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AIR FORCE (director: Howard Hawks; screenwriters: Dudley Nichols/William Faulkner; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: George Amy; music: Franz Waxman; cast: John Garfield (Joe Winocki), Gig Young (Bill Williams), John Ridgely (Irish Quincannon), Arthur Kennedy (Tommy McMartin), Harry Carey (Robby White), George Tobias (Assistant Crew Chief Weinberg), Charles Drake (Lieutenant “Monk” Munchauser), James Brown (Lt. Tex Rader), Robert Wood (Corporal Peterson); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal B. Wallis/Howard Hawks; MGM/UA Home Entertainment; 1943)
“For a propaganda film, this one is superior.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Howard Hawks (“Sergeant York”/”The Big Sleep”/””Only Angles Have Wings””), himself a pilot, directs an early WW II propaganda flying film. For a propaganda film, this one is superior. It was scripted by Dudley Nichols with William Faulkner adding his two cents. The use of newsreel footage and special effects greatly add to making the air battles fiercely realistic. It tells of the plane Mary Ann, a B-17 bomber, and its diverse crew, filled with personal tensions, who come together to fight as a team. It follows along with the usual Hawks leitmotif of the men, even the outsiders, becoming team players during a crisis, as they show self-esteem, fidelity and professionalism.

On December 6, 1941, a squadron of nine B-17 bombers takes off from from San Francisco, California without ammunition for Hickam Field, Hawaii on their way to Pearl Harbor. The commander is Captain Irish Quincannon (John Ridgely); the co-pilot is Lt. Bill Williams (Gig Young) a bachelor who is looking forward to his upcoming date in Honolulu with the sister of the bombardier Tommy McMartin (Arthur Kennedy). Sergeant Robby White (Harry Carey) is the grizzled gray-haired efficient crew chief whose son is a pilot in the Philippines. The navigator is Lieutenant “Monk” Munchauser (Charles Drake). The radio operator is Corporal Peterson (Robert Wood). There are two new men, gung-ho and wide-eyed assistant radio man Private Chester (Ray Montgomery) and the disgruntled gunner with a chip on his shoulder Sergeant Joe Winocki (John Garfield). Joe resents that Quincannon washed him out of flight school after he accidentally killed another pilot and is set on leaving the service in three weeks. Weinberg (George Tobias) is a Jewish mechanic from Brooklyn with a droll sense of humor.

During the flight to Hickam Field the radio man realizes something is amiss when he begins picking up transmissions in Japanese. The Mary Ann arrives right in the middle of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and they are unarmed and out of gas. They somehow manage to land in an emergency field at Maui and make repairs to their damaged landing gear, but then come under fire from what were thought to be fifth columnists. The plane takes off for Hickam Field, but upon arriving find it also was attacked and McMartin’s sister wounded. They are ordered to take army fighter pilot Tex Rader (James Brown) to the Philippines and on the way hear a radio broadcast of FDR declaring war. They stop at Wake Island to refuel and come across a few members of a Marine garrison that declare they will fight until the end even though things look hopeless; they take their company dog mascot with them to spare the pet their fate. At Clark Field, Robby learns his son was killed. The Mary Ann and her crew go into action when they get three bombs. In the skirmish they knock out several Japanese planes, but the brave Quincannon is critically wounded and the plane is severely damaged. Joe, now a team player, flies the plane to safety. The remaining crew refuse to obey the delirious Quincannon’s command to destroy the plane and somehow get the bomber off just ahead of the advancing Japanese. They survive and head to Australia, but Quincannon dies. In the final scene, we are led to believe the men are getting ready to take down the Japanese Empire. What the film didn’t show was that in the next year the Mary Ann B-17 bomber was shot down.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”