AIR WARS OVER HOLLYWOOD Old movies were grimmer than high-tech Gulf images


Everybody has seen it by now, and it seems so reassuring: the trajectory of a bomb with a Ph.D., which, in defiance of laws such as gravity, physics or whimsy, descends with a draftsman's precision toward not a building but a building's door, plunges through like a bustling FedEx deliveryman, then detonates thunderously inside, atomizing any and all who work within.

It helps, of course, that the image is taken from infrared film, because it is thereby denuded of texture or nuance and seems to be reduced to eerie absolutes: just a glowing smart bomb and a glowing dumb target and an explosion. This is the air war in the first week of the Persian Gulf conflict, through a camera's eye, impersonal, precise, a revenge of the techno-nerds for our times -- and not a person to be seen. Or is this just another grand illusion?

Cameras have peered at war waged from and in the air before, and their news has hardly been as comforting. When Hollywood has turned to air war, it has almost always argued that the costs are substantial, in both blood and spirit; that bombs are dumb and young men precious; and that those who waste either or both do so at their own risk.

As early as 1927's "Wings," filmmakers had learned that war in the air, far from being the antiseptic combat of "aerial gladiators," was hard, horrible business; there was nothing noble about burning to death a thousand feet up. William Wellman's great silent re-creation of the aerial campaign of World War I was somewhat romantic in texture, what with pretty-boys Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen as competing aviators who realize they're in love with the same gal -- Clara Bow -- but become best pals over the trenches anyway. But Wellman didn't stint on the horror of the dogfighting and the spiritual exhaustion it provoked in its survivors.

By the late '30s, a somewhat more pessimistic spirit prevailed. Two "Dawn Patrols," one of 1930 and one of 1938 (Howard Hawks directed the first with Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; Edmund Goulding directed the second, with Errol Flynn and David Niven), boasted a cliche-rich environment: mugs being turned upside down, a great German ace, a last, desperate mission and so forth and so on. But they also introduced the element of what might be called "soul fatigue," particularly as it played out on commanding officers, who, having survived their turn in combat, inherited the even more loathsome job of staying behind and sending other, younger men out to die each day.

At the same time, Jean Renoir was making what many consider the greatest war film of all time, "Grand Illusion." Though it was about fliers, "Grand Illusion" actually showed no glossy combat footage, but was rather about the mind-set of the warrior caste, as played out in a POW camp behind German lines where French officers and their German captors (notably Erich von Stroheim as an injured ex-flier, now commandant) tried to make sense of their situation and retain a spirit of chivalry even as the war turned senseless.

The early World War II films dealing with aviation were usually entertaining agitprop that can today be enjoyed for their energy (unfailing), their rectitude (implacable) and deplored for their racism (lamentable). Hawks' "Air Force" was probably the best of them, being the chronicle of a B-17 as metaphor for the ship of state, from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the Battle of Midway, as fought a yard above the ground on the Warner Bros. back lot. With John Garfield as a feisty oddball gunner who "joins the team," it was basically an encomium to team spirit as a way at getting back at the Japanese. Its emotional climax came when Garfield, spouting racial invective, guns down a crash-landed Japanese pilot who has just killed a friend of his.

By late in the war, however, a spirit of melancholy practicality had settled over all war pictures, not just the aviation ones. "Command Decision," with Clark Gable, returned to the theme of the tortured commanding officer who must send his men out to die each day for goals that only he himself knows for sure are worthy. "God Is My Co-Pilot" showed an American fighter pilot in China coming to terms with the fact that his duty compelled him to kill while his faith forbade it.

Korea provided a puzzle to filmmakers, as it did to politicians and citizens. Early films seem to see it as the same kind of crusade against a godless enemy as had been World War II. But it was really a new kind of conflict: limited, dirty, awful, with confusing aims and political indecision at home. The old recipes simply didn't work, as Dick Powell's "The Hunters," derived from Air Force officer James Salter's novel of the same name, demonstrated. But Salter, who has gone on to a respected literary career, was a supreme ironist and his portrait of F-86 pilots going against MiG-15s over the Yalu River in what was once briefly famous as "MiG Alley" was far from the heroic mode: His hero was one scared guy. In the big-screen version, that flawed individual has become deadeyed Robert Mitchum, without a human flicker of doubt or fear. The movie had Air Force cooperation, with F-86 Thunderstreaks playing MiGs, and the jet combat sequences were convincing; nothing else was.

Far more convincing was "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," Mark Robson's version of the James Michener novella. William Holden, Hollywood's most convincing Everyguy in the '50s, played a naval reservist called up to fight the Korean War, where he found himself in a job very much like the one naval aviators are now performing in the gulf. From his carrier each day he flew off in a Banshee jet to drop bombs on a bridge complex, through heavy flak. No smart bombs then; only smart aviators, and scared aviators: The movie is basically a study of his deep fear at the mission and his desperate urge to survive and return home to wife Grace Kelly and kids.

Late '50s and early '60s aviation films tended to deal with the world's newest toy on the road to self-destruction, the atomic bomb. These ranged from stargazing hymns of adoration to the B-47 Stratojet in "Strategic Air Command," with James Stewart (an actual combat pilot in World War II), to Stanley Kubrick's corrosive "Dr. Strangelove," which inverted strategic mind games into their blackest range of comic possibilities.

"Dr. Strangelove," come to think of it, also probably featured the single most effective combat sequence set in an aircraft, and got most of it eerily right: the dead-dull professional voices of the technocrats in the B-52s who sit at their glowing screens and watch, with very little agitation because they are so busy performing, as a surface-to-air missile hunts them.

Vietnam aviation didn't figure regularly in feature films, just as the wider war itself failed to sustain interest at the movie theaters. In veiled versions, though, Vietnam imagery finally made it to the screen; this was in George Lucas' "Star Wars," of 1977, where Luke Skywalker's final airborne assault on the Death Star was a clear reflection of flak suppression raids flown against Hanoi anti-aircraft batteries late in the Vietnam War. In fact, when John Milius re-creates the real thing in his current "Flight of the Intruder," the imagery doesn't recall Vietnam so much as that last few minutes of "Star Wars."

During the Pax Reagan of the early '80s, the primary aviation film was the macho fantasy "Top Gun" which, by a coincidence too absurd to be planned, was the 8 p.m. feature on HBO the night Operation Desert Storm commenced. Primarily a video game anchored to rock-and-roll and the angst of a "sensitive" movie star, the movie had very little to do with real combat, though it had great fun evoking war as a music video: crisp, decisive and short.

Nam proper finally made it to the screen with "Flight of the Intruder," a movie which is not as good as "The Bridges at Toko-Ri." In the same way, World War II aviation got a final spin in Michael Caton's "Memphis Belle" a few months ago, a sort of newer, hipper "Air Force" for our times. That movie, like "Flight," featured a brilliant range of special effects to convince viewers that they were actually in the cockpits; but also came unmoored between battle sequences with the same sort of conventionally imagined characters and formulaic arc of events.

The success or failure of "Flight of the Intruder" will be an interesting diversion in the weeks to come.

Though Paramount insists it adhered to an advertising campaign designed months in advance, it certainly looks as if it scaled back once Desert Shield became Desert Storm, and hastily abandoned the ill-conceived ad slogan "On Friday there's no turning back," when George Bush decided that the day of not turning back would be Wednesday. That may have hurt the movie, but it can't hurt it as much as its utter misfortune of timing; certainly most people who went to the movies last week went to get away from the war rather than to celebrate it.

The $40 million film -- given a wide break on 1,489 screens -- did a dismal $5.7 million in business. It may speak to a new truth of a more aware and less gullible American audience: that in war, lies are now the first casualty.

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