Airplanes played an important function in the life of legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks. Before becoming a filmmaker, Hawks served in the U.S Army Air Corps as a flight instructor and later was employed as a designer in an airplane factory. His social circle featured aviation innovators such as Bill Lear and Al Menasco. In 1930, Hawks’ brother Kenneth, also an amateur pilot, was tragically killed in airplane crash.
Aviation also performed a significant occupational purpose in Hawks’ films. His 1926 silent film The Air Circus focused on a love triangle between two flight school cadets and a desirable aviatrix. Other aviation-themed films followed: The Dawn Patrol (1930) centered on a First World War British aerial squadron; Ceiling Zero (1935) dealt with the redemption of a disgraced civil aviator; Only Angels Have Wings (1939) concentrated on the perilous journey undertaken by airmail services across the Andes. Hawks also shared a screenwriting credit for MGM’s all-star aerial blockbuster Test Pilot (1938).
Hawks’ final aviation film was 1943’s Air Force: an expansive, serious-minded examination of a B-17 bomber crew in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Produced to both celebrate the U.S military’s wartime aerial pilots and to assist in recruiting new pilots, Air Force is a slick, patriotic chunk of propaganda. Scripted by longtime John Ford collaborator Dudley Nichols with additional uncredited dialogue from acclaimed Southern writer William Faulkner, Air Force details the shared experiences of the crew aboard the B-17 bomber Mary-Ann.
Beginning as a routine training mission to Hawaii, Hawks’ film chronicles the changing attitudes and budding camaraderie between crew members, as the plane unknowingly encounters the chaotic repercussions of Pearl Harbor. The plane’s occupants and the film’s narrative are classic examples of Warner Brothers’ wartime template. Like Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or John Huston’s Across The Pacific (1942), Air Force deploys a narrative structure designed to remind viewers of where they were on the fatal December day when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The device is simple, yet highly effective; particularly in Air Force due to the fictional crew’s convergence on several key sites attacked by the Japanese military such as Hawaii, Wake Island and The Philippines.
Featuring grizzled middle-aged veterans, fresh-faced rural kids, wise-cracking urbanites and ethnic outsiders, the Mary-Ann becomes an idealized aerial microcosm of America. The crew’s reasons for joining the military are as diverse as their backgrounds. Some crew members are culled from military families, others simply want to make ends meet or demonstrate their loyalty to as first generation Americans. Furthermore, there are individuals such as the cynical Winocki (John Garfield), who still yearn to fulfill their thwarted ambitions to become a B-17 pilot, despite having failed to receive proper accreditation.
Opening with claustrophobic scenes of humorous jostling, schisms and reservations about military life, Air Force abruptly shifts to a somber and grim character study upon entering Hawaiian airspace. Listening to unintelligible and fuzzy transmissions of intercepted Japanese military broadcasts, a damp and surrealistic air soaks the crew. Many refuse to acknowledge anything has occurred. Winocki even chimes in to suggest the recordings are Orson Welles’ latest radio play. But soon, a sense of disbelief pervades the cramped quarters. The playful banter is quickly replaced by rancor and concern. Hawks’ overarching codes of masculinity and professionalism enter the frame.
Previously blighted by in-fighting, the crew coalesces into a tight unit built on commitment and loyalty. Each becomes an intricate component in the machine. Everyone understands their duty and operates to their full potential, despite overwhelming fatigue and a cycle of arduous treks across the Pacific. The thematic modes are pure Hawksian cinema impressing the utility and comradeship gained by the film’s protagonists along the route.
Death and destruction abound throughout the film. Bleakly shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe, thick wafts of smoke haunt the film’s tropical landscapes. In-between aerial combat sequences and in-flight banter, there are moments dedicated to perished loved ones, maimed friends, sacrificed heroes and devastation. The latter scenes, executed with unbridled emotion, provide some of the film’s key moments such as the film’s famous death scene of a mortally wounded pilot written by William Faulkner. Thus, the film provided a continuous reminder to wartime viewers of the need for Americans to complete the overall mission.
Consequently, these cinematic aide-memoire also extend to the film’s brutal and caustic acts of anti-Japanese racism and historically inaccurate statements. Designed to breed antagonism and hostility towards America’s wartime adversary, these sequences are littered with epithets and racialized references to cowardice, barbarism and weakness.
To the modern viewer, these elements are plainly crude and offensive relying on predominatn wartime myths, distortions and stereotypes. This is perhaps no more so in evidence than in the film’s climatic destruction of Japanese ships sailing toward the coast of Australia. The event in question never occurred. Nor, was there much truth to the film’s repeated erroneous claims that the Japanese-American population in Hawaii provided a covert “fifth column” assisting the Japanese military in their attack on Pearl Harbor. In actuality, such allegations made during the war were primarily sparked by opportunistic journalists or individuals such as then-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox in order to stoke popular anti-Japanese sentiments, despite overt evidence to the contrary.
But in its incendiary violence, the film’s aggressive climax certainly acted as a cathartic outburst of aggression to arouse further resentment amongst its viewers. Curiously, the film's protracted finale is also one of the few scenes in the film actually depicting and featuring the enemy. Remarkably, in comparison to other propagandistic Hollywood films of the era such as John Huston’s Across the Pacific, the racist language and imagery shown in Air Force is “restrained” in comparison, but nevertheless is still stringently distasteful. Audiences during the Second World War however rapturously received Air Force: making the film one of the biggest grossing and most critically acclaimed films of 1943.
Today, the legacy of Air Force is much more askew. The film’s action sequences and repartee undeniably provided inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars series; as several images look identical in their composition and layout to the gun turrets on the Millennium Falcon. These scenes still resonate with intensity. Contrastingly, Air Force’s in-flight dramatic sequences often appear forced, overly talkative and labored. Notwithstanding some intriguingly restrained performances from John Garfield and Harry Carey, the film is beleaguered by dull stretches caused by an elongated plot extended beyond its bare margins.
Made at the request of Major General Henry (Hap) Arnold, head of the Army Air Corps, Howard Hawks’ Air Force is an interesting, but often laborious salute to the airborne soldier. Fraught with the type of xenophobic language and imagery besetting Hollywood’s wartime output, Air Force could simply have become another glossy product in the hands of another director. In the end, Hawks’ thematic interests distinguish Air Force from similar wartime genre fare, but cannot rescue the picture from its sluggishly drawn-out conclusions.