I didn’t see this when it came out in 1942, but they must have run it again a few years later, because I watched it on the big screen at the theater in my home town. I was a kid in those days, and the action sequences impressed me most profoundly. It’s Flying Tigers, starring John Wayne, only in those days I didn’t realize the actors were real people with real names. For some reason I never obtained a copy, so I watched it on Amazon Prime Video. A list of the players is provided by Wikipedia:
- John Wayne as Capt. Jim Gordon
- John Carroll as Woodrow “Woody” Jason
- Anna Lee as Brooke Elliott
- Paul Kelly as “Hap” Davis, Pilot
- Gordon Jones as “Alabama” Smith
- Mae Clarke as Verna Bales
- Addison Richards as Col. R.T. Lindsay
- Edmund MacDonald as “Blackie” Bales, Pilot
- Bill Shirley as Dale
- Tom Neal as Reardon, Pilot
- Malcolm “Bud” McTaggart as McCurdy, Pilot
- David Bruce as Lt. Barton, Pilot
- Chester Gan as Mike, Mechanic
- Jimmie Dodd as “Mac” McIntosh, Pilot (Credited as James Dodd)
- Gregg Barton as “Tex” Norton, Pilot
- Richard Loo as Dr. Tsing (uncredited)
It’s from Republic Pictures, which I have not seen in decades. Another company acquired them in 1967.
The Flying Tigers was a real outfit, operating with former American military pilots officially assigned to the Chinese government, but under American control. Organizer and commander was Claire Lee Chennault. The Flying Tigers operated three squadrons of approximately 30 P-40 aircraft each. Shark’s teeth painted on the air scoops of the planes gave them a fierce appearance, and their aggressiveness gave them their name. We see a squadron preparing for combat at their ragtag field, likely in Kunming province in China.
The group’s effectiveness was disproportional to its size, and the movie audience of those dark days in 1942 likely cheered at scenes of Japanese pilots clutching at their bloody faces.
We see squadron commander Captain Jim Gordon and his pretty girlfriend Brooke Elliott, who is a nurse at a local hospital that treats wounded pilots and Chinese civilians, many refugees from the invading Japanese.
Of course, the squadron loses pilots in combat, and Gordon interviews potential replacement Blackie Bales. Bales desperately wants the assignment. The pay is good, $450 a month plus a $500 bonus for each combat victory. But Bales has a bad reputation, and Gordon refuses.
Later Bales’ wife prevails upon Gordon, and he relents. Bales joins the group while his wife remains behind in Rangoon.
Another who joins up is Woody Jason, who makes a splash entering the plot by landing a burning passenger plane wheels up in a storm. But Blackie has a serious problem. He is 100% full of himself, interested only in the money and caring little for squadron unity.
Fresh off the boat he makes a play for the squadron leader’s girlfriend. Not a good way to get started.
Suddenly a mission is called to intercept Japanese bombers. Blackie is ordered to stand down, but he is eager to get into battle and start earning some bonus money. Still in his civvies, he climbs aboard a lone aircraft and takes off to do battle. Only, the plane has not been armed up, and Blackie, unable to defend himself, catches fire from the Japanese, and he cracks up the plane on landing. Yeah, this is the kind of stuff that should get you sent back to Topeka, Kansas.
Blackie is supposed to fly with Bales, but Bales has to cut loose when he catches enemy fire. He opens his chute too early, and a Japanese pilot sprays him with machine gun fire.
Blackie attempts to redeem himself, and we see him doing tricks for the Chinese children at the hospital. Nurse Elliott is much appreciative. Blackie also flies to Rangoon to comfort Bales’ widow. He also presents her with bonus money from two combat victories, which he claims are owed.
The group is ordered to commence night flying, and all pilots must take intense physical examinations. Hap Davis fails the exam. His eyesight has deteriorated, and he cannot discern distances.
But Blackie has taken Nurse Elliott to dinner, and is late getting back for a night patrol. Davis takes his place surreptitiously and is killed when he rams a Japanese plane. Blackie is now scheduled for the Topeka flight.
We notice the date on the calendar on Captain Gordon’s desk.
Things are serious now that America is officially in the war, and the squadron needs to knock out a railroad bridge the Japanese are using in their stepped up offensive. Gordon figures to drop cans of nitroglycerin from the belly of a cargo plane. Since this is likely to be a one-way mission, he plans to go alone.
But Blackie stows aboard, and Gordon agrees to accept his help.
The film has a mixture of staged flying, actual footage from combat, and the use of studio models. Here we see the cargo plane flying knap-of-the-earth through canyons on its approach to the bridge. I am unable to tell whether this is real or a model.
Anyhow, they release a few cans of nitro onto the bridge, and the mission is accomplished. But a Japanese supply train is still moving, and they figure to up the score. However, a shell from a Japanese gun sets the plane on fire, and they prepare to bale out.
Only, the explosion has wounded Blackie severely, and he tricks Gordon into jumping first. Then he takes over the controls and flies the plane into the supply train after first catching a face full of machine gun fire from the train’s defenders.
And that’s the end of the movie, except for the patriotic message that typically follows the action of movies made during this time.
A lot about the plot is not right. We see the date on Gordon’s desk, but the Flying Tigers did not enter combat until two weeks later. The bit about an American pilot being machine gunned in his parachute is real, and propagandists for our side played it up big. There was probably no need to bear down on this case, because as the war progressed members of the Japanese army went out of their way to earn a sour reputation, notably by torturing and killing prisoners.
A lot of the dialog is stiff and preachy, and we see a combat squadron being run in an unprofessional manner. The first time Blackie commandeered a plane and took off unauthorized into combat, wrecking the plan, should have been his last day on this planet. Probably shot by his commanding officer.