When I first saw the trailer for Flyboys I thought: wow! It looked like a really thrilling, entertaining war movie that also made you seriously think “I would not like to have been there” – kind of like Saving Private Ryan. Half of that presupposition is true.
The film begins with a young American rancher who gets into trouble with the law. Dodging arrest, and prompted by a story he sees on the news at the theatre, he heads to France to join the French Air Force. There he joins a small band of Americans who, despite the USA not yet having entered the war, fight the Germans because it’s the only way they can learn how to fly one of those new-fangled airplanes for free.
It’s a simple set-up, and it has a lot of potential – World War I isn’t represented in movies so much as the second World War, so it’s interesting to see large-scale battle in the early years of the twentieth century, and the ‘Americans in Europe’ concept could have been well explored. Unfortunately however, the movie treads a very cliched path. Our hero, Blaine Rawlings (played by James Franco, from Spiderman) meets a French girl who he of course falls for, but who is reluctant because he’s a pilot and, well, pilots don’t seem to live very long. That obstacle is overcome and then at one point he rescues her from some Germans, and I don’t think any of it comes as a surprise.
There’s a black character, Eugene Skinner, and of course that creates some racial tension – and as you would imagine, after a few dogfights that tension is dropped because they realise that it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is when you fly a plane. Deep. But all of this doesn’t really matter, because the dogfights are incredible. The special effects are amazing – very well done – but it’s the direction of Tony Bill that makes it so enthralling. Very early on you get an idea of what it must have been like to fly in a wooden biplane, without a radio to talk to your wingmen (indeed they shout to each other in the movie, which I still doubt the reliability of) or indeed even much of a cockpit. These guys didn’t just fly the planes; they had to shoot other planes down too, and when you take the lack of maneuverability back then that’s really quite amazing.
That’s the part of the film that’s done right, and it pretty much redeems the rest. Sure if it had taken the ‘war is hell’ approach of Apocalypse Now, or the sense of camradery seen in Saving Private Ryan it would have been a much better film, but as it is it’s just a very entertaining two hours of cinema. Go and see it if you like well-shot action scenes, especially of the kind you haven’t seen before (I mean, biplanes, come on!) – but if you’re a character/plot junkie this one might taste a bit sour.