The opening days of World War II for the United States in the Pacific have provided some of the best war movies ever made, stories documenting the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent fighting at Wake Island, the Philippines and Midway (among other places). Movies like Tora Tora Tora, From Here to Eternity, Wake Island, Bataan and Back to Bataan among others are all very good to classic films. One that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves? That’s 1943’s Air Force.
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.
Credit is due though. For a movie released in 1943, the heavy propaganda is held relatively in check. ‘Air’ is more interested in the heroism of the soldiers fighting back against the Japanese push all across the Pacific. A couple exceptions though. An American machine gunner is forced to bail from his plane, and as his parachute descends to the ground, he’s machine-gunned by a Japanese pilot. As he lies dying on the ground, the pilot flies over again and finishes him off in brutal fashion. There are documented cases of Japanese pilots doing this throughout the war, but it is a truly uncomfortable scene to watch. Second, as pitch perfect as the first 90/95 minutes are, the final 30 is a little heavy-handed as the story insists on ending in a positive fashion.
You appreciate the sentiment for a 1943 audience that desperately needed a win, but it feels forced watching the movie now in 2018. Minor complaints in the big picture. The first 90 minutes are some of the best-ever in a war film.
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 Winocki, Arthur Kennedy as bombardier McMartin, Charles Drake as navigator Hauser, George Tobias as mechanic Weinberg, Ward Wood as radioman Peterson, 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 2018, 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.
Underrated on all accounts. An excellent movie portraying the early weeks of World War II in the Pacific from director Howard Hawks with an excellent ensemble cast.
Air Force (1943): *** 1/2 /****