starring James Franco, Martin Henderson, Jean Reno, Jennifer Decker, Abdul Salis, Philip Winchester, Tyler Labine and David Ellison
screenplay by Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward
directed by Tony Bill
This is a 2006 film about American volunteers in the French Lafayette Escadrille flying squadron in 1916, a year before U.S. President Woodrow Wilson led America into World War I. The squadron was real, and there really were many Americans fighting with the British and the French before 1917, so the story is loosely based on fact. I wanted to watch it because, these days being the centennial of the Great War, my interest in history is more than a little piqued.
Flyboys follows a group of young men as they arrive in France, join the squadron, are trained, and then go on their first real mission. The life expectancy of Great War pilots was quite brief, so their first combat sorties against the Germans were disastrous. But in the course of the story they get more proficient at flying and fighting.
I liked the so-so realistic dogfight scenes. But that is about all I liked. The script was mediocre, the story could have been much better and, most of all, the portrayal of the aircraft was all wrong. I knew immediately it was wrong when the German planes were always the famous blood-red Fokker Triplanes, while the American pilots were flying French Nieuport 17s. Now, from what I’ve read about the Great War, and what I’ve seen in Youtube documentaries I was pretty sure that was all wrong. In the Western imagination we commonly associate the red Fokker Triplane with Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918), the Red Baron, the greatest Ace of the Great War (80 kills, although some dispute the number). Richthofen did fly a red Triplane, by the way, but his career was almost entirely flying different models of Albatros biplanes. The Fokker Triplane went into service in late 1917, but I don’t think it had such widespread use as Flyboys makes it appear. I think the director’s sole use of the Triplane may have been a strategy to help the audience discern sides in the air. The Fokker Triplane was a magnificent machine. It’s superiority to Allied aircraft was almost solely in its wonderful maneuverability. Its weaknesses lay in a slower straight-flying speed and greater blind spots due to its dimensions.
This was a mediocre movie, but I watched it twice because I liked the exciting aerial combat scenes. My favorite Great War movies are All Quiet on the Western Front (Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine, 1979, directed by Delbert Mann, a remake of the 1930 film of the same name directed by Lewis Milestone), The Razor’s Edge (Bill Murray, 1984, directed by John Byrum, a remake of the 1946 movie of the same name starring Tyrone Power), and The Blue Max (George Peppard, 1966, directed by John Guillermin). I also like The Great Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford, 1975, directed by George Roy Hill), but it is set in the years after the war, so it counts for less. I like it because of the biplane combat flying sequences.