Lafayette Escadrille (1958)

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William A. Wellman is a name I’ve come across before on my trip through the first hundred years of Great War Films. He got the gig directing ‘Wings’ (1927) because he was the only decent Director in Hollywood with combat flying experience. He’d made a bit of a name for himself since showing up in Hollywood in the years after the war and was known as ‘Wild Bill’ on account of his flying antics and aggressive, take no prisoners attitude. As a crewman he’d quickly worked his way up the ranks and once he’d made the big time as a director he was known for his inventiveness, his perfectionism and his tenacity.

Wellman volunteered to be an ambulance driver during the middle years of the war after being a bit of a delinquent in his teenage years. During a period of leave in Paris in mid-1917 he joined the French Foreign Legion and was posted to the Lafayette Flying Corp. During 1918 he scored three kills and was awarded the Croix de Guerre before being shot down and invalided out. He broke his back in two places, walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life and had the control stick shatter through the roof of his mouth meaning he had a metal plate in his head.

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William A. Wellman

The Lafayette Flying Corp is the name given to the Squadrons of American volunteer pilots who flew for the French Air Force. Within this Corp were a number of Escadrilles including the famous (and in terms of my film today ‘Eponymous’) ‘Lafayette Escadrille’. Whilst Wellman didn’t fly for the Lafayette Escadrille he was close enough to it to have earned the right to write and direct a film about it. In fact he knocked out several. ‘The Legion of the Condemned’ (1928) starring Gary Cooper (considered lost unfortunately) and ‘Young Eagles’ (1930) were both Great War Films about the Lafayette Escadrille made with many of the same cast and crew from his 1927 hit ‘Wings’.

My film today, the imaginatively titled ‘Lafayette Escadrille’ (1958) is William A. Wellman’s final film. We wrote the original story based on a mixture of some of his own experiences of the war years along with the actions of a friend of his in the squadron. He produced it and directed it. He wrote himself into the story and cast his son, William Wellman Jr, for the role. This was a legacy piece, a semi-autobiography.

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The story follows a small group of young American guys who for one reason or another set their sights on France before the US had officially entered the conflict. The lead character fell foul of the law, much like Wellman had himself, and left for France with his ears still ringing following a beating from his father (autobiographical? Who can know). The boys learn to fly together, complete some missions and live and die by the fickle hand of fate. There’s a love story shoehorned into the plot as tends to happen with these things, with details that mirror Wellman’s own war time love story. He’d quietly married a French woman who was subsequently killed in a German bombardment while Wellman was back with the Escadrille.

Even though Wellman had a history of knocking out good quality war and aviation films, the studio was loath to allow him much freedom. His initial plan was to call the film ‘C’est la Guerre’ which was promptly poo-pooed by the bosses. He wanted Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood in leading roles but the bosses got their way and cast a young, cool and on the up teeny bopper named Tab Hunter alongside TV sensation David Janssen. The ending was meant to be a sad one (as all Great War Film endings should be!) with Tab dying and his French Bride throwing herself off a bridge. But again the studio requested this was flipped on its’ head to a happy lovers in each other’s arms type of ending. This was meant as a swansong of sorts and Wellman never forgave those meddling Warner Brothers for their…..meddling.

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What this means is, as always when the studio stick their oar in, the film suffers. The story is split into two with the squadron exploits of the young pilots being side-tracked as the plot focusses in on the love story between Tab Hunters’ character and his French maiden. The problem here is that it’s not a particularly believable affair being acted out by the two of them. They hole up in a Paris apartment after he goes AWOL. She goes out to work at night while he hides out and recuperates from a facial injury he picked up in the act of going AWOL. He gets grumpy because he can’t pay his way…blah blah blah, yawn.

Clint Eastwood did get cast in a small role in and it’s kind of funny seeing him playing someone inconsequential. He moons about the place and blurts out a few lines but I don’t think he does anything which would point to his future superstar status. Tab Hunter is a bit of a lump of wood in the leading role if I’m honest. He was red hot stuff at the time but I think, with the benefit of hindsight, his casting in the role turns what is already a weak script element into an excruciatingly dull one. This isn’t usually too much of a problem in these types of films because generally the action elements take precedent. But here the emphasis had been moved away from the action with the result that it becomes just a boring love story with a little bit of lame half action tacked on for good measure.

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It really is a shame that Wellman never gained the full control of this one. If he’d had the money, the artistic control and the actors he’d wanted who knows what may have ended up in the can. He never directed again after this debacle and I should imagine he barely kept his bitter anger in check at the wrap party. According to his son he threatened Jack Warner as he left the studio for the last time telling him he’d hospitalise him if he (Wellman) ever saw Jack again. Good on you Bill.

Overall this film makes me a bit sad. William A Wellman had written his meisterwerk, his opus, his legacy and he’d watched on, helpless, as the Studio dismantled it piece by piece. We’ll never know what Wellman’s ‘C’est La Guerre’ could’ve been and for that I too want to hospitalise Jack Warner. I don’t know if I could advise you to NOT watch this one but there are better films out there that should get a nod first. If you do watch it, maybe take some time afterwards to imagine what it could’ve been if only Jack Warner and his brothers had given Wild Bill the freedom to do what he did best.

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