Before watching the movie:
World War I doesn’t get nearly as much attention as any other major war of the 20th century (that registers in American history education). It’s sometimes treated like a forgotten prequel to everyone’s favorite war with Nazis and atomic detonations. While it’s a mentality I’m not at all immune to, it’s worth remembering as the horrific tragedy of old-fashioned warfare at an industrialized pace. There are few symbols more powerful to me than the Douaumont Ossuary, a memorial built to house the remains of over 130,000 young men killed in a single (massive) battle, and that number is just the ones that couldn’t be identified. Small wonder it was thought at the time that this war would make any future wars unthinkable. As centennial anniversaries of milestones in the war are remembered currently, it might be gaining back some respect.
I went into all of that because this movie is positioned as a drama concerning the toll aerial warfare took on RAF pilots, and so hopefully the above paragraph is relevant, even if it was more concerned with terrestrial battles than planes. The big names by today’s standards are Malcolm McDowell and Christopher Plummer, though Peter Firth (whom I don’t think I’ve heard of) gets top billing on this poster. I know McDowell is a major character, but I’m not sure about Plummer.
After watching the movie:
Fresh-faced Lieutenant Croft is delighted to have been assigned to the Royal Flying Corps’s 76th squadron, commanded by his hero, former House Captain at Eton, and potential brother-in-law Major Gresham. Gresham is concerned about having his girlfriend’s brother there to look out for and potentially reveal to her things like his alcoholism, but nonetheless attempts to educate Croft in the realities of flying for King and Country at the front.
I’m not certain which character is the protagonist, and I think it may be both Croft and Gresham more or less equally. The plot is driven by Croft’s schooling in the difference between training at home and the reality of being shot at in the air and how that affects everyone in the squadron, following his first week of duty, but it’s also very close to Gresham’s arc and privy to his motivations that Croft doesn’t know about.
Firth is innocent, idealistic Croft, McDowell is seasoned, pragmatic Gresham, and Plummer is the squadron’s reconnaissance photographer (and second in command?) “Uncle” Sinclair, the most likeable member of the cast. Sinclair is a valuable font of wisdom for both Croft and Gresham, and so of course that can’t last. But Plummer is enjoyable to watch while he’s there.
There’s an extensive amount of aerial photography and effects shots for the battle scenes. Some shots looked like planes hung on wires in the studio, but that may just be what biplanes look like in the air. The least believable shots were the ones with small explosions superimposed around the planes, but if anti-aircraft weapons included shells that explode in the air at flying altitude, I can look past the low quality of the effect as it serves the story.
This film does about as well of avoiding the glorification of war as any film can, though it has a more matter of fact tone than an emotional one, presenting the way things are in the squadron and largely leaving it to the viewer to connect to the characters. Some of the disconnect comes in the episodic nature of the story, with each day of Croft’s week almost separated from each other, a format that feels like it lingers from the novel this is loosely based on. There may be better psychological war dramas, but this gets to the point and feels more concerned with honesty than entertainment, without becoming a chore. In the end, a respectful tribute to the fighting men in the air.