Although using wartime combat footage sparingly, the eventual missions portrayed in the Coral Sea sequences mirror real-life events.
Air Force is a 1943 American black-and-white war film from Warner Bros., produced by Hal B. Wallis and Jack Warner, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring John Garfield, John Ridgely, Harry Carey, and Gig Young.
The story revolves around an actual incident that occurred on December 7, 1941. A bomber aircrew, flying an unarmed Boeing B-17 Flying Fortressnamed the Mary-Ann, is ferrying the heavy bomber across the Pacific to theUnited States Army Air Corps base at Hickam Field, when the bomber flies right into the middle of the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II.
An uncredited William Faulkner wrote the emotional deathbed scene for actor John Ridgely, the pilot of the Mary-Ann. Made in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, Air Force was one of the first of the patriotic films of World War II, often characterized as a propaganda film.[Note 1]
On December 6, 1941, at Hamilton Field, near San Francisco, a United States Army Air Corps B-17D bomber Mary-Ann and its crew are being readied for a flight across the Pacific.
Master Sergeant Robbie White (Harry Carey), Mary-Ann 's crew chief, is a long-time veteran in the Army Air Corps, whose son, Danny White is a West Point graduate, an officer, and a pilot. The navigator, Lt. Monk Hauser Jr. (Charles Drake), is the son of a famed World War I aviation hero of the Lafayette Escadrille. The pilot is Michael Aloysius "Irish" Quincannon Sr. (John Ridgely), the co-pilot is Bill Williams (Gig Young) and the bombardier, Tom McMartin (Arthur Kennedy).
The crew also includes a disaffected gunner, Sergeant Joe Winocki (John Garfield), who, as an aviation cadet in 1938, washed out of flight school at Randolph Field, Texas when he was involved in a mid-air collision in which another cadet was killed. Quincannon was the flight instructor who requested the board of inquiry dismiss Winocki; later on, in the Philippines, Major Mallory recalls training Quincannon at Kelly Field, Texas. Both the navigator and bombardier also washed out of pilot training.
With the United States at peace, Mary-Ann and the rest of its bomber squadron are ordered to fly without ammunition to Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. Before the bombers depart, Quincannon's wife arrives to give him a "good luck" gift, a toy pilot from their infant son, Michael Aloysius Quincannon, Jr. Young Private Chester also asks Captain Quincannon to meet his worried mother and tell her it is a standard flight to Hawaii.
As it happens, Mary-Ann flies into the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.[Note 3] In its aftermath the beleaguered B-17 crew is taxed to the limit, as they are ordered on, with little rest, first to Wake Island, and then to Clark Field; both locations have also come under Japanese attack. While en route to the Philippines, the crew listens to PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt ask Congress for a declaration of war. They have taken along fighter pilot Lt. Thomas "Tex" Rader (James Brown) and a small dog from the Marines on Wake Island named "Trippoli." [Note 4]
When they land at Clark Field, White receives the news that his son was killed on the first day trying to lead his squadron into the air against an attack. Quincannon has to give Robbie his son's personal effects. Soon after, Quincannon volunteers his bomber for a one-aircraft mission against a Japanese invasion fleet, but the Mary-Ann is attacked by enemy fighters and forced to abort. The badly wounded Quincannon orders his men to bail-out of the stricken bomber, and then he blacks out. Winocki checks on him, sees he is passed out from his injuries, and decides to now guide in the shot-up bomber for a belly landing. Later on at Clark Field, having told a dying Quincannon that Mary-Ann is ready to fly, the crew works feverishly through the night repairing the bomber as the Japanese Army closes in. Private Chester volunteers to fly as gunner in a two-seat fighter aircraft defending Clark Field. In aerial combat the pilot is killed, and Chester is forced to bail-out; he is machine-gunned by a Japanese fighter pilot while suspended, helpless, in his parachute. On the ground, Winocki and White team up and shoot down that Japanese aircraft after it strafes Chester's lifeless body. As the side-armed enemy pilot stumbles from his burning aircraft, an angry Winocki machine-guns the enemy pilot for killing the defenseless Chester. The aircrew barely manages to finish their repairs as the airfield comes under attack. With the help of U. S. Marines and U. S. Army soldiers, they refuel the bomber shortly before the B-17s position is overrun by Japanese soldiers; her engines now powered up and the bomber's .50 caliber machine guns returning fire, Mary-Ann barrels down Clark Field's runway and flies again.
As the B-17 heads for the safety of Australia, with Rader as a now reluctant bomber pilot and the wounded Williams as co-pilot, they spot a large Japanese naval invasion task force below. The crew radios the enemy position to all nearby U. S. airbases and aircraft carriers, and the bomber circles until those reinforcements arrive in force; Mary-Ann then leads the aerial bombing attack that destroys the Japanese fleet.[Note 5]
Much later, the first bombing mission against Tokyo is announced to a roomful of expectant bomber crews; among them now are several familiar faces from the Mary-Ann. As their aircraft take off, a stirring speech by President Roosevelt is heard invoice-over as waves of bombers join up and head toward the rising sun, and victory.
The basic premise of Air Force, that a flight of B-17s flying to reinforce the defense of the Philippines flies into the attack on Pearl Harbor, reflects actual events. From that point on, however, all of the incidents are fictitious. No B-17 reinforcements reached the Philippines; the survivors of those already based there retreated to Australia less than two weeks after the war began. T
he major bombing mission depicted at the film's climax most closely resembles the Battle of the Coral Sea five months later. Miniature shooting for its battle scenes was filmed in May and June 1942, concurrent but probably coincidental with Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway.
Anti-Japanese propaganda in the film included scenes in which the crew is forced to land on Maui Island and is shot at by "local Japanese," and the assertion by the Hickam Field commander that vegetable trucks knocked off the tails of parked P-40 fighters as the attack began. As detailed in Walter Lord's book, Day of Infamy, later investigations proved no Japanese-American was involved in any sabotage during the Pearl Harbor attack.
There are several scenes in Air Force showing a tail gun position on the Mary-Ann. The bomber is a Boeing B-17D, and all early B-17s, series A to D, were not fitted with a machine gun position in their tails. Tail machine guns were not added to the B-17 until Boeing rolled out their redesigned B-17E model. However, in the film, the crew of the Mary-Ann are shown making a field modification to their bomber's rear fuselage to allow for the installation of a single, improvised, machine gun position, "a stinger in our tail" as one crewman calls it.
Critical acclaim followed the film's premiere as Air Force echoed some of the emotional issues that underlay the American public psyche at the time, including fears of Japanese Americans. In naming it one of the "Ten Best Films of 1943," Bosley Crowther of The New York Times characterized the film as "... continuously fascinating, frequently thrilling and occasionally exalting..." When seen in a modern perspective, the emotional aspects of the film seem out-of-proportion and although it has been wrongly dismissed as a piece of wartime propaganda, it still represents a classic war film that can be considered a historical document. When initially released, Air Force was one of the top three films in commercial revenue in 1943.
Later reviews of Air Force noted that this was a prime example of Howard Hawk's abilities; "Air Force is a model of fresh, energetic, studio-era filmmaking."
Air Force placed third (behind The Ox-Bow Incident and Watch on the Rhine) as the best film of 1943 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.
|Directed by||Howard Hawks|
|Produced by||Hal B. Wallis|
Jack Warner (executive producer)
|Written by||Dudley Nichols|
|Music by||Leo F. Forbstein|
|Cinematography||James Wong Howe|
Charles A. Marshall
|Edited by||George Amy|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|