If there is one sub-genre of these Great War Films that is pretty much guaranteed to pack a punch it’s those that concern the conflict in the air. At least in theory it has everything that should excite. Visually there will be life and death aerial battles, emotionally there will be highs and lows as battles are won and lives are lost and intellectually we will be challenged to understand the characters and their actions or motives.
Today’s film is a great example of what a good Fighter Pilot film should be all about. This will be the third aerial film out of the 12 films I’ve reviewed so far and there are a great many (most of them good) still on the list to come. Ladies and gentlemen I give you Aces High (1976).
The other films I’ve reviewed about the conflict in the air have shown some of the different aspects of the sub-genre. Wings (1927) was partly an experiment in what it was possible to achieve if money was no object. Produced at the pinnacle of the silent era, it looked amazing, the camera work was ground-breaking and the stunt work looked terrifying. Sadly, this all came at the expense of a story. Flyboys (2006) was another feast for the eyes but again at the expense of anything cerebral. The characters were two dimensional stereotypes and the story was a first draft that somehow made it through to production without any time spent on development.
Aces High is a very different beast to these films. I’ll be honest, it fails as a visual spectacle (due to its 70’s British budget) but makes back what it loses visually with honest, accurate portrayals of the real people on the ground and in the air during the conflict. As such what we get is so much more than either of the other films. We get people to believe in and feel for. We get the gnarled, cynical but ultimately benign Squadron Leader, the young hero worshipper due to come of age any second, the fearful depressive (is he a coward?) and a supporting cast of ‘live for the moment’ party boys/spandau fodder.
The film opens with Britishness being rammed down our throats. We get Sir John Gielgud, a public school summer fete, sweeping shots of the British countryside and a school assembly. Then, crash cut, we are thrown into a dogfight and witness the blood-lust of a Great War fighter pilot as he guns down an adversary in the frigid, thin air at so many thousands of feet above the battlefields of Northern France. Cut, and back to the assembly and one last glimpse of normality before we again cut to a year in the future….and everything is different, nothing will ever be the same again.
The vast majority of the story for this film comes from the R C Sheriff play and subsequent novel ‘Journey’s End’. Even though Journeys End was set in a trench dugout (and heavily influenced Blackadder Goes Forth) the story transfers really well to the airfield. Additional story credit goes to Cecil Lewis (founder of the BBC) from his book ‘Sagittarius Rising’, who was himself a fighter pilot in the Great War.
As I said on Twitter the other day Malcolm McDowell does a very good unhinged anti-hero. This was made roughly 5 years after Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ but I can see that McDowell has channelled some of his character, Alex DeLarge for his performance here. His character could be considered a stereotype. The ‘Devil-may-care’ attitude, the heavy drinking, the mood swings have all been portrayed on film before but characters like him, well educated, privileged, officer types, did exist by all accounts and his portrayal of one of those characters, gung-ho yet maudlin, is well pitched.
The premise of the film is 7 days in the life of the squadron. Each day acts as a chapter in a book that unfolds before us. On the first day a replacement arrives. A young guy who idolises the McDowell character from their school days. Over the next 7 days he will mature as a man and also as a pilot. He will witness death and the worst of what the war has to offer. He will also witness great camaraderie and kinship, caring and bravery. He will get his first kill under his belt (witnessed by his hero) and he will die. On the following day, as the film comes to an end, more replacements arrive and the story goes full circle.
The aerial scenes are a bit of a let down to the modern eye. We have aerial shots but none of the candid camera work of Wings (1927). The battle scenes are hard to follow, I was left without much of an idea of who was on top or who was struggling until a line of bullet holes opened up on a plane (or on a head in the closing battle). As I’ve already said, this isn’t too much of a problem for me. The film succeeds because of its characters rather than as a spectacle.
It also succeeds because of its portrayal of daily life on a Great War airfield. Waiting for the sound of returning aircraft, counting them as they come into sight. The daily losses are quickly brushed under the carpet as another round of drinks are ordered at the bar. There are very British attitudes of class and privilege evidenced by the pilots not fraternising with the mechanics. There is occasional juxtaposition of the party life on the aerodrome versus the hell of the trenches. We see pilots motorbiking off for a picnic in the country as the guns continuously drumfire (trommelfeuer) in the background.
I like this film. It’s very British and it’s very real. The 7 day premise gives the ending a real kick in the guts but it’s also a coming of age story and ultimately a tragedy. I’ve seen this film several times over the years and it always entertains. I’m never clock watching and happily immerse myself in their world. Maybe my one complaint, therefore, is that it’s too short. But that really would be nit-picking.
This film succeeds because it was written by people who were there and who observed the nuances of characters and the cruel, callous indifference of cold, hard war. As such it’s a window into their world, their feelings and their interactions and I’m grateful for the chance to peer in.
Clicky Clicky to own it. I totally recommend it.