Thursday, March 5, 2009
Howard Hawks' Air Force is probably the most artful, moving, beautifully constructed piece of wartime propaganda to emerge from the Hollywood machine during the patriotic peak of World War II. In Hawks' hands, the film's naked propagandizing — its portrayal of the Japanese enemy as only good in an unfair fight, its sweepingly romantic vision of wartime service — is secondary to the way the film studies the camaraderie, intimacy and mutual respect fostered among the crew of a B-17 bomber plane. The plane's crew is portrayed as nearly a family, bound together by their shared tasks and the responsibility they hold towards each other. Each one is required to keep the plane running smoothly, and each one has a specific job to perform. This tight interlocking community is a typically Hawksian male group, with the film's only women the wives, mothers and sisters left on the sidelines, hoping for the safe return of their men.
The film's claustrophobic aesthetic enhances this feeling of closeness and intimacy: the bulk of the action is set within the body of the B-17, in its cramped quarters where the men cluster together in small groups defined by their functions. The pilot Quincannon (John Ridgley) and his co-pilot (Gig Young) form one group up front, often with the crew chief Robbie (Harry Carey) between them, hanging over their shoulders to relay communications back and forth between the pilots and the rest of the crew. The navigator (Charles Drake) and bombardier (Arthur Kennedy) form another functional unit, as do the boyish radio operator (Ward Wood) and his even younger and less seasoned assistant (Ray Montgomery), a new recruit so green he introduces the captain to his nervous mother just before takeoff. Another new arrival is the wiseguy gunner Winocki (John Garfield), perhaps the only one of the crew who doesn't fit into the group at first, since his standoffish attitude and negativity about the Air Force (he wanted to be a pilot but failed out of flight school after causing a fatal accident) isolate him from the others. In the Hawksian world, isolation from the group is the ultimate sign of failure, and Winocki's alienation is visualized in a scene where the others, disgusted by his negative talk, all leave him sitting alone, silently smoking a cigarette at the rear of the plane. His attitude is a stark contrast to the rest of the crew, particularly the cheerful, gregarious crew assistant (George Tobias), who fits in with any of the plane's sub-units.
This particular B-17, with its familial structure, is one of a squad of planes on a routine flight for deployment in Hawaii, arriving unbeknownst to them on the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack. In the resulting chaos, the plane is shuffled from one burnt-out, bomb-shredded airfield to another, ferrying through the Pacific theater trying to get to someplace where the bomber and its crew can be useful. The film is structured so its first hour or so unfolds at a very leisurely pace, lingering within the cockpit of the bomber, leaving time to develop the individual crewmen and their relationships to one another, exploring the joking camaraderie and optimistic outlook of these proud young men. Even after the Pearl Harbor attacks, the action is mostly sparse and spaced out, so that much of the film is less about war and battle than it is about the mechanical precision of airmen performing their tasks. Hawks takes great care to document the procedures involved in running a plane like this, from the loading of bombs to the task of refueling to the delicate process of navigation. Every aspect of the plane's functioning is subjected to Hawks' meticulous eye for detail, often making the film seem more like a beautifully shot and constructed documentary than a wartime action flick.
Of course, this should not imply that the film is without its share of more visceral thrills, and the second half's taut air battles in the Philippines are fast-paced and exciting. This is particularly true of a prolonged battle during which the B-17's crew struggle to repair the plane on the ground even as enemy fighters strafe by continually overhead and the Japanese army progresses overland towards the base. It's a tense, suspenseful sequence, and a brutally realistic one: the impact of bombs shakes the ground, and the camera, with earth-shattering intensity, while the jittery jackhammering of machine gun fire makes each viewer feel as though he was handling the gun himself. The sequence artificially ratchets up the suspense with the hoary old cliché of the propeller that won't start as the Japanese army finally closes in on the taxiing B-17, but the overall crispness and economy of Hawks' filmmaking makes the occasional overwrought touches more easily forgivable.
And though the film's focus is undeniably on the bomber crew as a group rather than as individuals, Air Force is often a surprisingly emotional film, a film of tremendous richness and depth. This is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of death, in the understated but nonetheless poignant reactions of the men to the encroachment of mortality. When Robbie learns that his son, a fighter pilot stationed in Manila, has died during one of the Japanese attacks, Hawks allows the older man a few moments of underplayed grief: a few seconds of resting his head in his hands, an anguished look upwards, his eyes searching the roof of the plane as though looking for answers, holding back his tears. It's a small, subtle bit of acting, all the more affecting for its simplicity and restraint. Later, Hawks further emphasizes the nobility of a wartime death during a moving scene in which the crew, clustered around the bed of their dying captain, send him off for his final flight, running down the pre-flight checklist with him as though prepping the plane for takeoff. Hawks shoots the crew in tight clusters, grouped around the bed, draped in expressive shadows, a funeral rite for men unable or unwilling to directly acknowledge death except through metaphors.
For the finale, much of the grace and economy of scenes like this is largely eschewed, in favor of a bombastic aerial assault on a Japanese fleet, orchestrated like a rapidly edited symphony in images, bombs falling and destroying ships, sending bodies flying through the air. The editing of the scene quickly becomes repetitive and deadening, reveling in the carnage as the enemy is wiped out. The mood of the scene is celebratory, which is somewhat disturbing when seen in a modern context: for a film that delves so richly into the emotional and professional complexities of American military men, the film's willingness to dehumanize their enemy counterparts is disheartening. Still, for the time the film was made, one could hardly imagine it turning out any other way, and the rage and anger of that final orgy of destruction is certainly understandable for a nation still smarting from Pearl Harbor. The climax of the film is a cinematic revenge for that sneak attack, a cathartic outpouring of anger on the enemy in the form of bombs. Even so, Hawks' brilliance is much more apparent throughout the rest of the film, when he's chronicling the tightly choreographed professionalism of these men, their camaraderie and mutual admiration, their dedication to their plane, rather than when showing the fiery final result that all this precision and nobility is directed towards.