Old movies were grimmer than high-tech Gulf images


January 27, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Everybody has seen it by now, and it seems so reassuring: the trajectory of a bomb with a Ph.D., which, in defiance of laws such as gravity, physics or whimsy, descends with a draftsman's precision toward not a building but a building's door, plunges through like a bustling FedEx deliveryman, then detonates thunderously inside, atomizing any and all who work within.

It helps, of course, that the image is taken from infrared film, because it is thereby denuded of texture or nuance and seems to be reduced to eerie absolutes: just a glowing smart bomb and a glowing dumb target and an explosion. This is the air war in the first week of the Persian Gulf conflict, through a camera's eye, impersonal, precise, a revenge of the techno-nerds for our times -- and not a person to be seen. Or is this just another grand illusion?

Cameras have peered at war waged from and in the air before, and their news has hardly been as comforting. When Hollywood has turned to air war, it has almost always argued that the costs are substantial, in both blood and spirit; that bombs are dumb and young men precious; and that those who waste either or both do so at their own risk.

As early as 1927's "Wings," filmmakers had learned that war in the air, far from being the antiseptic combat of "aerial gladiators," was hard, horrible business; there was nothing noble about burning to death a thousand feet up. William Wellman's great silent re-creation of the aerial campaign of World War I was somewhat romantic in texture, what with pretty-boys Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen as competing aviators who realize they're in love with the same gal -- Clara Bow -- but become best pals over the trenches anyway. But Wellman didn't stint on the horror of the dogfighting and the spiritual exhaustion it provoked in its survivors.

By the late '30s, a somewhat more pessimistic spirit prevailed. Two "Dawn Patrols," one of 1930 and one of 1938 (Howard Hawks directed the first with Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; Edmund Goulding directed the second, with Errol Flynn and David Niven), boasted a cliche-rich environment: mugs being turned upside down, a great German ace, a last, desperate mission and so forth and so on. But they also introduced the element of what might be called "soul fatigue," particularly as it played out on commanding officers, who, having survived their turn in combat, inherited the even more loathsome job of staying behind and sending other, younger men out to die each day.

At the same time, Jean Renoir was making what many consider the greatest war film of all time, "Grand Illusion." Though it was about fliers, "Grand Illusion" actually showed no glossy combat footage, but was rather about the mind-set of the warrior caste, as played out in a POW camp behind German lines where French officers and their German captors (notably Erich von Stroheim as an injured ex-flier, now commandant) tried to make sense of their situation and retain a spirit of chivalry even as the war turned senseless.

The early World War II films dealing with aviation were usually entertaining agitprop that can today be enjoyed for their energy (unfailing), their rectitude (implacable) and deplored for their racism (lamentable). Hawks' "Air Force" was probably the best of them, being the chronicle of a B-17 as metaphor for the ship of state, from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the Battle of Midway, as fought a yard above the ground on the Warner Bros. back lot. With John Garfield as a feisty oddball gunner who "joins the team," it was basically an encomium to team spirit as a way at getting back at the Japanese. Its emotional climax came when Garfield, spouting racial invective, guns down a crash-landed Japanese pilot who has just killed a friend of his.

By late in the war, however, a spirit of melancholy practicality had settled over all war pictures, not just the aviation ones. "Command Decision," with Clark Gable, returned to the theme of the tortured commanding officer who must send his men out to die each day for goals that only he himself knows for sure are worthy. "God Is My Co-Pilot" showed an American fighter pilot in China coming to terms with the fact that his duty compelled him to kill while his faith forbade it.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.