The Wild Blue Yonder

“Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high, into the sun…”

The above lyrics are from the official song of the United States Air Force which is informally called The Wild Blue Yonder. With the Independence Day holiday having just passed by, and is now just a memory for another year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a look at some cinematic airmen.

No, we won’t be reviewing Will Smith in Independence Day, because we’ve all seen that film too often and the enemies were aliens. What I will be looking at are some war films, and other films that include conflict, that is, conflicts between nations but on a much smaller stage. In other words, films about airmen rather than air forces on a global scale.

We’ll start with a film from 1986 called Top Gun and yes, we’ve all seen that one too many times too. Then we’ll have Flyboys, the 2006 drama about airmen in World War I. Our last film will be Red Tails, the 2012 World War II fighter pilot epic.

Now I’m not saying in any way that these films should own a slot in any kind of larger Best of List. In fact, in some circles, many think Top Gun is one of the worst films about pilots ever made. I’ve chosen these films based strictly on availability rather than film-making brilliance. Let’s have a look.

Top Gun is a film about pilots in training, who then have to face enemy pilots in a real warlike situation. The film was directed by Tony Scott, the younger brother of Ridley Scott and was made 26 years ago.

Maverick (Tom Cruise), Goose (Anthony Edwards), Viper (Tom Skerritt) Iceman (Val Kilmer), Merlin (Tim Robbins) and Jester (Michael Ironsides) and company are the guys we’ll meet at the Pilots Weapon Training school, usually referred to as Top Gun, at the NAS in Miramar. You’ve got to be rated in the top 1% of all pilots to qualify for the school.

Charlie: So Lieutenant, where exactly did you see this MIG-28?
Maverick: Sorry, that’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you…

Aside from the rather ordinary and familiar plot, what most folks don’t care for, is that Maverick wasn’t a team guy. He never met a set of rules he didn’t feel comfortable in breaking. Another complaint is that his wise cracking, mine’s bigger than yours, attitude would have gotten him tossed out of the real Top Gun school in record time. Also along for the thrill ride is Kelly McGillis, who shared the above the title, top billing with Mr. Cruise. McGillis played the civilian instructor Charlotte Blackwell who went by the name of Charlie. She was the holder of a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, and was more than a match for Cruise’s Maverick in understanding and properly using terms like F5’s, A4’s, thrust to weight ratios, inverted flight tanks, and some real mind benders like negative-G pushover, and negative 4G inverted dives. Beyond that,  she was more than able to not only speak knowledgeably about the intricacies of air to air combat, but to serve as an instructor. As she said, the government had given her Top Secret clearance to make sure she knew more than her students, the hot-shot pilots at Top Gun.

What I liked best about this film was how well the music fit the film. With a score by Harold Faltermeyer, and headed up by Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone and Playing With the Boys, and the popular single by BerlinTake My Breath Away, this film included the adrenalin rush from the aerial combat sequences, the love story angle, and for the overriding theme –  the testosterone-driven fly boys becoming man-pilots before our eyes. It was the highest grossing film of that year. Yes, there  are technical deficiencies and flight combat school inaccuracies that were noted by many critics, and no matter what you may think, the story simply used a played out plot-line that we’ve all seen before, yet,  it was still a great entertainment vehicle.

Flyboys doesn’t have F5’s or F14 Tomahawks, or any jets. In World War I, all the aerial combat was done by single engined propeller planes with open cockpits. Flight helmets hadn’t been invented at that time, but goggles were in use. As were leather jackets, and scarves that trailed in the wind. It was a time when the airplanes flew slow enough that you could see an enemy pilot’s face; even the fear written across it.

But sometimes, you were the one in fear. What was it – the life expectancy of an airforce pilot in World War I? Three to six weeks was the answer most often given to that question.

According to the IMDB, Flyboys is the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, specifically, a squad of young Americans, who volunteered to fight for France, as pilots, before the USA entered World War I.

They came from all over the USA  with James Franco in the lead role  as a Texan, a city boy from New York, a farmer from Nebraska, and a pugilist from the USA who had already been living in France. We meet them as they arrive for training.

They’ve got to endure some hazing, and some growing pains as they go from boys to men. Famed French stalwart actor Jean Reno plays Captain Thenault who watches over them. There’s some exciting aerial combat, some whorehouse hijinks, and a  not-so-interesting mix of the usual war-time twins – tragedy and heroism.

Flyboys is very effective when the planes are aloft but far less so when the guys are on the ground. The characters seem to be recycled from the standard types available from stock that was stacked up in the Characters Store. There’s not much in the way of skilled character development. While they do develop, there’s not much to admire about the script or dialogue. The film is worth seeing because in those days, pilots flew by the strength of their hands, the seat of their pants, and the size of their courage.

Red Tails came to us last January from Lucasfilm Ltd. Prior to the film’s opening on January 20th, 2012, there was a long and extensive promotional campaign. So there was great anticipation for the film; I even did a piece on the film myself announcing that I’d review the film. Lucas told the story behind the film about how (for two decades)  no one wanted to fund the film production or sign on to distribute the film if it got made. Lucas told this story to anyone that could provide him with a chair and a microphone.  Maybe less verbiage from Lucas about how the film industry didn’t want this film would have worked better. I guess this was simply, marketing gone awry.

So George Lucas funded the film himself. But like so many films with a terrific trailer, like Battle for LA, Battleship, and John Carter, Red Tails underwhelmed folks. So I gave it a pass.

Okay that was a half a year ago, new topics came to mind, and this film fit perfectly into this topic. So I grabbed it from my local Blockbuster store. Red Tails recounts the story of the black pilots who  struggled mightily to get into World War II, but as a group they were held back by the senior white officers of the US Army’s High Command.

Major Emmanuel Stance played by Cuba Gooding Jr.

We have Terence Howard as the earnest Colonel A.J. Bullard who was forced to knock on a general’s doors hat in hand, begging to give his boys a chance. Cuba Gooding Jr. played Major Emannuel Stance who was like a CAG (Commander Air Group) who had direct supervision over the pilots. “Get your head up son, you’re [all] fighter pilots.”

As for the pilots themselves, they hit all the points of the compass in terms of attitude and style from brash to bold.

As Col. Bullard said, “We have a right to fight for our country. The same as every other American.”

Once they finally got the clearance to fight, and some new planes, you knew going in that not all them would return home safely – but these are the fortunes of war and are immutable. They were boys who were finally allowed to participate in the war.

Colonel A.J. Bullard portrayed by Terence Howard

Bullard would later say. “At all costs, we protect the heavens. We count our victories by the bombers we get to their targets, by the husbands we return to their wives, and the fathers we give back to their children.”

Yes, there were some nice speeches. There usually are in films like this. This story, that of the Tuskegee Airmen, is an important part of American history as well as American military history. It would have been nice if the film felt a bit more realistic, if the film was less concerned about politeness and political correctness – which are terms more closely associated with this decade than that of the 1940’s, and especially if the film took a few more chances.

But Director Anthony Hemingway and the screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder paid more attention to sanitizing the film than telling it like it is or was.

That’s it for the wild blue yonder people. These aren’t the best films about war in the air, but if you like magnificent men in their flying machines, any of these will give you entertainment for a few hours. Over and out.

Next Review: Oliver Stone’s Savages