Celluloid dogfights: a brief history

With a title that sounds like a b-side from the late David Bowie, the S&G reflects upon the too-few attempts to portray World War 1 in the air on the silver screen.

In many ways it is a tragedy that stories of the young pilots in peril during World War 1 have not received as much of the high quality of storytelling as their counterparts in the trenches. Perhaps it is the lack of poetry. Perhaps it the combined legacy of Biggles, Snoopy and Captain Flashheart that serious depictions of the airmen of the great war are so few and far between.

Whatever it is that has caused this massive gap in popular culture is utterly and fundamentally wrong-headed. Here endeth the lesson, now let’s watch some aeroplanes and dream of the day that Peter Jackson actually gets on with making the ultimate cinematic tribute.

Grand-daddy of them all is Howard Hughes’s movie Wings (1927), featuring a whole lot of veteran pilots flying war surplus aircraft. Even then, genuine machinery was becoming hard to come by and one could never mistake California for Passchendaele in a million years but enough about this epic film was authentic in a way that nobody since would ever attempt to match.

The advent of World War 2 somewhat stifled demand for movies about World War 1. Not until the 1960s was there another blockbuster about flying over the Western Front and it came in the form of The Blue Max (1966), starring George Peppard. As with Wings, the aerial sequences were filmed for real, with just enough authentic-looking replicas of Fokker Dr.Is, Fokker D.VIIs, Pfalz D.IIIs and S.E.5as to conceal the makeweight Tiger Moth contingent in the rear. The back screen projection for the actors’ close-ups look rather quaint in this day and age but it was a stronger film than it receives credit for.

Fast forward to 1975 and you have the hottest star of the era, Robert Redford, lighting up that million megawatt smile as The Great Waldo Pepper; a tale of barnstormers in the midwest in the days after World War 1. In the final section of the film, director and writer George Roy Hill goes all-out to recreate the filming of Howard Hughes’s Wings – including putting his actors into biplanes for their close-up shots. It is a riot that quickly gets out of hand when Waldo, the ace in his own mind, goes head-to-head with Ernst Kessler, the German ace of aces…

George Roy Hill went out of his way to celebrate the World War 1 airman in war, in peace and most importantly in popular culture while, at the same time, the British took a very different approach. The movie Dawn Patrol (1975) and the BBC TV series Wings (1976-77) attempted to tell the story of the air war as sneering social commentary. Both appear to have been written by North London socialists in penance for Britain’s imperial past. Jeremy Corbyn probably has the DVD box set of Wings in pride of place on his Soviet-era wall units. Ghastly.

After decades of silence about biplanes (and triplanes) over the Western Front, in came Hollywood with a bright young star, James Franco. Predictably, this is a tale of how Americans tried to win the war before Woodrow Wilson had got under starter’s orders. Flyboys (2006) was loosely based on the story of the Escadrille Lafayette in 1916-17 and is actually a good deal less infuriating than it might have been – although the speed of the CGI Nieuports and Fokkers seems to owe more to Star Wars than to The Blue Max.

And finally we have the slightly poetic violence portrayed in The Red Baron (2008) – a German movie filmed in English to try and maximise the international audience.

There is an awful lot to commend this one, but despite being a veritable feast for the eyes it’s all a bit flat with no edges whatsoever, turning the real-life Red Baron into something of a gauzy nonentity. There are moments of beauty that the PlayStation graphics of Hollywood would have overlooked but, oddly, if I were trying to conjure up some enthusiasm for World War 1 flying in someone without much exposure to it, I’d play something else. This film just isn’t quite as good as it could have been, in the same way that Flyboys isn’t as bad as it should have been.

It is quite interesting to see how techniques – and the speed of the aircraft – have changed over the years. So too are the perspectives of the film makers themselves. As the centenaries continue to roll round over the next couple of years, these films may well be dragged out of the hangar on occasion. As the remaining links between our lives and those that the films attempted to portray slip deeper beneath the waves, that is something of a worry. There really was so much more than any of what the movies have given us. Future generations may as well study Snoopy…

 

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Out of Africa Gipsy Moth goes ‘home’

Bonhams had a rather interesting little lot come up in its recent sale at the Grand Palais in Paris: the 1929 American Moth Corporation De Havilland 60GMW Gipsy Moth which featured in the seven-time Oscar-winning 1985 movie Out of Africa.

Glorious colour scheme from its movie star days is retained by G-AAMY

Glorious colour scheme from its movie star days is retained by G-AAMY

This is the aircraft in which Robert Redford wooed Meryl Streep and director Sydney Pollack wowed audiences with the spectacular aerial footage of Kenya at its best. The little yellow and black Gipsy Moth was registered as G-AAMT for the movie, a registration given to a DH.60 Moth on September 16 1930 and ‘lapsed’ when the aircraft was written off barely two months later.

Wearing the registration G-AAMY not only to retain as much of its movie identity as possible but also to pay tribute to Amy Johnson, the American-built Moth sold for €201,250 to an anonymous Kenyan telephone bidder, held during the celebrated Rétromobile event. The sale set a new world record for a Gipsy Moth, and means that the aircraft will leave England after many years and return ‘home’ to Africa.

American idol – The Great Waldo Pepper (new link to film clip)

If you want movies about aircraft done properly, better get a pilot to make them. That’s why The Great Waldo Pepper is such a joy – because it was the work of George Roy Hill.

A feisty presence in the Hollywood firmament, Hill was something of an outsider among the great and the good of La-La-Land. As a child inthe 1920s and 1930s he idolised the great fighter pilots of World War 1, and when war broke out once again he enlisted as a pilot – flying a cargo aircraft around the Pacific in WW2, but becoming a nightfighter ‘ace’ in the Korean war.

Upon leaving the military, Hill worked as a journalist and then took an interest in theatre. He moved quickly to television and then on to making movies, with his debut coming in a 1962 adaptation of A Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Willams. An up-and-down career then hit paydirt with A Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews, which was followed by his best-loved hit: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The leading men on Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, soon learned not to fall foul of their tempestuous director’s strong work ethic. Late arrival on set would see guilty parties strapped in to Hill’s 1930 Waco biplane and subjected to a bracing aerobatic flight.

“If you weren’t on time, he’d take you up in his airplane,” Newman later recalled. “Scared the bejesus out of us.”

It was Newman’s co-star, Robert Redford, with whom Hill’s other enduring successes were achieved. First came The Great Gatsby and then probably the most personal film of Hill’s career in the form of The Great Waldo Pepper, a paean to the barnstorming days of the 1920s aviation boom in which Redford plays a charming, roguish pilot who saw too little of World War 1 but tells a good tale and trades on his matinee idol looks to good effect.

Together with talents such as Bo Svensson, Bo Brundin and the glamour of both Susan Sarandon and Margot Kidder, this is an oft-overlooked gem of a movie and one that is perfect for S&G readers. So enjoy this little clip as Hill takes Waldo to Hollywood…