Air Force (1943)

Air Force (1943)

“It takes all of us to make this ship function.”

The crew of a B-17 named “Mary Ann” — including a veteran fighter (Harry Carey) hoping for news of his fighter-pilot son, a pilot (John Ridgely) and co-pilot (Gig Young), a navigator (Charles Drake), a bombardier (Arthur Kennedy), a wise-cracking Corporal from Brooklyn (George Tobias), and a disgruntled gunner (John Garfield) — arrive in Hawaii just as the Pearl Harbor attacks occur, and are forced to do an emergency landing in Maui, where they visit Kennedy’s sick sister (Faye Emerson) and pick up another fighter pilot (James Brown) before heading to Wake Island and then the Philippines.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Gig Young Films
  • Howard Hawks Films
  • John Garfield Films
  • World War II

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “first-rate WWII action drama was the last of Howard Hawks’s films about his favorite action heroes: fliers, whom he’d featured in The Air Circus [a silent film not listed in GFTFF], The Dawn Patrol, Ceiling Zero, and Only Angels Have Wings.” He adds that “like many of Hawks’s films, it’s about how a group of men (professionals all) work together to perform a difficult mission”:

… and he notes that “the solid, exciting script was provided by Dudley Nichols, with an assist from Hawks’s buddy William Faulkner” — but “contemporary viewers may have trouble stomaching [the] finale in which our vengeful heroes mow down helpless Japanese soldiers who are stranded in the ocean” (especially given that “in other Hollywood movies our GIs always showed amazing compassion”).

What’s perhaps most impressive about this fighting-heavy, fast-talking, “macho” film is how many scenes of bonding and levity there are — as, for instance, when the group adopts a dog named Tripoli who barks furiously at the name Mr. Moto:

… or moments taken to honor the gravity of loss:

Viewers should definitely be forewarned that not only is this a propaganda film made at the height of the war effort, but there are numerous blatant historical falsehoods. As DVD Savant describes in his review:

The movie’s first half presents a version of Pearl Harbor tweaked to achieve twin political ends. With the actual details of the attack kept secret, Americans couldn’t understand how the sneak attack could have succeeded. Where were our airplanes? Air Force has a dishonest explanation: sabotage by Japanese-American infiltrators. We’re told that Japanese fifth columnists drove trucks onto the airfields to smash the planes, and blocked roads with shotguns to prevent flying personnel from getting to them. On the ground in Maui, our crew is attacked by groups of Japanese snipers. This outright fabrication of events exonerates the Army’s poor performance in keeping its squadrons on alert. The lies also serve a double duty, to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans back on the mainland. After seeing Air Force, the public could be expected to attack “Japs” on sight. I doubt that very many Japanese-Americans appreciated this poetic license in the name of wartime expediency.

[Meanwhile, the film ends with] an outrageously elaborate fantasy battle in which the Mary Ann locates an enemy task force and leads the attack to destroy it. This is supposed to be only a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, but the Army Air Corps suddenly has all the planes and personnel it needs to launch an assault so staggering that you’d think that the war in the Pacific would be won on the spot.

With these important caveats in mind, Hawks fans will certainly want to check out this tautly scripted adventure flick that represents the height of wartime enthusiasm and camaraderie.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography

  • Impressive footage of aerial fighting

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its value as a prime propaganda film by a master director.


One thought on “Air Force (1943)

  1. In agreement with the rather-thorough assessment; not must-see. What was no doubt more effective as propaganda in its time is perhaps now of more interest to Hawks completists (and should also be approached with caution). Certain scenes (as noted) stand out but, personally, I think much of the overly-verbose script could have been tightened.

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