At times, Air Force functions like a staged documentary. It feels both instructive and informed by Howard Hawks’ own passion for aviation. It has the simple task of making sure the folks at home can empathize with their boys up in the air. In fact, it falls short of being a mere instructional manual because its highest purpose is to be a stirring propaganda piece.
Certainly, the War meant all hands on deck, even when it came to filmmaking. You had John Ford famously capturing The Battle of Midway. Frank Capra oversaw the series Why We Fight, as a member of the Army Signal Corps. George Stevens notably took footage of Dachau Concentration Camp after it was liberated. This is Hawks’ contribution to the same effort, mobilizing the American public behind the war, in part, by harnessing their emotions. In this regard alone, Air Force is generally a success.
Although some of its players have been generally forgotten in the modern movie pantheon, Air Force features a surprisingly robust cast of actors. Their leader is pilot “Irish” Quincannon (John Ridgely), who has been charged with leading the crew of the Mary-Ann, a much-beloved B-17 Flying Fortress. Its caretaker is a crusty veteran (Harry Carey) whose own boy is currently stationed in the Philippines.
The rest of them feel like fine red-blooded Americans, from co-pilot Gig Young, navigator Charles Drake, and a youthful Arthur Kennedy as their bombardier. George Tobias adds his humor while John Garfield ably plays the outsider with a chip on his shoulder.
They are a perfect menagerie for Hawks to impose his always cognizant sense of male camaraderie because what more galvanizing situation is there than the throes of war? Very little. It’s this link — a kind of communal gravitational pull — that helps them weather thick and thin, as the enemy hounds them at every turn. Without it, the picture wouldn’t have much pathos. These relationships are experienced vicariously by the audience.
Their assumedly routine mission is humanized through sendoffs from loving mothers and wives. Later on, they pay a visit to a sister stationed as a nurse on an island hospital. All these touches are very purposeful, implying how each life is interconnected with a web of loved ones and sweethearts. This could be any of us if we grew up in wartime America.
Against these waves of systematic sentimentality, the bad boy cynicism of John Garfield fits like a glove, and he peddles his usual pessimism with ease. For a time, that’s all the conflict we have.
Then, they pick up Japanese radio chatter — it’s odd — they don’t understand what could be happening until they see it for themselves. It is, of course, December 7th, 1941, and they’re right in the thick of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When they finally get a chance to inspect the situation on the ground, the aftermath is understandably grim.
In the moment, creating a broad conspiracy involving fifth column dirty treachery on Hickman Field is an effective paranoia tactic. However, in hindsight, there are a few pernicious details used to paint the scenario, namely, a band of rogue vegetable trucks used to clip the wings of planes on the ground. As if the enemy had ground forces orchestrating sabotage to coincide with the aerial attack. This, in fact, (considering the Munson Report) never occurred.
Regardless, the crew is ordered to get on the move again before any other trouble arrives. Their next leg is Wake Island en route to the Philippines. Along the way, they strike up a playful competition with a pursuit pilot, allowing our men to reconcile their differences. Even a dog christened “Tripoli” conveniently doesn’t like Japs (ie. Mr. Moto)
The ensuing dog fights in the skies feel atmospheric and like a dead ringer for George Lucas’s original Tie Fighter-Millenium Falcon duel, with turret guns blasting away. In this chaos, their one solitary flying fortress becomes an emblematic symbol in itself, representative of the American spirit, grit in the face of adversity, and a never say die mentality.
Battered and broken as it is, their sole purpose becomes putting it back together again, to fight another day, and it’s fitting because that’s very much what America was forced to do after Pearl Harbor. A victory at The Battle of Midway would have meant little if we didn’t get to that point. Air Force seems to suggest, with men as tough of these, we got there and ultimately we prevailed. It’s an easy narrative to swallow about the “greatest generation,” and there is a certain amount of truth in it. However, it’s certainly not a nuanced picture. We know its intentions full well.
The final minutes are all but a foregone conclusion, necessary for closing out the dramatic arc. There’s quite a large deal of bombs bursting, planes crashing, guns blasting — all key elements of the fog of war. Even in their archaic simplicity, there are some thrilling moments. However, most of what’s of interest still remains up in that airplane – – the men we’ve gotten to know along this arduous journey.
Of course, in 1943 the journey wasn’t done yet. Thus, there was the need for this picture in all of its patriotic fervor. In this realm, it’s fairly effective, amassing the third-highest box office pull in its day. There’s no doubt it spoke into a particular cultural moment. For those admiring of Howard Hawks, it’s a less-heralded but still intermittently gripping adventure in the skies, awash with jingoism though it may be.