Monday, May 26, 2008


This average WWII propaganda programmer is notable primarily for its stunning Technicolor, rare for a relatively short film that was probably intended as a second feature, though its production values are generally high. The film is set at a real place, Thunderbird Field in Arizona, where, according to John Gunther’s opening narration, the Army was using civilians to train British and Chinese pilots for their respective air forces, probably before the U.S. was officially in the war--Gunther mentions American pilots, but the story doesn’t feature any, so I assume it was filmed and/or written before Pearl Harbor. Preston Foster (the hero of THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) is a veteran pilot who offers his services at Thunderbird. One of his most promising British students is John Sutton, the son of a pilot Foster knew and admired in WWI, but he suffers from an extreme form of vertigo which causes him to get sick every time he goes up in a plane. The commander, Jack Holt, wants to wash Sutton out and replace him with a likelier candidate, but Sutton assures Foster that he can overcome his problem and Foster goes to bat for him. Their relationship is strained when Sutton falls for lovely Gene Tierney, granddaughter of local rancher George Barbier, before he realizes that Foster has carried a torch for her for quite a while--though Tierney seems to think of Foster as more like an uncle (and frankly, that's what he seems like).

That’s pretty much it for the narrative; if you’ve seen any of these wartime buddy pictures, you’ll know from the start that Sutton will eventually, thanks to the noble Foster, overcome his weakness and make a sterling pilot, saving Foster’s life and bagging Tierney in the process. Sutton wisely underplays his part, though it takes a while to warm up to him; Tierney's acting talents aren't strained, though she is beautiful; Dame May Whitty has a small role as Sutton's grandmother in a flashback scene; a very young Richard Haydn (best known as Max in THE SOUND OF MUSIC) has a comic relief role as another British pilot; Reginald Denny is the head of British forces at the field. The use of Technicolor makes this beautiful to watch; particularly striking are the desert vistas and the bright blue and yellow planes the students fly. The film is clearly what some critics call a "preparedness" film (getting the public ready for our participation in the war and boosting a particular branch of the military), as there are no war scenes and very little talk of war, but with that in mind, it's entertaining enough. [DVD]

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