Monday, July 12, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Men of the Iron Lady"

As I've been investigating Golden Age war movies, I'm repeatedly struck by how anti-war -- or at least anti-propaganda -- some films of the 1940s and '50s could be.

"Men of the Fighting Lady" has the look and feel of a pro-war picture, but the soldiers seem awfully glum about it.

The two major opposing viewpoints are espoused by Paul Grayson (Frank Lovejoy), the commander of the flight unit, and Ted Dodson (Keenan Wynn), one of the most veteran pilots. Grayson is a hot-dogger who believes in taking his planes in as low as possible to inflict maximum damage on the enemy. As he puts it, "I like dirt on my windshield." Unfortunately, this also means they take more casualties.

Dodson has an equally heroic record from World War II, but doesn't see the sense in their endless missions to bomb the same North Korean railway station day after day. As one observer surmises, the bombs themselves cost more to manufacture than the railway cars they're blowing up.

"There are no heroes this time, and no Ernie Pyles to write about 'em," Dodson says of the conflict in Korea. "This isn't a war, haven't you heard? It's a police action. And nobody back home wants to read about it."

Pretty cynical stuff for 1954, when the action in Korea had just wound down.

Caught in the middle are the rest of the pilots. Young Kenny Schechter (Dewey Martin) takes Dodson's advice to "look out for No. 1" and not do anything above the call of duty. Howie Thayer (Van Johnson), though, understands that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and even those who profess to have no patriotism or bravery change their tune when one of their buddies is down on his luck.

Dodson himself proves this theory true when he turns his plane around to help another pilot who has become lost, and ends up dying in a fiery wreck aboard the aircraft carrier when he tries to land his damaged plane.

Not even 80 minutes long, "Men of the Fighting Lady" is filled with stock footage provided by the U.S. military, and yet it's woven fairly well into the scenes filmed for the movie. Some of the canned stuff was even in black and white, and they hand-painted it frame by frame to match the vivid colors of the film.

The tone in many ways reminded me of "Top Gun," which would come out three decades later: Callow young pilots learn to rely on their fellow fighter jocks and act as a team. Although here the commander is the hot dog and his subordinates are the ones who worry he's too in love with combat.

The film is based on James Michener's article, "The Forgotten Heroes of Korea," in which he interviewed soldiers on the front lines, and another piece by Harry A. Burns called "The Case of the Blind Pilot." The last 20 minutes or so are taken up by the latter story, in which Howie Thayer talks Schechter back to the aircraft after the latter is blinded by some flak that penetrated his cockpit. It's thrilling stuff.

Van Johnson's been featured in this space before, and a couple of other Reeling Backward favorites return. Louis Calhern plays Michener in the framing story, and Walter Pidgeon plays the ship's doctor, who acts as Greek chorus and father figure to the men.

2.5 stars out of four

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