mr and Mrs Smith)

Jerry Young (Frederic March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) are both pilots but while Young is talented and careful, Crocker is rather foolhardy. That’s why, when they are called to got to France, Young makes sure, Crocker isn’t summoned. One can understand why because not only is he not the best pilot, but he’s also cranky and mean-spirited.

Once in Europe, Young’s quickly covered in medals. While many pilots envy him for that, he’s getting more and more depressed. Not only is he shocked to lose all of his young observers after only a few missions, but he also hates to shoot down enemy planes.

He’s more than a little surprised when he discovers that his newest observer, who has just come over from the US, is no other than Crocker. They didn’t like each other in the US but now this dislike turns into hate. Especially since Crocker treats killing like a sport, while Young’s sinking deeper and deeper into his depression. The true conflict however stems from Crocker’s attitude towards the enemy. Even in war, there are some rules, but he just doesn’t stick to them and does a few atrocious things.

When Young shoots down Alfred Voss, one of the most highly decorated German pilots, he earns everyone’s respect but cannot forgive himself for killing a mere boy.

Seeing a decorated pilot suffer from his own victories, isn’t something I’ve seen often in war movies but it’s not entirely new. What was different though, was Cary Grant’s character’s development. I thought this was genuinely well done and led to a surprising end twist that I’m not going to forget soon.

I’ve seen people comment on the scene with Carole Lombard, calling it superfluous. In my opinion, it gives the movie a bitter-sweet quality and foreshadows tragic events.

It’s a neat, short movie with two interesting character portraits, a very outspoken anti-war message, a few pretty good air combat scenes and a great and surprising ending.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a trailer, which isn’t surprising as it’s a movie from the 30s.

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

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I wanted to finish the year in style and a review of the black and white movie Twelve O’Clock High seemed fitting. This is one of the most highly acclaimed war movies and while I wouldn’t exactly give it a five-star rating, like so many critics did, I still think it’s a very important movie and the acting is superb.

Most air combat movies I have seen so far, with very few exceptions, showed the point of view of the British or the Germans. This is one of the rare depicting the American side.

In 1942 the US Air Force conducted daylight bombing raids. They thought that the precision of daylight bombing would speed up things and end the war earlier. However this put the pilots under a lot of additional pressure. 918th Bombardment Group was one that took much higher casualties than others. Their morale was pretty low, their squadron leader on the brink of a breakdown. Their explanation for their losses was “bad luck”.

Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) doesn’t want to hear any of this. He believes that leadership or rather the lack thereof is the main reason. The squadron leader is too attached to his men, identifies with them which clouds his judgement.

When Savage takes over the command he faces open resistance. The men don’t want such a hard and seemingly unfeeling leader and want to be transferred. Savage won’t let go. He works on their morale, assigns new leaders, regroups the men, even has the change their sleeping quarters. While they are hostile in the beginning, the first raids show, what he teaches makes sense as there are fewer casualties. On top of that he flies every mission with them.

Outstanding leadership, unflinching command, show results and soon the morale is high again and the men start to admire and even like Savage. Unfortunately the intensity of his assignment comes at a high cost.

While the beginning of the movie is extremely wordy, the second half is perfect. A lot of original footage heightens the authenticity and Savage’s character is one of the most interesting in any war movie. As said before, I wouldn’t exactly give this 5 stars (I found the beginning too slow) but it’s certainly a very good movie and Gregory Peck’s acting is outstanding.

Don’t let the poster fool you, by the way, Twelve O’Clock High is a black and white movie.

Reach For The Sky (1956) Biopic of a Famous RAF Bomber Pilot

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If Reach for the Sky wasn’t a true story it would be one of those movies which you’d just shrug off as way over the top but since it is based on a true story it leaves you astonished.

Reach for The Sky is the story of one man’s love for flying which was so intense that it made him  overcome one of the worst things that can happen to a man and later turned him into a legend.

Douglas Bader is a passionate and reckless young RAF pilot when in 1931, while showing off his talents in front of other pilots, he has a terrible accident which costs him both legs.

Determined and optimistic as he is, he makes the impossible possible and soon learns to walk on tin legs, without help or a crutch. Shortly after leaving the hospital, still on crutches during that time, he meets his future wife and love of his life Thelma.

The only bitter moment comes for him when they don’t accept him as a pilot anymore and he has to do desk duty.

If it wasn’t for WWII he may never have flown again but when war breaks out he undergoes tests and is judged fit for service.

The story which is already quite remarkable until that point, gets truly astonishing now. Not only does he fly one mission after the other, survives the Battle of Britain but he becomes one of the best-loved wing commanders until he is shot down in 1941.

He survives and is captured by the Germans. As a POW he shows the same determination as earlier in his life and escapes several times from different camps until he’s finally sent to Colditz castle where he remains until the end of the war.

Douglas Bader’s story is truly amazing. It would have been so easy to just fall into a deep depression and withdraw from life but Bader was a fighter and nothing, absolutely nothing, could put that man down or stop him. And he was a passionate pilot. As much as he loved his wife, we get the impression that he loved flying even more.

A story like this is quite inspiring but that wouldn’t make this a great movie. What makes it great is the way it is told. While the first half focusses on Bader, his accident and how he learned to walk again, the second half focusses on WWII, the Battle of Britain, the dog fights… It’s quite suspenseful and interesting. It’s not easy for Bader to be accepted at first. The young pilots are a bit taken aback when they find out their wing commander has no legs.

I wasn’t familiar with the main actors Kenneth Moore and the lovely Muriel Pavlow but they were both really good.

It’s certainly a movie I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII, the Battle of Britain and true stories about resilience and overcoming a tragedy.

Red Tails (2012) The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen Re -Told

Maybe it’s good to watch bad movies in order to be able to appreciate the good ones more? With that premise in mind, I’d say, Red Tails is highly effective. Still I find it deplorable that it couldn’t be any better and at the same time, I don’t know why this had to be remade. The 1995 TV version The Tuskegee Airmen is really good, I liked it a great deal and although it is sentimental in places it’s not as corny as Red Tails. Geroge Lucas’ justification for this remake, according to an interview,  was CGI and that the use of it allowed him to show the dog fights like they haven’t been shown before. Maybe but…

The story of Red Tails, unlike the older version of 95, starts only when all-black fighter squadron 332 is already in Italy and waiting for an important assignment. Although highly trained and some of the best fighter pilots the US Army has, they aren’t allowed on important missions. All they do is shoot trains and small targets. The frustration is high and when they are finally given the opportunity to escort a bomber crew they are happy and do an oustanding job.

If you’ve never even heard of the true story of The Tuskegee Airmen, Squadron 332, then you will find it very interesting. Even a notorious moaner like Spike Lee approved of this production which may not be surprising as his Mircale at St. Anna has one of the corniest endings ever.

What’s my problem then? There were many.

Foreboding – It’s handled extremely heavily, no casualty or twist was not foreseeable from the beginning.

Music – This was one of the wost scores ever. Too much, all of the time and in some instances some weird techno type music which may appeal to a CGI crazy generation but is highly unrealistic in a WWII movie.

CGI – Overdone and tacky looking. I didn’t find it convincing at all.

Cast and Characters – Many of the actors did a good performance but not Cuba Gooding Jr. He dragged the movie down and was responsible for more than one unintentionally funny scene. He grimaced his way through this movie, it was painful to watch. His attempts at looking like an authority figure which he tried to achieve smoking a pipe, didn’t work at all.

Back story – There is no back story and I feel that’s really missing. the TV production took much more time and is therefore more efficient in its anti-racism message.

Emotion – As corny as it was, it wasn’t moving. I was very moved when I saw the 1995 version but this one left me cold.

Love Story – An awfully, awfully, trite and forseeable story.

Racism – I felt it only touched on the main topic of racism because, as mentioned above, the back story was cut off. The CGI and the silly love story detracted from it. Furthermore the atmosphere of the military in Italy was also shown better in the TV version.

I won’t deny that roles for African-Americans in war movies – and other movies – are sadly scare and this movie certainly offered a great opportunity. Notably many actors known from TV shows like The Wire got a chance to perform in this. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is an important story for African-Americans, something to be really proud of. Being excellent and doing your job better than anyone else despite being ridiculed and not taken seriously is no small feat. Still, I can’t help it, I would have preferred if it had been a good movie.

The Dam Busters (1955)

The British classic The Dam Busters is and will always be one of my very favourite movies. It shows eloquently that the best stories are often those which are true. It’s the story of two men and a mission which was as ingenious as it was heroic. One of these men was inventor Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave), the other one Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd). The movie is based on two books, Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters and Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead.

The movie has a two-part structure. In the first we see how Willis invents the revolutionary bouncing bomb. The idea was to use the bombs and blow up the Ruhr dams in Germany. The destruction of the dams would not only  flood a huge area  but disrupt the German wartime industrial production as two big hydroelectric plants would go off-line. In order to blow up a dam the bomb had to land exactly on target which was only possible with extreme precision. The planes had to fly very low and used a cunning device to make sure they were at the right altitude and distance when dropping the bombs.

While Wing Commander Gibson was training the 617 Squadron – a special squadron of Lancaster planes – to fly at night at extremely low altitude, Willis was still conducting one trial after the other until he got the right bomb. Once he had the bomb and the date had arrived, it was in the hands of the pilots to make it work. This second part is extremely suspenseful. Of the 19 planes who flew on this mission only 11 returned. After the mission was accomplished, Willis said to Gibson that if he had known the cost, he wouldn’t have devised the bomb but Gibson assured him that each and every one of the dead pilots would have flown anyway.

The story of The Dam Busters is so amazing because there was such a lot of adversity. If it hadn’t been for Willis believing until the last moment that it would work and for Gibson and his men who thought the unthinkable was feasible, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s really amazing watching them, each on their side, adjusting, inventing and probing until they got it right.

Most of you may know that the remake of The Dam Busters should soon be out. This is one of the remakes I find almost sacrilegious. The movie has no great special effects but it tells a great story and the two main actors are very good. Eric Coates music is very famous and still considered to be one of the best war movie scores.

I’m sure the special effects of the remake will be better but I’m afraid it will be a very slick movie, lacking the warmth and enthusiasm that came across in the first. We will see.

Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

In my definition a good war movie is a good anti-war movie. If we apply this definition then Behind Enemy Lines is either not a good movie or not a good war movie. Since I personally enjoy it, I would say, it is simply not a war movie but, like Hunt for Red October and similar films, one of the movies that is based on a war premise. Only in my opinion Behind Enemy Lines is far better than its predecessors, the old-school cold war movies. Not sure why I’m so fond of it, but I am. It’s a guilty pleasure, has some great scenes and pictures and a pretty decent score. And I like Gene Hackman far better than Sean Connery.

Superhornet navigator Lt Burnett (Owen Wilson) and his pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) are on an unauthorized reconnaissance mission over Bosnia in the early 90s. They fly off course in a non-flyover zone and take pictures of a mass grave, hidden by the Serbs. Unfortunately they are spotted by ground troops.

They have been stationed on the USS Carl Vinson for quite a while. Burnett is fed up with the Navy. He feels that they are a long way from WWII where American intervention made sense and that they aren’t doing any good. He wants to leave the Navy as fast as he can. His commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), is less than thrilled. He doesn’t share his opinion and doesn’t want to lose a good man. He sends him on this reconnaissance mission to remind him how much he loves to fly and hoping he would make up his mind.

When the Serbs see the plane fly over the zone where the grave is hidden, they track it and shoot it down. Those air scenes are pretty great and one of the strengths of this movie. Pilot and navigator get out alive but since the Serbs know they have taken pictures of something nobody should know about, they are hunted. From now on the movie follows Burnett’s attempt to escape. One suspenseful scene follows the next. While some of them are not very realistic, they are entertaining and suspenseful.

Burnett is left on his own for most of the time as Reigart cannot send a chopper to get him out because this would endanger the peace process and the mission wasn’t authorized by High Command to begin with.

Burnett is tracked down by his enemies more than once and each escape is narrower than the other. My favourite scene is the one in which he has to cross a mine field in order to escape.

Behind Enemy Lines is a total failure as anti-war movie but works extremely well as a war-themed action adventure. The only real flaw is the disappointingly corny ending.

Battle of Britain (1969)

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Winston Churchill)

Battle of Britain is one of the great war movie classics. It’s the favourite movie of many people and certainly the favourite air combat movie of many more. I have watched it for the second time on the week-end and I’m glad I did so, because now I know better what worked for me and what didn’t. The strength of this movie is – funny enough – also its weakness.

The depiction of this crucial moment in British history is done with great detail and accuracy. The director tried to get everything right, down to the cloud formations. An incredible amount of original planes was gathered from different collectors all over the world to make the battles look authentic. And yes, the battle scenes look very convincing.

The Battle of Britain was Göring’s idea. He had been a fighter pilot in WWI and the whole strategy of gaining the air supremacy over England was his. Only he miscalculated the whole thing and they made crucial mistakes.

The idea was to bomb all the air fields, hangars, docks and the like. Starting on November 14 1940 they dropped huge loads of bombs and also destroyed, among other things, the city of Coventry on November 15. Unfortunately they also bombed London which led to the bombing of Berlin and was ultimately the beginning of the Blitz.

The movie shows all these elements and changes constantly from the British HQ to the German side, from there to the air fields and the pilots. Unlike most other movies of the time they did cast Germans for the German roles and French actors for the French which adds another layer of authenticity.

What looks at first like a desperate and hopeless case, later becomes one of those incredible tales of heroism and courage.

Not only did the Germans make the capital mistake to bomb London, they also underestimated their enemy. The British pilots, later helped by Free French, Polish, Czech and others, were the far superior pilots and their fighter planes were superior as well.

When Göring asked one of his commanders what they needed in order to win the answer was “Spitfires”.

The tactics, the battles, the details, all this is incredibly well done but,  due to the epic nature of the movie, there are a lot of characters in this movie and one doesn’t really warm to any of them. Sure Michael Caine is great as Squadron Leader and there is a mini love story at the heart of which is Christopher Plummer but the characters are not very well developed. This was clearly not the focus. Battle of Britain is much more a documentary style movie and, as I already said, this is its strength and its weakness and that is why I will always prefer The Dam Busters. I like my movies to be a bit more emotionally engaging than Battle of Britain.

Still, despite all the criticism, this is one of the great epic war movies and an absolute must-see that one cannot rate less than 5/5. I would say it’s  a great companion to the US Pearl Harbor movie Tora!Tora!Tora!, another great and very authentic air combat movie.

Sorry for this lousy looking trailer but it was the only one I could find.