Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Flying Tigers (film)

About this: This gets a little contentious as I explore the morality of propaganda (again), so you might wanna skip it if you find that thing kinda dull. It also get kinda heavy towards the end, so you have been warned.

I seem to be on a second world war kick, well here goes the third in a row. The Flying Tigers with John Wayne, bet you haven't watched it recently. I made a point of digging it out and re watching for the first time since I was about eleven. I was curious about the mock P40 aeroplanes that feature in the film, because it was released in 1942 real aeroplanes were not available for most of the production, being needed elsewhere at the time. The studio built their own non flyable mocks for the scenes that show p40's on the ground either stationary or taxiing, they are so elaborate, they even do a few mock take-off runs. They are quite unconvincing for anyone familiar with the p40 though, they couldn't get things like convincing canopies right, I suppose that's understandble too considering the film made under war time constraints.

Watching The Flying Tigers was an interesting experience, a bit like watching a film from an alien culture, it adheres quite strongly to dramatic conventions that seem quite crude and naive. Stock characters and plot elements abound, there's a troubled, unjustly vilified loner, the loyal compatriot who places himself in jeopardy by disobeying orders, the irreverent conceited ne'er do well, out for his own gain. Of course it was made at quite a charged time, when the US was smarting from the humiliation of Pearl Harbour and there is some strong content for the period, Japanese pilots suffering graphically depicted wounds at the hands of our heroes. Those depictions seem to be inspired by sadism rather than an incentive to realistically portray the perils of war, which actually isn't as bad as it sounds because the film is largely bereft of the kind of demonisation associated with war time propaganda.

As a drama the film has some short comings, it limps through the first act at dire pace that seems be drawn out to an unbearable degree, as if the script is struggling to portray any depth in characterisation under the burden of their stereotypes. Where the script does satisfy, is with dialogue, as you'd expect from this period, there a snappy unselfconscious delivery of well constructed, slightly stylised prose that works well enough to hold your interest through the dull bits. There's also some alarming technical accuracy, when John Wayne's character briefs his men, he's referencing aircraft his Japanese adversaries would actually have been using, this is probably a consequence of the fact members of the real AVG were closely involved in the production as advisers. The real strength of the film are the aerial combat sequences, which despite the fact that studio shots are repeated in the film, work quite well, thanks to the excellent standard miniature photography. The miniature effects are not all up to the same standard but a good deal is really convincing, especially those used for the film's climax. The film's other asset is John Wayne, this was before typecasting eroded the more delicate aspects of his on screen persona and he's a much more convincing screen presence than in some of his later roles, this is a film that really exploits his star quality. It's cause to reflect on the quality of some those later roles and ponder what he could've accomplished if more 'em had reflected the quality of things like The Searchers or Rio Bravo.

The Flying Tigers does turn out to be enjoyable if a little slow to get going but I find the film's message to be morally reprehensible. You might this a little odd since I've excused the sadism expressed with the gruesome depiction of Japanese airmen being killed. and noted the refreshing absence of the demonisation of the enemy beyond those instances necessitated by the plot.


The problem for me occurs the films climax, that one so excellently rendered with special effects, you remember that conceited ne're do well? well he's probably the films best crafted character and the script does a good job of making you hate him. For those familiar with formulaic plot, it will be no surprise to learn that this character turns out to be misunderstood and cements his redemption in the eyes of the audience with a suicidal act of self sacrifice. The message is clear and explicit as we see him destroy a railway bridge by diving into it with an aeroplane loaded with explosives, a chilling and, as I'm sure you're aware, an unnervingly prophetic scene. So prophetic in fact, it's cause to wonder how audiences would react to that scene as the horrors of the war in the pacific unfolded. Our ne'er do well is not the only character to meet such a fate, there are two other notable incidences, both of them involve characters that seem to be carefully drafted to portray social exiles. I found this unselfconscious portrayal of self destruction as virtue particularly indefensible given the context and the cynicism with which the characters are manipulated. A fair portion of the audience would in fact be impressionable young men who did just as the film prompted, got themselves killed. I know this is a contentious opinion, I don't think there's ever been an occasion when I've expressed something like it, when it hasn't been vehemently contested. To be truthful, if someone were in a predicament where there own family were in immediate peril, I could empathise with any action they took to protect that family, that might endanger themselves but to glorify self extinction in the service of an external agenda such as patriotism seems to me to be the ultimate evil, a cynical manipulation of the vulnerable and impressionable. Yeah, I know you're still not convinced but ponder this, The Flying Tigers makes no explicit reference to atrocities inflicted on the Chinese mainland during The Second Sino-Japanese war, who do you think committed those acts perpetrated during such incidents as *The Rape of Nanking? Well I tell you who, the same people who were convinced it's sweet and fitting to die for their country, if you can push someone past the barrier of self preservation, you've essentially created a functional-psychopath, someone capable of anything.

Despite what you might read in Wikipedia, the 'Rape' in the The Rape of Nanking doesn't refer to mass sexual assault, that's not say incidents of such assault did not occur. It is in fact one of the last occurrences of the use the word in a classical sense, meaning an assault on a community with the consequence of depleting that community's ability to raise children. In this incidence by killing them and their actual or potential mothers.


  1. Once, when this film was shown on TCM, host Ben Mankiewicz said that it was basically an unofficial remake of Only Angels Have Wings. I think that is a slight exaggeration. A subplot involving one of the secondary characters (who gets grounded after failing an eye test) is similar, but that is about all.

    If Flying Tigers is a remake of anything, it would be International Squadron. Ronald Reagan and John Carroll played the same character: the arrogant, irresponsible hot shot who antagonizes his teammates with his cocky attitude. In each movie, the jerk fails to report for duty and the guy who takes his place is killed. In the end, the hot shot earns redemption by sacrificing himself in a suicide mission. Two James Cagney movies, Captains of the Clouds and The Fighting 69th, had similar themes. Obviously, during WWII, there was a lot of propaganda stressing the need for teamwork, and for the need to set aside one's own desires for the (presumed) common good.

    John Carroll was probably the actor who got hired whenever it was a case of, "We can't afford Clark Gable, so get me a Clark Gable type."

    1. I'm not familiar with any of those films, so you've provided some good context to consider The Flying Tigers in. The only fly boy film I'm familiar with is, Hell's Angels, being a transitional production between the silent and early talkies, there's a notable difference in tone and style, beyond that attributable to ...Tigers' war time context. It still has the theme of self sacrifice but the script does something a little clever with it. Which is quite impressive, when you consider that when production started, there was no script.