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Air Force

Screening on Film
Directed by Howard Hawks and Vincent Sherman.
With John Garfield, John Ridgely, Gig Young.
US, 1943, 35mm, black & white, 124 min.
Print source: Warner Bros.

Hawks directed his final tribute to aviation with this rousing piece of WWII military propaganda. Made at the height of the war effort, Air Force depicts the chaotic days following the attack on Pearl Harbor by focusing on a small brigade that gets pulled into combat in the midst of a routine training mission, but Hawks treats the action of warfare as secondary to the smaller dramas between the crew members onboard their cramped B-17 bomber plane. The terrific ensemble, composed largely of relative unknowns, embodies a cast of characters culled from various walks of American life: among others, there’s the family-man pilot (John Ridgely), the rebellious newcomer (John Garfield), the Jewish mechanic (George Tobias), a fresh-faced radio operator (Ray Montgomery), and Harry Carey in one of his most affecting late performances as a veteran crew chief whose son works at another base. Much of the film is devoted to the team-building conversations that take place amongst the group while maintaining the plane, where topics range from family life to the merits of New York City and California. When the film moves into its action-packed, visually impressive second half, however, the emphasis shifts toward the barbaric “Japs” and their brutal defeat at the hands of American military prowess, a tonal shift that’s understandable in context if rather difficult to swallow by modern sensibilities.

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