Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Ridgely, Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Drake, Harry Carey, George Tobias, Ward Wood, Ray Montgomery, John Garfield, James Brown, Stanley Ridges, Willard Robertson, Moroni Olsen, Edward S. Brody, Richard Lane, Bill Crago, Faye Emerson, Addison Richards, James Flavin
Written by: Dudley Nichols
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 124
Date: 02/03/1943

Air Force (1943)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wing Men

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

All of director Howard Hawks' skills are on display in this exciting, crackerjack WWII film. A Flying Fortress bomber leaves San Francisco for Hawaii just before the morning of December 7, 1941. They hop all over the Pacific, searching for a safe place to land, refuel and rest. Of course, they wind up joining the fight. Although John Garfield is probably the film's biggest star -- he plays a disgruntled gunner who once dreamed of becoming a pilot -- Hawks focuses on a true ensemble dynamic, and all the codes and rules that come as a result. The city boys tease the farm boys, etc., but everyone has everyone else's back when the going gets tough.

Hawks and the somber, sentimental screenwriter Dudley Nichols (who usually worked with John Ford) throw in a couple of potential heartbreakers: one older man wants to know what happened to his son who was stationed in the Philippines during the attacks, and we get a couple of hospital scenes, but Hawks sticks to his masculine code and treats these scenes with dignity. The battle scenes and technical achievements are top-notch; the film won an Oscar for editing. And in fact, George Lucas seems to have lifted several moments nearly intact for use in Star Wars (1977).

But of Hawks' many airplane movies, this one ranks a bit lower than Ceiling Zero (1935) or Only Angels Have Wings (1939), lacking the raw force of a Cary Grant or a James Cagney in the center. Also, as with many WWII-era films, part of its job was also to raise morale, and that gung-ho feel slightly dates the film. (It also features anti-Japanese racism that would have been expected in the period, but shocks today.) Regardless, Air Force is a model of fresh, energetic, studio-era filmmaking.

Extras on Warner Home Video's 2007 DVD release include a wartime Daffy Duck cartoon about saving scrap metal, a short film, Women at War, the radio play and the theatrical trailer. Warner has released Air Force on its own (about $20) or in a six-DVD box set, "World War II Collection, Vol. 2: Heroes Fight for Freedom" (about $60). The other titles include Mervyn LeRoy's Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Sam Wood's Command Decision (1948), Phil Karlson's Hell to Eternity (1960), George Seaton's 36 Hours (1964), and Sidney Lumet's The Hill (1965) with Sean Connery. Most of the discs come with various shorts, cartoons, trailers and other extras, but it should be pointed out that Command Decision comes with the Tex Avery masterpiece King-Size Canary (1947) -- considered by many to be his best cartoon.

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