#31 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Wow, that’s a really generic title. Anyway, this is Hawks’ second work of propaganda during the Second World War after Sergeant York, and this one works a fair bit less than his previous foray. Rushed into production after the War Department had approved the script, the model and miniature work was being filmed before the script was actually done. An ensemble piece from the perspective of the men operating the B-17 flying fortresses, it’s a fictionalized telling of the earliest days of the war and the fog of war that suddenly fell over them after the attack at Pearl Harbor. There’s a point, though, where the movie becomes literally nothing but propaganda, dragging what had been a rather good little portrait of courageous men into something a bit less.
It’s December 6, 1941, and the crew of the Mary-Ann, a B-17 bomber, are setting out from Hamilton Field to Hawaii. This should be an uneventful trip, and we get our opportunity to know the crew. There’s the pilot, the captain everyone calls Irish (Michael Aloysius Quincannon Sr.), a determined career man, the navigator Hauser, whose father was a famous pilot who died in action some years before that Hauser feels he needs to live up to even if he can’t be a pilot himself, the aerial gunner Sergeant Winocki who has every plan of leaving the Army as soon as his enlistment is over in two more weeks, and the crew chief Master Sergeant Robbie White who has a son stationed in Manila that’s rising quickly through the officer corps. All of these personalities (and a few others) get drawn out rather well in the opening scenes. They’re distinct visually, in terms of performance, and in terms of their desires. It’s a good starting point for this film.
As they get closer to Hawaii on the morning of December 7, though, something is going wrong. Communications from Pearl Harbor fall away to nothing, and when they do get back into communication with the tower, they’re told to stay away because of the attack. Their squadron are told to land at emergency fields on the different Hawaiian islands, not many of which are really designed for planes as large as the B-17. Our brave crew make their landing, mess up their landing gear which requires some repair on their part, and as they are nearing completion some (ahistorical) Japanese snipers start attacking them, necessitating another takeoff, eventually landing at Hickam Field amidst the bomb craters and wreckage of the aftermath. As soon as they land, they’re given orders to fly straight to Manila, landing at Wake Island for refueling along the way. As they wait for some basic repairs and fuel in Hawaii, the co-pilot and bombardier go to visit the bombardier’s sister whom the co-pilot is in love with. They discover that she had spent some time with a fighter pilot, Tex Rader. The co-pilot’s anger at Tex for his supposed carelessness that led to her fighting for her life in the hospital after the attack gets subsided by tales of Tex’s bravery in the sky during the attack and their need to focus on the mission (very Hawksian stuff).
Wake Island has been bombed to hell, and they have only twenty minutes to refuel and get back in the air, hoping to avoid any potential Japanese attack that could come again (and did, of course, wiping out the garrison a few weeks later). They pick up a little marine, a mascot dog Tripoli that barks every time her hears the name Moto, and they’re off. Landing in the Philippines after over a dozen hours of nearly unbroken flying time, a great victory for the navigator, they discover that Robbie’s son had died in the initial attack, unable to even get off the ground. They’re quick to jump back into the fight as soon as possible. They take part in an attack that leads to them losing two engines, Irish getting shot fatally, and only landing safely because of a miraculous belly landing by Winocki.
Irish gets an extremely good death scene in a hospital (supposedly written by William Faulkner) as he orders his men into flight as they watch on, speaking as though they are following his orders as he expires. This shows where this movie is at its best. It’s about men finding the best within themselves in the face of conflict. It’s a common theme in Hawks’ work, and he brings it here again well.
After this, though, the movie becomes a combat picture followed quickly by propaganda, and it loses a fair bit. The crew of the Mary-Ann want to get her off the ground, refusing the official order to burn her. Instead they salvage parts from other B-17s to get her functioning again. This is fine stuff with everyone coming together to make it happen, but once they get it into the air there seems to be a complete break from reality. They fly around until they find a Japanese fleet and lead a complete victory, and it feels all wrong narratively. This is about the beginning of a long, hard fight. It’s not about the ultimate victory, but that’s what the War Department needed. They didn’t need grungy men getting off the ground ready to fight in order to excite any fighting-age men into joining up who hadn’t already. They needed victory to inspire them, so this extended combat ending that feels out of sorts with the rest of the film gets tacked on.
If the ending weren’t as long as it is, I’d feel better about this movie overall, but that ending goes on for a very long time. It dominates the last act so completely, that a lot of the goodwill built up over the first ninety-minutes gets battered. If this movie had simply ended thirty minutes earlier, I think it would be an outright good film. As it is, with an ending that doesn’t naturally fit, I’m less enthusiastic about the movie. It also doesn’t help that there’s some really dodgy special effects, even for the era, like flack having been drawn onto a moving frame where the flack doesn’t move with the sky. It’s an unfortunate ending to what had been a pretty solid film.