Air Force (1943): Howard Hawks Takes on WWII

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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.

3.5/5 Stars

The Desperate Hours (1955) Bogart Vs. March

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As the credits roll, the camera zooms its way down a residential street but doesn’t feel natural. It’s like a peering gaze casing the scene as music hammers away in the background. What makes the imagery more disconcerting is that this tranquil picture-perfect suburbia could be plucked right out of Leave it to Beaver. In fact, coincidentally, the house is the very same!

In this film, it belongs to your typical everyday family circa 1955. The man of the house, Fredric March, sits around the breakfast table, preparing for his job at local bank, bemoaning the fact his kids are growing up.

Little Junior is already showing signs. Not wanting to kiss his pops goodbye. His daughter is lovestruck and intent on marrying her beau, which he can’t stand to think about. His wife is perfect. Pretty, maternal, and a fabulous homemaker. Its all a bit insipid on the whole but that’s very purposeful. Currently, we might call his daily struggles “first world problems.”

It is a bit of the lifestyle that can be easily plucked out of any of the old family sitcoms from Fathers Knows Best to The Donna Reed Show. And yet what those portraits of the nuclear family never did have was the threat of three convicts at-large…

Their hardened leader is Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) joined by the boisterous slob Kobish (Robert Middleton), and Griffin’s kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin).  Come to think of it, there was an episode of The Andy Griffith Show with striking parallels, albeit with more comical resolutions. As is, William Wyler’s piece falls more in line with The Detective Story (1951) from a few years prior pushing the stage elements out a bit but still centering its action on the family domicile.

Arthur Kennedy at the Police Precinct is brought on the case but he really feels like a wasted opportunity and a dead-end at best. The real meat of the story is within that house between the two men vying for control.

Bogart, who got his break in Petrified Forest (1936) as a crazed heavy, is essentially book-ending his career with tough guy roles. Even if he’s over the hill for such roles, he still makes a good snarling approximation of his former self. One could argue that time has only made him more disgruntled and worn. His convict is a much more sorry figure with 20 years sagging under his dour eyes.

He plans to lay low in the residential neighborhood until the money they’re expecting gets sent their way. So we expect the plot to be a waiting game. Except the subsequent tension comes with criminals existing in such close proximity to this family, a theme running through other contemporary dramas like He Ran All The Way (1951) and Suddenly (1954).

To be ousted by the authorities means that everyone gets it. And yet the Hilliards are commanded to stick to their daily rhythms as closely as possible, even as the fugitives take over the home and turn it into a shambles. The conflict that goes through Mr. Hilliard’s head is between doing as the convicts say to protect his family and trying to get in contact with the police. He’s faced with the most nervewracking proposition of his life as the hours tick excruciatingly by.

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When March finally gets to his office, frazzled by the turn of events, it feels like a Wyler touch of perfectionism to have three portraits prominently sitting in his office. The way they’re arranged perfectly toward the camera feels blatantly artificial. No one would have them set up that way and yet they’re implicitly reminding him (and us) that the lives of the people he holds most dear are still in constant jeopardy. The worst part: he’s all but powerless to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the police are shacked up in Al’s Dining Room kitchen as their command center itches for a decent lead. Cindy tries to head off her beau (a far too old Gig Young) so he doesn’t find out about the fugitives and get the family in more trouble. A garbage man gets it for seeing too much. Mr. Hilliard sweats it out waiting for a letter loaded with cash destined for his office.

One can easily surmise Wyler had great relish filming along the staircase because it all but visually summarizes the tension of the film. Stairs are all about space and the relationship of people to one another. It’s shorthand to explain an unbalance or shift in power. For Mr. Hilliard, this is about his family. That’s all that matters. For the policeman who’s just thinking about his reelection, it’s an entirely different scenario.

And what the picture does tease out is the idea that extreme duress often causes people to show their true colors, whether empowered by integrity or saddled by cowardice. In the end, a businessman living a so-called cushy life shows a fiercely defiant fortitude that ultimately holds his family together. It has less to do with the police or even the criminals that stakeout in his home.

In the end, it’s his own grit, determination, and will to protect his family that wins out. If the film is an exercise in suburban melodrama, it’s also a resounding testament to the human spirit as well. The scary part is that like The Hitchhiker before it, the story was partially based on real-life events. Why is that frightening, you ask? It means real people were faced with these dire consequences. We saw what they did? Implicitly we must also beg the question, what would we do when the desperate hours hit us?

3.5/5 Stars