There was a time when heroic war movies were a Hollywood staple. In recent years, however, the cinematic war hero has fallen on hard times. Images of John Wayne valiantly defending his country have been replaced by movies like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Jarhead that show the darker, more intense side of warfare. The new film Flyboys flies in the face of these movies, harkening back to a simpler time. It is the first WWI aviation film in over 30 years, and feels suitably old-fashioned.
Based on a true story, Flyboys is set in 1917 before the United States entered World War I. Despite the US’s non-involvement hundreds Americans volunteered to serve alongside soldiers of the Allied powers of France, England and Italy. Thirty-eight of these volunteers signed up as airmen, and became America’s first fighter pilots with a company known as the Lafayette Escadrille.
Bucking the recent trend in war pictures this is a story with nary an anti-hero in sight. James Franco (a dead ringer for James Dean) is the ringleader of the group of pilots, and he’s a good-looking pillar of strength. Ditto for most of the other guys in the platoon. They always seem to do the right thing and have an all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude that is probably essential to survival on the battlefield, but makes for kind of a dull movie.
Early on you can predict who will live and die. The virtuous will survive while anyone with a hint of pomposity, or anyone like the red shirted crewmember on Star Trek—someone who you don’t learn anything much about—is doomed.
Flyboys isn’t a terribly interesting character study, it’s filled with stilted dialogue and some wooden acting, but the filmmakers wisely spend about half the movie’s running time in the sky, with our boys engaging in some spectacular dogfights. In those scenes the movie achieves lift-off.
The dogfights are beautifully shot and really show the bravery and skill it took for these young men to fight for something they believed in. These scenes put the viewer in the cockpit and are reminiscent of some of the classic dogfight movies like The Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels, which, like Flyboys, were all directed by experienced pilots.
When grounded Flyboys is as interesting as being stuck at the airport, but when it becomes air bound there are some thrills to be had.