dir: Tony Bill
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I guess it seemed like prime time for a World War I war movie right about now. War flicks about WWII are a bit played out, no-one wants to watch contemporary ones to be reminded of the hell the world is presently for many people. Why not go back in time to an era where American involvement in a war was considered a good thing? Who are YOU to say no?
So it’s The Great War. 1916. The fields of Verdun, France. The Germans are warming up for the real fight in a few decades time by sending a young Hitler, amongst millions of others, to die and rot in the trenches of Europe. The English and French are fighting the good fight as the US, in the form of Woodrow Wilson, the second coolest named President the US has had so far, dithers and looks on in growing horror. Mechanical flight, having been recently invented, is applied to the battlefield because of the obvious advantages of being able to survey and travel greater distances and to be able to rain death from above. And to look like Errol Flynn whilst doing it.
Though the Americans aren’t officially in the war yet, some enterprising young lads want to sample the high life and, in some cases, avoid the cops in their home town, by joining the Lafayette Escadrille. No, not espadrille, that’s a shoe. The Lafayette Escadrille was a real squadron of American pilots trained by the French who fought against the Germans in the air above France.
The actual story shouldn’t be confused with what’s depicted here in Flyboys. There was a World War I. There was a squadron of volunteer American pilots who fought for the French. There ends the ‘based on a true story’ part
None of that means the flick is anything less than an enjoyable boy’s own adventure. It harks back to an earlier time where you could populate an entire flick with stock standard clichés and archetypes and still make an entertaining movie for the whole family of troglodytes to enjoy.
The advantage of making WWI dogfight films these days is also its greatest potential stumbling block. You know something like this is going to use CGI: it’s going to have CGI coming out of its arse. But that’s good: you wouldn’t want to have actual people and planes exploding just to make a Hollywood war epic. In the past you’d have to take squillions of hours of footage, stacks of model work and repeated shots cobbled together in the editing room to make it look believable. Now they can coordinate sequences and set pieces the way that animators would with longer sequences that ‘real’ footage would preclude.
The problem would be if hours and hours of unconvincing CGI footage took the place of character development and drama. You don’t want exciting scenes of duelling pilots and aerial stunts overwhelming scenes where a guy who’s lost his nerve regains it, where a guy with a crippling injury comes to terms with it to save his comrades, or where a racist learns the value of tolerance by having his life saved by the help.
After all, the world does not want another Pearl Harbor. Please, gods, no, anything but that.
As such, Flyboys takes the wiser course of action by concentrating on the pilots more than their exploits. Even if they are clichés (the brash young daredevil, the embittered veteran, the haughty rich boy, the angry young black man with something to prove, the family man, the Godbothering Godbotherer), they are given time to live and breathe, and yes, to wallow in their utter clicheness. Cliché’s are people too, you know.
Given sufficient time and space, these characters live a bit. And the love interest / romantic storyline is allowed to develop organically, plays an actual role in the story, and doesn’t just come across as a perfunctory ‘let’s prove our main character isn’t gay by having him shag some Gallic strumpet.’ Or salope, I guess would be more in keeping with the French flavour.
But that’s a good point: essentially this flick is a romantic adventure. I don’t mean romantic in bodice-ripper Love in a Time of Scurvy kind of way. It’s romantic in that it takes some elements from history and crafts them into an idealisation of what the world could be like if people liked Americans more and actually wanted them to help out in times of war.
The main character, Rawlings (James Franco), treads that thin line between being confident and arrogant, and manages it well. Too much in one direction and he’s an insufferable bore: too much in the other and he’s a less sufferable bore. Franco has played these characters in every film he’s been in thus far, with varying degrees of success, from the Spider-Man films to various James Dean rip-offs including actually playing James Dean. So if you see some similarity, you know, it’s not a coincidence.
So far he’s coasted on his looks and his charm, but maybe he’s maturing into a decent actor with time. A film like this doesn’t stretch his abilities because it’s pretty basic pantomime stuff. All the same, getting it right requires a light touch, and charm, and he manages both.
Getting that right throughout the film makes what could have been excruciating, cheesy and hokey the complete opposite. When I brought up Pearl Harbor initially, it wasn’t a coincidence. As I watched Flyboys, I couldn’t help but think that any given minute of this flick is far more credible, believable and enjoyable than any second of that bloated, aforementioned monstrosity.
Good scenes that stand out include Rawlings’s tentative interactions with delectable French chic chick Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), the training scenes, the hilarious scenes where ‘grizzled’ veteran Cassidy (Martin Henderson) tries to act all bitter and twisted, every fight / flight scene including an attack on Led Zeppelin, the dogfights with the dastardly German ace, the Black Falcon and everything pretty much in between.
It is charming and entertaining. The tone is spot on, the countryside looks beautiful, and the dogfights, though obviously CGI throughout, are exciting and enjoyable. I’m a sucker for these kinds of flicks ever since my indoctrination through playing the brilliant Cinemaware game Wings on the ancient Commodore Amiga that I played for years and years back in the early 90s. There was something special about fighting the Hun in those rickety flying crates; guns jamming, engines cutting out, hair’s breadth close calls and agonising, spiralling deaths. It was bliss.
As such I was already programmed Pavlov’s dog style to enjoy a flick that made a decent fist of such action, and this film more than achieved that goal. As stock standard as the characters and the situations are, it’s given enough of an energetic and believable veneer that papers over any of the many holes you could pick up if you were inclined to.
It really does hark back to earlier films and times; of a kinder, gentler Hollywood that showed the sunny side of war without all the ugliness, mud and reality. There’s none of the ambiguity and shades of grey stuff which suffuses almost everything else that comes out in every venue and format. You can’t help (if you’re as cynical as I am) but see some cynicism in making such unabashed, heroic pablum depicting Americans as aces and saviours rather than occupiers and invaders, at a time like this, the world being as it is. But such cynicism disgusts your friends and sickens your partner, so you try not to let it leak out too often.
So you bottle it up until your eyes turn black, and then unleash it in a concentrated burst in the form of a movie review. Not this one, of course, since I liked the film. Maybe the next time that uber hackmeister Michael Bay unleashes another feculent film upon an unsuspecting and forgetful world.
7 times one should Cry Havoc, and let loose the Dogs of War out of 10
“Some day it'll just end. Everyone will go home, get on with their lives. Tall grass will cover the battlefields. And all the pilots we've lost won't mean a damn thing.” – aw shucks, you think? – Flyboys.