Saturday, 9 December 2006

Flyboys (2006)

Will this CGI Top Gun WW1 movie... fly?

There haven’t been too many WW1 films made in the previous decade, if you notice. That’s in spite of the fact that the war movie genre is going strong, with many landmarks made this decade – Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbour, and even Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. Perhaps it has to do with the bleak reality and the futility of WW1: armies were stuck in frontlines that scarcely moved during the war while millions of soldiers charged unsuccessfully into trenches under artillery shells and poison gas that they had very little counter against. Yes, modern audiences get lots of WW2 movies that are gory, but with the exception of Tererence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, most US-produced shows in this genre are more interested in playing up the chivalry of soldiers, the nobility of brotherhood, and the victory of courage rather than acknowledging the hopelessness, stupidity, and futility of war.

Flyboys may be a movie about the Lafayette Escadrille in WW1, but it feels more like any other WW2 movie. Or actually, more like Top Gun. I make this comparison without any joke or cynicism, though, because most of the film consists of rivalries between the newest recruits for the Escadrille and the veteran pilots in the squadron, between the recruits and the snotty, showy, and villainous German flying aces, conducted in ever-complex air manoeuvres that, while performed in wooden biplanes, are still reminiscent of the pointless but breathtaking stunts from Top Gun and the Iron Eagle movies. Like Top Gun and the Iron Eagle movies, most of the volunteers for the Lafayette Escadrille appear to have joined the war just for the fun of it, spending their nights drinking and posing (heroically or in a state of melancholy) in a pub, or sampling/wooing the local fare. And that, by the way, is as far as the script goes to develop their characters.

What is worth watching in Flyboys are its computer-generated air fights. These fights may look slightly artificial due to problems with colour-correction and matching the sunlight with the background, and with the green-screened actors in their planes, but for what it’s worth, the air combat is exciting and dramatic – if too spaced out between the non-combat sequences. It’s hard to create realistic dogfights today, mainly because there isn’t much surviving documentary footage of these, and not many surviving pilots alive now. There’s a slight downside to all the wonderful CGI, though: audiences will have this thought at the back of their heads throughout the movie: could actual WW1 planes physically perform these stunts without disintegrating or blowing up? But if the stunts can fascinate you enough to keep these questions at bay, then the movie will have succeeded.

For a more bleak view of the war on the ground, I’d recommend All Quiet on the Western Front, and a more realistic WW1 fighter pilot movie, made with real planes, would be The Blue Max, starring George Peppard (Hannibal in television’s The A Team), George Mason, and Ursula Andress.

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

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