Air Force (1943)

Air Force (1943), directed by Howard Hawks.

A squadron of B-17s flying from California to Hawaii arrive in the middle of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lacking armaments, all they can do is scatter and hide at remote airfields. They are directed onwards, deeper into the War, first with a brief stopover with the doomed Marine garrison on Wake Island, then to the Philippines for desperate fighting and repair work.

This would be a good companion to They Were Expendable (1945), set at the same time, also in the Philippines. It is a similar story of frantic scrounging for parts and fighting superior forces during those early months when the US was losing the Pacific war. Howard Hawks and John Ford were alike in some ways and you can see it in their films. Hawks is somewhat constrained by the patriotic needs of the movie, but his storytelling talent always comes through.

The realism starts strong in this one, drifting into wartime action entertainment in the second half. It's what audiences wanted: Japanese soldiers mowed down, an improbable number of their fighter planes exploded by bomber machine gunners, and mass carnage on their invasion fleet heading for Australia. It's action packed but not as far out as something like Raoul Walsh's Desperate Journey (1942), also from Warner.

Wartime entertainment always has some stock characters: Harry Carey as the old army Crew Chief, John Garfield as the malcontent who gets an attitude adjustment. A cute bit with a dog. Everyone speaks in baseball metaphors.

Other familiar faces: Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Drake. George Tobias plays the same character as in Hawks' Sergeant York (1941), the proud but friendly New Yorker. John Ridgely is the young squadron captain; I had to look up his name but remember seeing his face during this era, notably as Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep (1946).

Quite a lot of model work but also good aviation photography.

The wikipedia article has a section on historical accuracy. The film has local Japanese snipers and saboteurs in Hawaii. Nothing like that actually happened. Did the filmmakers know it wasn't true at the time? Maybe not, fog of war and truth being the first casualty, etc.

Photographed by James Wong Howe with a Franz Waxman score.

Available on DVD. It includes a 20 minute Technicolor short: Women at War (1943) about WAC training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa.