War movies are the Dinty Moore Beef Stew of cinema: meat, potatoes, coupla carrots, and no surprises. You got your dashing-but-human cowboy, the center of the story. You got your noble African-American. You got your clean-cut fellow who will at some point go, sweating and trembling, into shock. You got your plump, condescending child of privilege. And you got your enigmatic battle-hardened hero, who appears as if from the shadows, speaks lines that are somehow both cryptic and blunt, and then retreats. In this movie, he has a pet lion, which might push things over the top a bit.
If this is the kind of movie you relish, Flyboys will hit the spot. It comes from director Tony Bill, who has a long string of credits as an actor and a director of TV movies, and made his biggest splash as producer of The Sting back in 1973. James Franco, a James Dean look-alike (memorable as Spiderman’s jealous friend Harry Osborne) heads the cast, which is hardly overwhelmed by stars — probably a good thing for an ensemble story like this. The screening audience greeted the closing credits with applause, and this was preceded by the sound of grown men sniffling.
You know what — it is a stirring story. Perhaps there is no way to tell it that doesn’t sound familiar, because heroes everywhere have some things in common.
The story is that of the Lafayette Escadrille. Before the U.S. entered WW I, some American men traveled to France in order to enlist as fighter pilots. The plane was a recent invention, and flying involved its own real dangers even when no one was shooting at you. (The movie takes place in 1916, eleven years before Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight.) At one point, two characters have a conversation about whether there will be any future in flying after the war.
The film follows a group of young volunteers as they leave their homes and arrive at the training field in Marseilles. The only one who speaks French is the black man, who has been following a career as a boxer in Paris. The training process, in that time before simulators, is sometimes quite simple; in one exercise, the men are spun around in a chair until they’re dizzy and then they try to walk a straight line.
A good bit of the story takes place in the air, as good-guy and enemy planes weave around each other, the pilots shooting and evading and coping with mechanical problems (each has been given a hammer for hitting the mounted gun when it jams). The cockpits are open, and battling pilots can pull up alongside and give each other the once-over, like drag-strip challengers at a stop light. However, since everyone wears a leather helmet and goggles, it’s sometimes hard to identify just which hero is onscreen. The air battles are gorgeous to watch, and you can see that the ballet fascinates the pilots as well, because when they’re on the ground they’re often replicating the action manually, one hand soaring after another. It’s both satisfying and scary to watch planes collapse in the air, fall apart, and plummet.
The showpiece of the film is a battle with a German dirigible. This is in the trailer, so I don’t think I give anything away by revealing that it ends when a crippled good-guy plane deliberately flies into the hydrogen-filled blimp. The progress of flames ripping through the stages of the craft is awesome to watch, but I found that the sight of a plane flying into a structure and exploding it still has too many unfortunate echoes to stand alone as a film event.
Plenty of stuff happens on the ground, too. The cowboy meets a pretty young Frenchwoman who is caring for her orphaned niece and nephews. Neither of them speak the other’s language, and their romance, though predictable, is not cloying. The characters who, at the beginning of the film need to learn a lesson, learn the lesson they need. The ones who need to find courage, find it. Every thread of the plot proceeds in time-honored stately fashion, and all elements — acting, lighting, writing, sets — serve a united purpose (the music is a bit bombastic, but maybe that’s appropriate for the genre).
This movie is admirable on its own terms, as a fine example of its genre, but if it’s not your cup of tea you may well be bored before the whole 139-minute production unrolls. But if you go knowing what you’re getting into, you’ll have a fine time.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.