Saturday, May 24, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Dogfight

In the years between WWI and WWII, public interest in aviation was at its peak. Incorporating spectacular areal photography into an epic celebration of WWI pilots was a surefire recipe for box-office success. The idea gave birth to two classic aerial war films: the first Oscar-winning film and only silent winner, “Wings,” (1927) and the notorious Howard Hughes pet project “Hell’s Angels” (1930).

In the prologue of “Wings,” Jack builds a car, dubbed “The Shooting Star,” with his tomboyish neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow), completely oblivious to her affection. Instead, he pursues the much-in-demand Sylvia, unaware that his rich-kid rival David is her real hubby. Awkwardness persists when America joins the war and Jack accidently takes a memento that Sylvia intended for David. Boot camp soon makes best friends out of the former nemeses and they go on to be wingmen in a series of major battles. Jack eventually runs into Mary while he is on leave in Paris, but he’s too drunk to recognize her. The bizarre comedic sequence is a bit out of place, involving animated bubbles (a hallucination which Jack is fixated upon), brief nudity and Mary getting discharged. Called back to duty, Jack shoots down several key dirigibles, but is devastated when David crashes behind enemy lines.

“Hell’s Angels” concerns Roy and Monte Rutledge, two British brothers with opposite personalities. Roy is good-natured and honorable, but terribly naïve and hopelessly in love with Helen (Jean Harlow), who is every bit the “wrong type of woman.” Monte is a fast-living playboy whose cowardice is foreshadowed when he slips out of a duel, leaving his brother to fight in his stead. When WWI breaks out, they become pilots (Roy enthusiastically volunteers, Monte is conned with hilarious ease by a recruiter) and are forced to fight, and unknowingly kill, their former German pal Karl. A nerve-racking, but victorious, campaign culminates in a daring bomb run in a restored German aircraft. The brothers are captured and Roy must make a difficult decision when Monte’s fear finally gets the best of him.

Both films were lavish production, with astounding airborne dogfights, more than two hours of footage and bills running past $2 million (“Hell’s Angels” cost an exorbitant $4 million). “Wings,” though silent, included plenty of innovative camerawork and special effects that made planes appear to burn and smoke as they were shot down. “Hell’s Angels” was reshot halfway through production to include sound (some intertitles remain) and has several scenes in color (using a briefly-vogue dual-color method), including a dazzling blimp crash. Despite their costs, both films made substantial profits.

In addition to their technical ambitions, they share similar plot devices as well. Both films feature a love triangle of two pilots (friends in “Wings,” brothers in “Hell’s Angels”) interested in the same woman. Despite getting less screen-time than the men, an actress holds top-billing in each: first-timer Jean Harlow in “Hell’s Angels” and “It girl” Clara Bow in “Wings.” Both include a “not all Germans are evil” character that aids the Allies despite his nationality. In “Wings” it is a bumbling pilot-turned-mechanic with an American flag tattoo, while in “Hell’s Angels” it is a former classmate of the brothers who gets conscripted into the German Luftwaffe, but misdirects a London bombing to splash harmlessly into a rural lake.

[Partial SPOILER paragraph] There are also some odd coincidences between the two conclusions. Both finales involve flying enemy planes. A main character in each film gets dangerously drunk the night before a final bombing mission and after its success both central protagonists kill their comrade, although under widely different circumstances.

Of the two, “Wings” is probably the worse off for propaganda, presenting the popular all-encompassing image of the Allies pulling together for a common cause be they men or women, wealthy or working class, American or British, etc., etc. All the gung-ho uniform optimism feels awfully one-dimensional, and while it is present in much of “Hell’s Angels,” too, Monte’s less admirable portrayal of a soldier provides a more probing balance of human weaknesses and eroded morale.

“Hell’s Angels” reaches an ideological low (not without its emotional punch) during a scene depicting a German officer ordering his men to jump from a blimp to lighten its load, a command that they unquestioningly obey. Compared to the gentlemanly German ace in “Wings” who risk AA fire to convey a letter to his American counterparts, the villains in “Hell’s Angels” are downright textbook prototypes for the “ve ‘ave veys of making you talk” Nazis from the next generation of war films.

As “love and war” adventures, both of these films are fairly entertaining. The time-worn story unfolds in a manner that must have been as predictable in the Jazz Age as they are now, but the producers clearly relied on the aviation dressing to reinvigorate the routine. The acting is mediocre at best, doggedly fulfilling the necessary formulas while taking backstage to the sweeping action and general heroism.

Yet despite bearing the same flying love triangle mantle, I wouldn’t dismiss these as the silent-film era equivalents of “Pearl Harbor” (2001), nor would I say that their popular acclaim is purely due to patriotic fervor. These early films are highly effective at executing efficient thrills, sometimes ejecting emotional complexity in favor of blazing broad streaks across the sky, but generally landing safely in the bounds of good taste and rousing entertainment. They lack much historical detail, but it helps make historical accuracy a fairly moot point. (Why do filmmakers seem to care more about historical detail the further they get from the event?) As for sincerity, this is no “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but it has plenty of edge over the aforementioned Bruckheimer/Bay collaboration.

Of course, where “Wings” and “Hell’s Angels” really excel is in the production values and presentation. Both include riveting dogfight sequences with footage that balances stunning aerial photography with high-intensity close-ups in the cramped cockpits. The use of cumulous clouds for cover and context provides literal atmosphere and a sense of the majesty, scope and speed of the combat. The highlight of “Hell’s Angles,” a nighttime raid on an escorted bomber blimp almost entirely engulfed in clouds, is probably the best in either film. The imprecise color tinting only adds to the impression of a feverish celestial clash.

On the ground, “Wings” is far the superior filmmaking showcase. Director William Wellman performs a variety of unusual camera gimmicks, including a memorable sequence on a swing and a montage of a gunner bunker getting crushed, along with the camera, by a tank. Ample use of dolly and crane shots help keep the human interest portions from feeling like dry insulation packed between the airborne acrobatics, an occasional complaint with “Hell’s Angels.” Even the partially-animated “bubble” scene, a drunken slapstick sequence of the type I normally groan about, is strangely fascinating in its misconceived ingenuity.

Though neither of these movies is really my type of war movie – I prefer psychologically fraught, grim and gritty anti-war films – they are great examples of packaging mass entertainment and unabashed military propaganda in a single appealing package. I had enough fun simply taking them for what they are that I’ll refrain from conducting a Marxist analysis of their implicit value systems and manipulative societal self-reinforcement. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed them both (I may be biased by working in the aviation industry), but prefer “Wings” for its superior directing over the better character arcs in “Hell’s Angels.”

Winner: Wings

No comments: