COURTESY OF MGM
James Franco, center, stars as airman Blaine Rawlings in the war adventure movie "Flyboys."
Prepare to take flight
The characters in "Flyboys" feel like clichés, but the movie really soars once in the air
When a movie is firing on all pistons, it can transport you. Not just into unfamiliar situations and emotions, but physically, right off the planet. Something like "Flyboys" does that admirably and dizzyingly, into the cockpits of the frail aeroplanes of the Great War. Just imagine you're in what amounts to a creaking and groaning lawn chair at 10,000 feet, with an engine screaming in your lap and a leaking fuel tank under your seat, and everything is made of cloth and wood and glued together with highly flammable sealer. No parachutes. Oh, and there's a fairly ruthless enemy out there potting away at you with flaming bullets.
It was not a matter of if you go down in flames; it's when. Accordingly, pilots were issued pistols to blow their brains out when their crate caught fire. The other option was a long, long fall.
The "ace" pilots of World War I were once all the rage on film -- the first movie to win an Academy Award was "Wings" -- and why not? They were an assortment of daredevils and characters, their work was highly visual, they were genuine heroes and, face it, aeroplanes not only look cool on the big screen, the experience of flight is a common fantasy. But it's been something like four decades since Hollywood made a serious movie about the subject. The big Technicolor films of the '60s gave way to smaller, grittier films.
"Flyboys," released in the fall of 2006, did what it could to reverse the trend, but it was a gamble all the way. Dean Devlin and Tony Bill produced the aviation movie independently, raising financing from unusual sources, and rolled the dice. After 40 years there was no track record.
Timing is everything. Audiences in '06 weren't thrilled by a film that focused on American boys sacrificing themselves overseas, no matter how splendidly filmed. It also ran afoul of armchair critics with no sense of history -- or of the basic physics of flight.
THE DVD OF "Flyboys" was released this week, affording audiences a well-deserved second look. It's still up in the air whether the film will be released in theaters overseas.
There are actually two home video editions, one a straight transfer of the film itself (the only notable addition being an audio commentary by Devlin and Bill), the other a deluxe two-disc set with extra scenes and documentaries.
It is exactly the same film that was released in theaters, and it is quite a ride. The story is of a small band of American adventurers who flew for the French in WWI, in the "Lafayette Escadrille," before the United States was dragged into the war. The characters are based on real personalities of the squadron; the situations, limned from real events.
Director Bill has constructed an old-fashioned movie from this material, not just in the sturdy construction of the plot, but in the characters themselves. These aren't present-day people thrust into the past. In 1917 the average American never traveled more than 20 miles from home, and here they are, dogfighting for their lives over the carnage of the Western Front. It was an adventure; there is no other word for it.
The principal character is a disenfranchised Texas rancher played by James Franco, an actor who is all brooding intensity and boyish goofiness, both of which serve him well here. He has a tentative romance with a French farm girl (adorable Jennifer Decker) who informs him, solemnly, that it will never last. "You ... die ... soon," she says, and she's probably right.
If anyone steals the film, it's Abdul Salis as a black American boxer who finds freedom from prejudice in the French air. He's based on a real person, a chap named Eugene Bullard, whom the French dubbed "The Black Swallow of Death." You can't make up guys like these.
And yet, this polyglot band feels a bit like a cliché, and that's interesting, considering that movies about characters in this situation were based on real people. Maybe once Hollywood has glossed over reality too many times, reality feels fake. So if you go back to the source, it's one too many trips to the well. The archetype has passed into stereotype.
WHERE "FLYBOYS" soars, and does so wondrously well, is in the air. Each air battle and mission has been scripted as a set piece that not only shows off the capabilities of the pilots and their machines, but also advances the plot through action. The aerial choreography is superb. Bring your Dramamine!
Producer Devlin and director Bill's commentary is most revealing during these sections. These guys obviously love the craft of film and the history of flight, and pushed the technical envelope to share the experience with the audience. Many of the planes in the hairiest of stunts, we learn, are actually computer-generated, but they're based on motion-control recordings of a real biplane performing stunts, so that the planes fly in a realistic manner.
We also learn that, as usual, much of the computer-generated stuff is where you least expect it, as when a lion is shown inside the squadron's sequestered villa, or just the clouds passing by an actual airplane. A lot of attention was paid to keeping the aerial storytelling clear for viewers.
Aviation purists might squawk that Nieuport 17s are flying against Fokker triplanes, when these two planes were a few months apart in the real war. Aviation neophytes who have never seen an air show might wonder about the extreme maneuvering of these agile biplanes. But these pilots fought a war that was up close and personal, when you recognized your opponent's face, generally just as he pulled the trigger.
"Flyboys" is as close as you're going to get to this extraordinary period, filled with extraordinary men. Fasten your seat belts.