The First World War was fought with 20th century technology within a 19th century mindset, and the result of this Molotov cocktail was massive casualties on a scale never before seen or even imagined. It was also the first war to make use of the still new technology of motion pictures as a tool of both journalism and propaganda. Although this was often less journalism and more propaganda, most of the footage would qualify today as “reality TV” since most of it was staged for dramatic effect. Since staging for dramatic effect was the business of Hollywood, it wouldn’t be long before they took it one step further and made it all dramatic, or more accurately, melodramatic. The ink was still wet on the Treaty of Versailles when the studios began a new cycle of films that used the Great War as a backdrop for the kind of stoical romanticism specialized by John Monk Saunders, the pulp poet of the air.
There are several stock characters in these melodramas and you will recognize all of them as they have appeared in many films to this date. One is the Ace Squadron Leader. He is the veteran of many kills and missions who has seen it all and seems to have lost all the idealism he may have once had, replacing it with a jaded desire for revenge for his dead friends. His arch enemy is a German flier who is always a variation on the Red Baron. The other is the Young Idealist. He arrives with the pack of new recruits and is immediately pushed around by the Ace Squadron Leader”, who sees his former self in the new pilot, and lets him know that war is indeed hell and the best you can expect is a quick, painless death.
When the Young Idealist proves his mettle in battle, the Ace Squadron Leader shows his newfound respect for him. Later, after many terrible missions, the Ace Squadron Leader sacrifices himself in battle against the Black Raven or Brown Bunny (or a similarly moniker villain), and the Young Idealist finds himself being named the new Ace Squadron Leader, with his own bone to pick with the Yellow Hornet. If you’ve never seen one of these films, ask Snoopy. He knows all about them.
“Flyboys” doesn’t miss a beat in following this mad lib template. It’s ostensibly the romantic adventure of a group of young Americans who go to France to join the Lafayette Escadrille, a special squadron of 38 American pilots who risked their lives before their own country decided to enter the war. It may indeed be inspired by a true story, but what we see onscreen is simply “Star Wars” set in some fantasy French air base circa 1917. Similar to the war that inspired it, “Flyboys” uses 21st century technology to tell a very old fashioned 20th century tale of how war will make a man out of you; that is, if you are lucky enough to survive it.
The movie was shot with the new Panavision Genesis camera, which was also used on “Superman Returns” and seems to have proven itself as the first true challenger to the throne held by Eastman Kodak. The images are colorful and sharp, making the film aesthetically enjoyable even when the content is completely absurd. Speaking of the content, it is the responsibility of three screenwriters, of whom David S. Ward is the best known. Ward is the Academy Award winning writer of “The Sting” and “Major League”. This script, however, is more “Major League” than “The Sting”.
Which is not to say “Flyboys” isn’t fun or even technically well made. There is a strange tendency in modern art that if director Tony Bill simply let us know he realized he was working with some really hokey and ancient story conventions and that he was playing some of it for dark satire, it would suddenly be a great movie. Still, you feel as though everyone was quite sincere about the story’s absurdities. During the second act climax, the script even rolls out its own version of the Death Star via a massive Zeppelin the pilots try to bring down.
It’s particularly from this point on that the movie gets carried away with its CGI zeal. Since anything is physically possible with CGI planes, the film seems to test the impossible at every chance. Even if half of the stunt “flying” in “Flyboys” were actually possible, it is not cinematically believable, including a “flyby” shooting with a hand held pistol in the skies that is quite hard to swallow. In real life, some people actually survive after being shot in the head, but this would really challenge our suspension of disbelief onscreen.
The performances are excellent all round. James Franco (“The Great Raid” and the “Spiderman” movies) proves that the acclaim he received for playing James Dean was no fluke. Jean Reno (“Empire of the Wolves”) effectively does his Jean Reno thing as the Commander, and Martin Henderson (“Torque”) should have had more scenes since his character was the most enigmatic and interesting of the bunch. He’s the Ace Squadron Leader by the way.
Outside of the content itself, the movie is very handsomely produced, with excellent digital photography by Henry Braham which seems to exploit the full color range of the Genesis camera. The CGI looks visually convincing, and the direction of the air battles is always clear, with no confusion as to who is shooting whom or where the danger lies. Bill is a veteran director and he is not sloppy with his craft: “Flyboys” is solidly built on the rickety legs of cliché. The movie might even sneak its old fashioned story by if it were shorter. At 139 minutes, it’s at least a half hour too long.
The final shot of the movie shows a photograph of the actual aces of the Lafayette Escadrille, and it is very jarring. With this one image, you are suddenly reawakened to the odd fact that the romantic comic book adventure you have just watched has some actual basis in the lives and deaths of real men. Instead of being the inspiring image it was clearly intended to be, it makes the last two hours seem somewhat cheap and exploitative.
Tony Bill (director) / Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans, David S. Ward (screenplay)
CAST: Jennifer Decker …. Lucienne
David Ellison …. Eddie Beagle
James Franco …. Blaine Rawlings
Martin Henderson …. Cassidy
Barry McGee …. Dewitt
Pip Pickering …. Nunn
Jean Reno …. Captain Thenault
Ian Rose …. Wolfert