Air Force

A Warner Brothers Picture

It has been almost fifteen years since Jean Harlow and Jimmy Hall cavorted before the cameras in Howard Hughes' production of Hell's Angels. In the interim, several million feet of valuable film have been consumed by so-called aviation movies, Some of them were good. Too many of them were unbelievably bad. Most of them were so inaccurate that aviation writers generally refused to comment. Perhaps Air Force, which had its world premiere at New York's Hollywood Theatre recently will convince America's movie producers that aviation, in itself, has so much genuine interest and entertainment value that phony plots and pulchritudinous feminine adornment are unnecessary. For the time being, it stands as the greatest aviation picture of all time, with only Flight From Glory and Wake Island offering real competition for top honors. Even Target For Tonight, which missed greatness only by its brevity, loses stature beside Warner Brothers' latest epic.

Basically, Air Force is a great picture simply because every action, every detail is authentic. The plot is nothing more than a pictorial log of American air action during our baptism with fire following Pearl Harbor. From official archives of the US Army have come several score of exciting aeronautical exploits and the heroics of many plane crews have been attributed to one crew — that of the Mary Ann — for reasons of unity, movie-making convenience. The direction was in Howard Hawks' capable hands and the production was supervised by Hal B Wallis, Hollywood's top sportsman pilot and the most energetic booster for aviation in the film city. Behind these sureties of accuracy were hundreds of US Army Air Forces officers headed by Major Sam Triffy, Major Jack Coulter, and Captain Hewitt T Wheless, who served as technical advisors. The resulting picture and participating cast should win all Academy Awards. But whether or not the box-office receipts set financial records, Air Force is bound to boost enlistments in military aviation today, civil aviation tomorrow. The picture was filmed at the behest of Lieut Gen H H Arnold. All in all, it must be the great pictorial narrative he wanted.

The story of Air Force concerns a fight of nine Boeing Flying Fortresses which leave Mather Field in a routine training flight to Hawaii. Cruising uneventfully over the Pacific on the morning of December 7th, 1941, members of the Mary Ann's crew listen apathetically to news broadcasts recounting developments of the Jap peace conference in Washington, only to act with startled courage when the control tower at Honolulu radios that Pearl Harbor is under Japanese fire and all plane radios should be silenced. Fully armed, but without ammunition, the Mary Ann is unable to vector for an alternate landing base, sets down at an emergency field on Maui. Ambushed by Japs on that tiny isle, with the recalcitrant Sergeant Winocki disregarding Lieutenant Williams' orders and challenging the Japs until silenced by Sergeant White's fist, the crew takes off again for Hawaii. Unable to stay at Pearl Harbor because Hickam Field is still under Jap fire, the plane heads west only to find Wake Island in flames. Quickly refueled, the Mary Ann is loaded and sent to Manila where it is immediately sent on a mission. Thence, the odyssey continues to Australia.

Engaging in a running fight with Zeros Capt Quincannon is mortally wounded. Eight of the crew bail out while Winocki, previously sour on the Army because he had failed to win his wings, takes the controls, lands the ship. Badly damaged, the plane is ordered destroyed but crew members patch it up, take off with Lieut Tex Rader, a fighter pilot, at the controls. Participating in the Battle of Coral Sea, the Mary Ann is raked by ack-ack but Rader lands it on an Australian beach with two engines dead just before the ship bursts into flames. Later, a new Fortress takes off at Sydney bearing a battle-scarred nameplate — and Mary Ann carries on for the US Army Air Force.

Technically, Air Force must be classified as a war-time melodrama. Actually, it is something a great deal finer, considerably more lasting. For Air Force is an epic narrative of America at war, a picturization of the very things which make men fight for their personal and collective freedom. The most apathetic movie-goer — and those who patronize the Hollywood Theatre on Broadway are notably blase — leaves the theatre with mixed, but completely satisfied, emotions. Better than Mrs Miniver, more exciting than The Informer, and bigger than The Big Parade, Air Force has everything necessary to make it the greatest war picture of all time.

From a purely lay standpoint, it has no peer, The photography, for example, shades even "Citizen Kane" for vastness and strength. In the bombing of Jap ships, the screening camera vibrates dizzily — apparently from the concussion of the bombs being dropped. When the Mary Ann crashes on an Australian beach, the sounds, the shattering thud, and the ensuing flames, bring shudders to movie-going pilots who have cracked up and lived. The combat action is so real that United Nations pilots on leave in New York, are sitting through repeated showings — just for education. Altogether, Air Force marks the final arrival of sound movies as a medium for human expression. Every man, woman and child should, and probably will, see Air Force several times during the coming months. Only the Axis leaders will dislike this movie — for it stands as a two-hour picture of the national spirit that cannot be conquered.

The Crew Of The Mary Ann
Sgt J B Winocki John Garfield
Lieut Wm Xavier Williams Gig Young
Sgt R L White Harry Carey
Corp B B Weinberg George Tobias
Lieut T C McMartin Arthur Kennedy
Lieut T A Rader James Brown
Capt Michael A Quincannon John Ridgely
Pvt Henry W Chester Ray Montgomery
Lieut M W Hauser Charles Drake
Corp Gustave Peterson Ward Wood
This article was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 3, pp 48-50.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 19.7 MiB ] includes 16 publicity stills from the movie, 12 of them captioned.
The original was printed on 10½ by 13½ paper. The images in the PDF have been reduced for printing on letter-size paper.
Photos credited to Warner Brothers.