After a long week, I took off work early (still got my 40 hours in, though) and took Logan to see Flyboys. If you haven't been reading the comments to my Duke Cunningham entry, this is a story "inspired by" the exploits of the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American pilots fighting for France in World War I prior to the U.S.'s entry into the war. Michael and I had been reading the background on the film, and we were somewhat worried at the film's inaccuracies.
First, the story is "inspired by" true events. This is actually a smart move, because it's obvious that the film is historical fiction. For instance, there's a black pilot flying in the squadron. There was a black man flying for France in the Great War by then name of Eugene Bullard. In the film the character's name is Skinner. It's fiction, but with a historical flavour. As such I was willing to give it some leeway. I don't mind films that aren't 100% accurate if they say up front that their fiction.
Michael and I suspected that the film would be full of rare aerial exploits, things that might have happened to the odd squadron once in the war. In the trailers you see an aircraft ram a zeppelin. Such a thing probably happened, but you had the feeling that the film was going to be full of such rarities all happening to the one squadron in a short period of time, and an American squadron at that. Surprisingly, this was actually kept to a minimum. Yes, an airman lands in "no man's land" to save a friend. Yes there's a zeppelin ramming scene. Yes an aircraft tears the top wing off another aircraft. Even so, it's not as over the top as I thought it would be. The zeppelin ramming scene actually makes sense within the context of the plot.
The film isn't as over the top as I thought it would be partially due to its main fault: there's just not enough flying! Over a third of the film is dedicated to a love story, with the main character, played by James Franco, falling in love with a French girl. The way they handle the language barrier is not badly done. The romance is coy and sweet, and could have been used as a good juxtaposition to the horror of war. You never see enough of the horror of war for there to be any juxtaposition, even assuming the director — Tony Bill — was capable of juxtaposition. The romance is marred (in my opinion) by the film's ending. It also eats up far too much screen time and sets up a completely unneccessary rescue scene.
About a third of the movie is dedicated to the characters coping with life in the squadron. Pretty much every cliche you can think of is present. Since there's a black character you know there will be a mention of race, but of course only one character shows any sort of racism. Instead of depicting racism as endemic to society, it is shown as a flaw in a particular character. Most of the other characters are straight out of central casting: the hardened veteran, the gung ho youngster newbie who loses his nerve, the deeply religious warrior. You can pretty much know who is going to live and who is going to die. One character can't shoot straight. Care to guess whether or not he'll shoot someone down by the end of the movie? There's only one black character, too. Will he die? You know the answers as soon as the movie starts. The strain of aerial combat is not accurately portrayed.
The Germans are all flying Fokker Dr.1 triplanes. All of them are red except for the main bad guy's. In real life, only Baron Manfred von Richtoffen's Dr.1 was painted red (hence the reason he was called the Red Baron), and the Dr.1 was nowhere near the most common German aircraft. That having been said, the film concentrates on a rivalry between the Americans and the German Dr.1s. As silly as this is, the fact that the main antagonists are all flying the distinctive three wing plane isn't as awful as I thought it would be. It's not like all Germans fly the one plane. It's just that the Americans keep running into the same Germans. And, of course one of the Germans is chivalrous, and another is evil. Gosh, do you think the climax of the film will involve the evil German in his black plane?
The film isn't without some merit. They do a good job of transporting you back to 1916/1917. French uniforms are evident throughout, including some colonial uniforms. Some of the camera angles really give you a feel for how small and exposed the pilots were in the aircraft. The pilots are shown returning from combat covered in oil. There's a scene with a German bomber in lozenge camouflage that made me sigh at what is possible in films, even if the potential was not reached in Flyboys.
I wasn't crazy about the CGI, or, rather, how the CGI integrated with the rest of the film. Apparently the reason the Germans are all flying red Fokker Dr.1s is because one of the few real, flying aircraft they could get was a Dr.1 and doing CGI on a bunch of other aircraft would have been expensive. There are several shots of the real aircraft in flight. Unfortunately, these shots are all crisp and brightly lit. Most of the rest of the live action shots were done with moody lighting (most of the sunlight shots seem to be at dusk or dawn), but still crisp. The computer generated stuff, though, is all saturated, sort of washed out, kind of grainy and with a slightly soft focus. This is how the entire film should have been shot, giving it an antique quality. I suspect that there was no money in the budget to make the entire film look like this. Pity, as the CGI scenes stand out like a sore thumb otherwise.
Over on Rotten Tomatoes the film gets its few fresh ratings for the dogfight scenes. They could have been much better, in my opinion, though they certainly could have been worse. Very little was shown of actual dogfighting maneuvers. The dogfights mostly revolve around an aircraft jumping on another's tail until the target is shot down or someone else flies in to save the day. There's no feel for real World War I aerial maneuvers and tactics. We're told that the Dr.1 can turn better than the Nieuport 17 (the plane flown by the Americans), yet the Germans never get into a turning fight with the Americans. Mostly a plane with an enemy on its tail simply jinks back and forth, a recipe for disaster. There are several shots where planes go vertical, both climbing and diving. The dive looked pretty cheesy; this was an era when a steep dive was often impossible to get out of, either because the aircraft could not be pulled out in time, or because it shed its wings. The climbs were usually done at an angle that they get away with it, sort of. These aircraft did not have the power of even World War II aircraft. You couldn't climb rapidly without first diving to gain energy. You never see the aircraft dive before a climb in this movie. There was a scene with a "wingover", which was okay. There was another scene when the planes went into a loop, but they didn't dive first (which was a requirement with this era of aircraft) and they flew upside down at the peak of the loop, when any period pilot would have rolled it right-side-up before getting to the top of the loop.
The movie takes place in some nebulous time period. At the beginning we're told it is some time in 1916. New Nieuport 17s are given to the squadron, which suggests early 1916. However, in a whopper for those who know World War I aircraft, before they get their new aircraft, the squadron commander (played by French actor Jean Reno) points out some British planes: a "Sopwith", which is probably the Camel, and an "S.E.5a". Much as I loved seeing these two aircraft, they weren't introduced until June 1917, more than a year after the movie is set! Oops! Near the end of the film they mention the impending entry of the United States into the war. That was April 1917, still a couple of months before the aircraft saw service.
For what it's worth, Logan liked the movie. He had never heard of a zeppelin before today, and now he saw one in a movie. He did cover his eyes a couple of times... when there was kissing! Otherwise, he was cool with the movie. Given the subject, it is uncharacteristically lacking in gore. It looked like it was edited down for a PG-13 rating. Young teenagers will probably like it, though perhaps the love story will bore them.
I'm interested in Michael's take on the film, particularly with regard to the training sequences. I don't know how authentic they were, but they seemed like the kind of rudimentary lessons pilots recieved at the time. However, the one month training time frame seemed a little long; they were pretty quick to throw men into those crates in the Great War with pilots receiving very little in the way of training or experience.
There are other things I can go into, but I think that gives a fair idea of what the movie was like. It was too long. It spent too much time on the ground. The flying sequences are exciting, if unrealistic. Still, Logan enjoyed it and I was happy at the few sequences that felt "authentic". I had an idea of what I was getting into when I went to see it, and my expectations were pretty accurate.
If you want to see World War I aircraft in dogfights (and I did!), I recommend waiting for DVD.
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